In case you haven’t heard, the Fifty Shades of Grey movie is coming out, and it’s got all kinds of people hot and bothered. The Christian response has been particularly interesting. Most of the time, it’s focused on why Christians should not participate in the viewing or the reading of this type of story. What’s troubling though is that the discussion often starts off or later incorporates a litany of the common things Christians don’t do as proof that Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t the only thing they won’t partake in:
- don’t swear
- don’t drink
- don’t do drugs
- don’t dance
- don’t smoke
- don’t watch bad movies
- don’t read bad books
- don’t go clubbing
- don’t do…other things
The list doesn’t always include all these things. Sometimes it includes others or has these more narrowly tailored. Setting aside the fact that not even all of these things are sins, the list creates a deep problem in my opinion. The emphasis focuses on what we as Christians are not doing or should not be doing. And boy, isn’t that a wonderful testimony?
Not What We’re to Be Known For
After all, that’s what Jesus said we would be known for. “They will know you are Christians by the big long lists of all the things you indignantly say you will not do.” Actually, He said “they will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.”
Now does this mean that there’s no biblical basis for discussing the things we should not partake in? Not at all. It’s important to challenge one another to holier living, and accountability is good. But our focus should not only be on the things that we do not do, and our reputation most certainly should not be on the things that we don’t do. Holiness likewise is not simply what we do not do even though it is a part.
Often times, the focus on the things that we do not do is because we know from Romans 12:2 that we are to “not be conformed any longer to the patterns of this world.” And 1 Thessalonians 4:7 tells us “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” We act as if holy living is what is achieved through cutting things out and denying ourselves. That’s reflected in the spiritual discipline of fasting, which does indeed have great value.
Knowing a Tree By Its Fruit
However, Jesus tells us in Matthew 7: 15 – 20 that we will “know a tree by its fruit.” But here’s an odd thing about fruit. We tell what a tree is by what it does produce. We pick apples from an apple tree, and it is an apple tree, not a not orange tree. James 2:14 – 26 tells us that faith without deeds is worthless. In fact, James says, “I will show you my faith by my deeds.” Again, this goes back to the things that we do as Christians, not the things that we don’t do.
When we think of Jesus, we think of the actions that He took. The fact that He did not sin is obviously a part of that, but more importantly, we talk about how He died on the cross for our sins and rose from the grave again. He healed the lame and the blind. He gave the dead life again. He taught people. He fed them. He cast out demons. He defeated satan.
When we think of Paul, we think of the actions he took. The miles he traveled to reach the cities. The demons he cast out. The people he healed. The letters he wrote. The suffering he endured.
Most of the notable men and women I can think of in history made a difference in the things that they did do or attempted to do rather than just the things they did not do. Some like Daniel do draw close to a narrower distinction. The fasting from meats and wines as well as the refusal to pray to Darius are both points when Daniel was known for what he did not do. But as in the case of Darius’s requirement that all pray to him, Daniel was known for his great wisdom, his consistent prayer, and faithful stewardship through three rulers’ spans. He took action. He didn’t just say, “oh, I don’t pray to mere men” and then go back about his tasks. He went on to take positive action that demonstrated his faith.
Not Really a Sign of a Christian
So all of this to say, if the only thing you are known for is the fact that you do not do things like smoke or drink or read erotica, then you have a very weak testimony. In fact, you don’t even have to be a Christian to have that list. There’s a lot of old ladies at the nursing home I visit who are atheists or agnostics, and they can top your list with all the things they won’t do. Some won’t even play cards. And it’s incredibly hard to talk to any of those ladies because no matter what you say, you know you’re probably doing something wrong and will get a browbeating and a lecture before you’re done.
Being a Christian and living a pure and holy life is about far more than not doing something, and, frankly, it may involve smoking or drinking. That’s another discussion entirely though. In Galatians, Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit as being “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” All of these traits can be demonstrated through positive actions. In fact, many of them can only be demonstrated in the positive, meaning that they are not demonstrated by someone not doing something. Someone who is kind and loving isn’t just someone who is not nasty or not cruel. Someone who is not nasty or not cruel is generally just nice. Kind goes beyond that. A nice person might express condolences if you fall on the ground and perhaps may even help you up. But a kind person might make sure you are all right, help you get cleaned up, call for help, and so forth. Nice is neutral. “Into the Woods” describes it best with the phrase “you’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.”
The Wrong Focus
So to those who do not want to partake in something because you believe that it’s sinful, that’s fine. You are responsible for your conscience, and you are certainly not obligated to participate in actions you consider sinful. But you need to be cautious if you are most vocal about the things you do not do and never show or reveal what you actually do. Christians are often criticized for having long, long lists of “thou shall nots” and serving the “cosmic kill joy.” But when Christ came, He gave us new life. In John 10:10, Jesus says that He came that we “might have life and have it more abundantly.”
The risk in making the focus so much on what we don’t do is that it reaffirms the notion to most non Christians that Christians are out to spoil their fun. When we list out the things that we won’t do, we miss the amazing things that God has done and the incredible freedom that He has brought us. And saying “I won’t watch this media because it corrupts my mind” may seem like a good opportunity to witness about how holy you are, but it’s more likely to have the same effect as fake salt or fake sugar. Sure, it tastes sort of right, but it doesn’t have any of the benefits. In fact, it may actually have a host of other problems that it tracks right in with it.
Of course, let’s face it. Being known for anything positive takes so much work than being known for inaction and denial. It really isn’t that hard to keep saying no and no and no and no. I know because I’ve been there. It may be that refusing to participate in certain types of media really isn’t the best place to stake your claim and say “I don’t do this because I’m a Christian.” I’ve worked with non Christians who had no problem saying, “ahh, no, I just don’t like country western music” or “I’m not really that fond of death metal.” They don’t add a spiritual component to it, and they are known generally for other things that they do do. In fact, most of my non Christian friends never really gave those statements a second glance. The ones whom they ridiculed were the Christians who would list of all the things that they would refuse to do and yet never once offer an alternative. In fact, those Christians tended to only talk about the things one should not do with the occasional gushing over an Amish romance or a new Christian film.
An Intriguing Friend
The most godly men and women in my life are men and women who are known for the actions that they take. They probably don’t do a lot of the things on the list, but the rich lives that they live are such that they would never be known just for what they didn’t do. One stunning example of this was a vivacious godly woman I knew in Virginia Beach. She was always such a joy to be around. The life just flowed from her. One time when I was at the library, a fellow patron asked her if she had read Fifty Shades of Grey. She shrugged and said, “No. But you know a fantastic book I just read?” It was so effortless and the conversation continued. It shifted into other topics soon.
Now something cool that happened with this dear friend of mine is that later that same patron asked her whether she chose not to read Fifty Shades for spiritual or religious reasons. And she gave a beautiful articulate answer. But the patron was the one who initiated that discussion and she was actually curious to hear that explanation and receptive to what my friend had to say. My friend didn’t sit there on a somber pedestal saying with all the life of a funeral procession, “I do not partake in such worldly pursuits.”
Whether intended or not, the focus of what we do not do creates the “holier than thou” persona that so many Christians are known and judged for. Even when it comes from the best of intentions and even if it is hard for you to articulate it, it does not mean that focusing on what you cannot and will not do is a godly witness. In many cases, it may actually be throwing up more barriers between you and the people you work with.
A Shallow Example
Let’s shift this to a more shallow perspective. I want to lose weight. I know that I have too much fat on my bones even though I’m quite fit. But losing weight is quite difficult and takes a long, long time. Often it’s discouraging, and sometimes I want to give up. The people who make me want to be more like them and who inspire me to strive to live a healthier life are the ones who are joyful and eager to take on life and its challenges. In college, I had one friend who absolutely loved to dance. We danced in the room to Disney, Broadway, and pop songs before we then went out to get a light yogurt with granola. The fit people who take delight in their healthy lifestyles and don’t focus on what they can’t or won’t do are the most contagious.
The ones who sneer or roll their eyes and say, “I don’t eat fast food” do not inspire me to eat healthy. If anything, I have to fight eating a brownie just to spite them. And even the ones who sigh and say, “I wish I could but I just can’t” don’t really make me want to learn more about their lifestyle. Frankly, they make it sound miserable. So why are we doing that with our faith, the supposedly greatest thing that ever happened to us in our lives?
What Are You Known For?
Again, this is not to say that you cannot say “I don’t care for that” or “This is wrong.” There are times and places for that. But ask yourself what do your coworkers and peers see when they look at you? Is your testimony confined to a list of things you can’t or won’t do? Are you living in the fullness that God has promised? Are you contributing more than you are taking away? What do you do that positively reflects on your relationship with God? Why should anyone give up a guilty pleasure for a life like yours? What are you showing that makes it even marginally worth it?
As a Christian, you have the opportunity to live a rich and fulfilled life that goes far beyond anything imaginable. You should be one of the most incredible people around, not a stiff, boring, rigid caricature.
So don’t be known for what you don’t do. Be known for what you do. Do it to the glory of God and live.