How far is too far?

“How far is too far?”

If you have ever worked with a youth group, that question is not new to you. For that matter, if you were ever in a youth group, that question probably crossed your lips, or at least your mind.

And that question applies to more than one scenario. As a matter of fact, it seems like it fits most any situation. Sex? Yes. Alcohol, drugs, and other substances? Of course. Foul language? Certainly. Our clothing choices? Indeed.

The question does not seem to go away with age. As we leave school for the “real world,” we still live our lives asking that question when it comes to our conduct. Except, this time it pertains to other, more adult matters. How friendly should I be with a coworker of the opposite sex? How much can I leave off when reporting my income on my taxes?

What is more, if we ask three different people, we are likely to get three different answers. For instance, parents are very likely to give a completely different standard than a buddy in the youth group.

Nevertheless, the question remains, and we set up endless boundaries. We draw imaginary lines in the sand, saying everything on one side of the line is proper behavior, but anything past the line is sinful. We fill ourselves full of high hopes and good intentions.

Then we fail.

Those lines in the sand wind up being so easy to cross. Or perhaps, we find a loophole in our boundary, an exception we use to justify our actions. Nevertheless, no matter how many boundaries we erect, we inevitably fail at this “how far is too far” approach to living the Christian life.

Why is that? Why do these regulations we construct not prevent us from sin?

Well, simply put, the Christian life is not about behavior modification. It is not about making a list of things that are right and things that are wrong. These regulations, which are usually some conglomeration of standards from our culture, our own understanding of the Bible, and things we pick up from friends or others, put us in the position of doing the minimum we feel is required of the Christian. The focus is placed on that line where a normal action becomes a sin.  The question is no longer about how to serve and love God best but about how to do the least without transgressing a regulation.

If we are really honest, these lines in the sand and lists of sins are not about real holiness at all. They do not actually exist in order to please God. Instead, these lists are nothing more than self-deception. They are a way of fulfilling a desire in our own heart, and not a means of honoring God.

When your understanding of the Christian life is nothing more than a list of things you should and should not do, then it creates a deep-seated legalism. If you accomplish something on the list, it causes you to feel proud of your ability. In addition, this allows you to measure yourself against the actions of other Christians in order to create some ranking in your own mind. How often have you thought to yourself, “I may not be perfect, but at least I act better than _________.” I know I have. And ironically, these regulations actually cause us to live less holy lives.

When I can measure my sins against those of others because I have built some code of regulations in my mind, then I begin to easily excuse myself with these same measures. “Well, no one else does this right either,” we will say. Or perhaps, “I might have messed up on this, but at least I didn’t do that!” Then, we gradually excuse our sin. Furthermore, when we do realize we have a sin problem and that our lives simply do not stand up to the standard they should, we are actually defeated by these regulations. This moral code crushes us with our failures.

But does the Bible not tell us to live in a certain way? Certainly it does.

However, the Bible has a very different understanding of this issue than the legalism we are tempted toward. Take, for instance, Paul’s word to the church Colossae. Here, he addresses this congregation about living a life of Godliness, but listen to how he addresses the issue:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations- “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)-according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry (Col. 2:20-3:5).

Paul is quick to remind us that the key to the Christian life is not found in focusing on what we should not do. Instead, it is found in focusing on Christ. If we construct these useful regulations, we fill ourselves with pride or defeat, as our lives focus only the these sins we should not be committing.

No, there is another way. Our sin is not a behavior problem; it is a worship problem. You will never overcome the chains of the fall, if your only looking to check off a list. At best, that approach worships no one but yourself.

Instead, focus on the things above. Fill your life, mind, actions, and purpose with thoughts of the Christ that you worship. As you build your life, do it not around boundaries set up that keep you from being a “bad person.” Instead, build your life to be a living reflection of Christ, by always keeping your focus and affections on him.

After all, the best way to imitate someone is to always keep your eyes on them.

 

Keelan

Keelan Cook (@keelancook) is working on a PhD in Biblical Studies at Southeastern and works in the Center for Great Commission Studies. He spent time as a church planter in West Africa with the IMB and doing ethno-graphic research in Washington, DC with NAMB. Keelan is currently one of the pastors at Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, NC.

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