Conformity and Conviction7:43 AM
My palms sweated. I swallowed awkwardness. I searched inside my brain for the ten point statement on why. Then I remembered this was a six-year-old who had probably never heard of the abomination of cross-dressing or the skirts vs. pants battle. I was weird. She wanted to know why. And I asked myself, "Why do I?"
A split second later, I shrugged my shoulders and answered: "I just like to."
It was a revelation to me: I could do something simply because I liked to. I'd never thought of having any personal convictions, only universal principles held by at least one decided group of Christians. And the revelation came in handy -- the kindergartners always asked why. Always. As in always.
"Why, Miss Bailey? Why?"
"How come you always wear pants?" I'd joke with a wink and a smile. They gazed up at me, brains whirring, then gave me a hug and we went back to Justin Bieber and dogs and, if we had time, sight words.
It's rare to find a conservative Christian with a real opinion, a genuine preference. We know it. We keep our mouths shut when asking others about why they do this or that, knowing that we could unintentionally judge or be judged. It's much easier to discuss these matters with more liberal-minded believers or non-Christians altogether, who are simply curious, who have room for diversity, who accept that we may wear pink because it's our favorite color and not dye our hair the same simply because we want to.
With some Christians, I feel as if I have to have a whole theological thesis paper prepared on why I wear make-up or why I listen to country music or why I don't like chocolate chips. I feel uncomfortable having my own opinion or preferences: chapter and verse must back up every opinion, from the very air I breathe to the movies I watch. To be fair, I subconsciously demand the same.
With good reason, I suppose. We ought to have purpose for everything we do. We ought to look to Scripture as our sole guide for life. But is not personal conviction a good enough reason? Is not unique service and expression for the glory of God acceptable? Why must we look for minute commands instead of general principles?
In short, why do we obsess so much over convictions?
In my experience, nobody bothers to argue about the little things in Christianity -- the nature of God or the Gospel or the canon. We yawn, swallow our pride and urge charitable affection to overlook these offences. But when it comes to skirts -- and rap music -- and healthy eating -- and spanking -- now we're getting into the meat of Scripture! My friend and I, very controversial and opinionated people both, once compared notes on our deep discussions: the most heated were on external convictions, the alleged "gray" areas. The church splits, we'd observed, usually occurred after the Pastor took off his suit coat to preach or the worship leader added a drum set or the hymnals were booted for the big screen look.
The important things, in other words. There we stake our claim and die. All for the cause of Christ.
I've frequently admitted that I was once a hardcore legalist -- which is a hot and dangerous word in the conservative circle. What I mean by it is that I elevated the external convictions far above the Gospel and that I'd rather have looked good on the outside than reached out in love and grace to the less spiritual brethren.
My grandmamma taught me this. An amazing lady. Strong West Texan accent, rapier-sharp wit and the humility of a saint -- which she is. We were lazying about in summer, me with the newspaper spread out on the table, and I saw it -- an offending article about the latest pop star shaving her head.
"Oh, good grief," (thinking my grandmamma would groan along) "this girl has issues."
She took the paper and began laughing softly. "So sad."
"I know! Why on earth would she shave her head? That's just -- "
"No, it's not her hair," my grandmamma cut in. "It's just -- poor girl. She needs more than a haircut."
I never forgot my dumbfounded chin drop. Her salvation, more important than her hair length? My world dumped upside down. It was a subtle pride, a subtle snootiness, a subtle oblivion to love and grace. In that journey out of legalism and fear and toward grace and truth, I faced the very real conundrum: what on earth do I do with my convictions?
I wasn't going back to the performance-based Christianity that'd kept my faith at bay -- not at all. Neither did I see that throwing all caution to the wind and feeling around life with my own deceitful heart would do me any good. Paul spoke of "liberty": I immediately thought tattoos and blue hair. Paul spoke of obedience: I instantly conjured up a dictionary-thick rulebook to rival the Pharisees' oral law.
Then it clicked for me -- sometime after the hundredth reading of Romans 14 and the millionth conversation on skirt-wearing. I was still misunderstanding the nature of liberty and of obedience in the new covenant of grace. I was still whitewashing the exterior. I was still operating from works and trying to fit in grace on top of that, instead of going from the Gospel up.
The Gospel set us free to serve God in a way the law never could. Through trying to fulfill the law (a feat only Christ could and did accomplish) I made null grace and I stalled in my Christian walk. I wasn't walking in the law of love by doing whatever I wished or by adhering to strict "Biblical" principles. Christian liberty is far more restrictive than legalism and far more freeing than antinomianism. It is, in short, truth.
Without further ado, the three steps to examine convictions (from Scripture, no less!):
1. Convictions ought to glorify God (Romans 14:1-12). If one reads Scripture, he finds very quickly that it is silent on many of today's pressing issues. It does not speak on how many carbohydrates one should consume in a day or comment on Hollywood or analyze Christian worship. Why? I believe that the Lord desires us to truly seek Him -- to find out what He loves, to think His thoughts after Him, to pick out the things we can best do to serve Him and go at it with our whole heart. The question of Should I? ought to be Does this glorify the Lord? And contrary to popular opinion, one person may glorify God one way and another person in a different way. In the end, we do not answer to ourselves or our fellow Christian: we answer to God. We are His bondservants; we are responsible for our actions, and we cannot "pass judgment on the servant of another" (Romans 14:4). Liberty is the freedom to glorify God they way He's called us to.
THE ONE WHO EATS, EATS IN HONOR OF THE LORD, SINCE HE GIVES THANKS TO GOD, WHILE THE ONE WHO ABSTAINS, ABSTAINS IN HONOR OF THE LORD AND GIVES THANKS TO GOD.
2. Convictions ought to enable us "to be all things to all men" (Romans 14:13-23; 1 Corinthians 9:19-23). I once heard of a Pastor who invited a waitress to church. She at first declined, saying she'd have to come straight from work, but he pressed her and said that she could sit with so-and-so's family. The husband would be wearing his military uniform so she could identify them. The waitress said she'd think about it. In the meantime, the wife of the family really took to heart this chance to minister to the young woman; and that Sunday, she decided to wear jeans to church so the waitress wouldn't feel uncomfortable coming in her work clothes. The waitress did not come that Sunday, but I thought it pictured beautifully the concept of being "all things to all men." So many would object to this wife's decision, saying she ought to have painted a picture of femininity and respect or allowed her reverence for God to win out over her misguided love for the young waitress. I know I would have been the first to point my finger at her.
I HAVE BECOME ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE, THAT BY ALL MEANS I MIGHT SAVE SOME.
1 CORINTHIANS 9:22
But from my study of Scripture, I'd have to say that she was in the right. She used her freedom to minister to a younger woman instead of sustain a preferred conviction or habit. This love and care has been repeated over and over in ministry: missionaries to specific cultures adapt to the dress and courtesy of the certain country; a believer may strike up a friendship with a nonbeliever over a mutual interest in The Lord of the Rings while refraining from such conversation in a family that prefers to go movie-free. Liberty is the freedom to love others before ourselves.
DO NOT, FOR THE SAKE OF FOOD, DESTROY THE WORK OF GOD.
3. Convictions ought to guard our conscience (1 Corinthians 8:7-12). Having said the above, it is important that we never cross our conscience. Some of us are weaker in certain areas than others. I know the thought of women wearing jeans to church, even for such a good cause, would offend those who sincerely believe that skirts are the only or best way to dress modestly and to do otherwise would violate their conscience. In that case, one should not violate her conscience. Convictions guard our hearts and keep our conscience clear: it sets us on a path free from as much temptation as possible in order to glorify God and love others. For instance, I do not listen to certain songs, not because I believe them inappropriate, but because they distract me from devoting myself to the Lord and focusing on what I need to overcome. I wouldn't drink beer with a non-Christian friend, not because I believe it is wrong, but because I do not wish to tempt myself or tempt my friend. I set personal convictions knowing where my weaknesses show through; I do not try to bind others with the same. Liberty is the freedom to live undistracted -- for the glory of God and the love of others.
BLESSED IS THE ONE WHO HAS NO REASON TO PASS JUDGMENT ON HIMSELF FOR WHAT HE APPROVES.
In the end, no one ought to concern himself with "lightening up" or "looking holier." We ought not to frighten ourselves with wondering whether we're "strong" or "weak" Christians. We shouldn't compare. We should't ratchet up a belief and a group of followers to justify our convictions. We simply should do what the Spirit leads us to. No finger pointing. No guilt. Just pure obedience, love and faith.