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Permissible vs. Beneficial

* Published in Deeply Rooted Magazine, Spring 2017, Volume 11. 
I grew up in a family with a high standard of modesty. I descended the stairs each morning hoping that my outfit would merit fatherly approval. But on at least a bi-weekly basis, I would be sentenced back upstairs before my foot could reach the bottom step. My teenage angst convinced me this was surely oppression. The ensuing conversation was always the same: it wasn’t a matter of whether or not I could wear my outfit, but rather should I; what good would come from my wearing it? Thus, I was ushered into distinguishing between what is permissible and what is beneficial in the context of fashion.

I honestly can think of no better context for learning this fundamental Christian principle. Call it maturity or divine revelation, but I have seen the light and now cringe looking back at the trends that were allowed, much less accepted during the early 2000’s. Bermuda shorts, wedged flip flops, and velour track suits all fall into this category: permissible, but far, far from a good thing. Did I even have friends? I am genuinely offended that no one loved me enough to intervene and tell me that my dress-over-jeans combo was unacceptable. But it was in fact acceptable, and all my friends were wearing the same if not worse.

That’s the issue with permission. When you live in a culture where folly is not only permissible, but also accepted, and not only accepted, but also endorsed, and not only endorsed, but also celebrated, it can be very difficult to distinguish top from bottom. We see this on a small scale with fashion, but folly’s reach is not bound. For centuries prior, foolishness has generally been treated with contempt. Today, however, foolishness provides our entertainment. We sit on our couches to watch it, we read about it all over social media, we watch it in slow motion and in auto-tune. Folly has become an industry. It is so familiar to us, so deeply embedded in the very sinews of our society, that we now have difficulty identifying what it is and what it isn’t.

So how is the Christian to navigate this pervasive and progressive era when there are virtually no boundaries and parameters are limited? When the consequences seem minimal at worst and could even be advantageous? When Christian leaders deviate from Scripture? When sin becomes legalized? If we can technically get away with anything, then what’s holding us back?

The question for the Christian is not, “Can I get away with it?” but rather, “Will this bring about good?” And more importantly, “Will it bring God glory?” Folly, at a basal level, the absence of wisdom; it is presuming that we know better than God. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible does speak to this time, and since there is nothing new under the sun, it is foolish to conclude that his Word is now irrelevant to today or is behind the times.

1 Corinthians 6:12 reads, “Everything is permissible for me, but not everything is beneficial.” As we distinguish between what is permissible and what is beneficial, we enable ourselves to identify and combat folly. This wisdom applies to everything from poor fashion choices to social ethics. This verse is our compass to navigate this ever-changing culture.

There are four main areas of folly that believers tend to fall into. As one who has a lengthy track record of foolishness, I feel particularly adept to speak on the matter and invite you to consider which of these you are most apt to fall into.

Flagrant Folly

“In those days there was no king; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Judges 21:25

Flagrancy is both conscious and obvious foolishness. Many American celebrities have acquired fame and fortune through flagrantly foolish choices; and our society both endorses and enables it. We love phrases like “YOLO” and “ask for forgiveness, not permission” that seduce us to act first and think later. This mentality knows no bounds: our spending, our romantic relationships, our concept of fun, our eating… enjoy it now, worry about the mess later. As Christians we cannot think we are above falling into this trap. For us flagrancy is actively choosing sin, all things considered. In doing so we reduce the grace of God to a type of insurance and suggest that we are somehow fit to decide what is and isn’t a big deal, which rules are and aren’t worth following. In our day and age, quite literally everything is permissible; but not everything will be beneficial.

Circumstances over Sovereignty Folly

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” Proverbs 4:5

It as natural as it is foolish to allow our circumstances to dictate our actions instead of God. We see this in Genesis 16 with Sarah and Hagar as her circumstances–her age and history with infertility—began to drown out the voice of the Lord, who told her she would have a son. And even though He said it, all of the odds were clearly stacked against her. Sarah’s understanding compels her to take action, and create a fail-proof plan rather than trusting God could and would defy all odds, logic, science and fulfill his promise. We can fall into this trap too, when we want to protect, or attract, or ensure a particular outcome, and in doing so manipulate situations, insert ourselves into the circumstances, and for all intensive purposes, take matters into my own hands. If we trust that God is sovereign, then we’ve got to retrain our minds to not allow our own interpretation of our circumstances tempt us to think that our intervention is needed, as if to suggest that the one who is able to do far more abundantly than we could ask or imagine probably needs our help. Bless.

Folly of Blindly Following

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” 2 Timothy 4:3

We know that there is nothing new under the sun, but this passage is particularly sobering to read as it applies so clearly to our world today. We have not the luxury of blindly following Christian leaders in this aggressive and progressive culture. We have not the privilege of trusting everything we are taught from the pulpit without ever questioning its validity. It is heartbreaking to see Scripture be mishandled and misconstrued to “adapt” to the times while the masses are led astray. It is imperative, now more than ever, that we cling closely to God’s Word—that we know what it says and, equally important, what it does not say.

Pharisaic Folly

“I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.” Revelation 2:2-5

Pharisaic folly is perhaps the most difficult to distinguish for the believer. This has all the appearances of obedience, but is merely legalism guised as holiness. In Revelation 2, God addresses the Church of Ephesus, who, though not Pharisees, had fallen into some of the same patterns that the religious elite. The Lord essentially tells the Ephesians that they were so busy doing the “right things” that they had forgotten Him. The Ephesian church was not actively doing wrong, in fact everything that they were doing looked right on paper, but they were neglecting the best thing. We must be wary of reducing faith to a routine set of rules and in doing so cheapen grace and rely on our own strength instead of God’s. We’ve got to pray for the discernment to identify when we fall into this trap, as it can be difficult for others to identify in us and and perhaps even more so for us to identify in ourselves.

As we consider how to recognize folly in our own lives and to combat it effectively, let us cling closely to God’s Word and ask ourselves not whether something is permissible, but rather whether it will be beneficial, edifying the saints and honoring the Lord. If not, let us throw off that sin that so easily entangles

*Pape, Sarah Scott. “Permissible vs. Beneficial.” Deeply Rooted Magazine, vol. 11, 2017.

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