As we mature, more freedoms are granted us. As kids, we may stay up later or watch more mature media. As young adults, we navigate the world of substance use and political involvement. Eventually we are given the freedom to choose where we live, who we’re in relationship with and how we spend our lives.
In a parallel way, maturing in Christ-likeness brings with it more freedom. Paul’s words seem to echo this idea in 1 Corinthians 10:23:
“‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful.”
What probably jumps out to most of us is the phrase that Paul is apparently quoting (from various voices he has heard): “All things are lawful.” It’s an attractive idea, this first half of the statement; who doesn’t like to be told there are no limitations?
As good readers, we finish the sentence. “But not all things are helpful.” This may give us pause. But then the rationalization kicks in.
We have been formed to see the world in mechanical terms. Humanity is the user, producer, maker, and the world presents us with a series of tools for our benefit. The question we ask daily is less whether a tool is helpful, but how do we maximize its benefit? The way we use natural resources, the way companies are structured, and the way we are taught in school all reinforce this view of the world.
When told that not all things are helpful, this worldview may well incline us to think, “you’re just using/doing/watching it wrong.”
So we jump to the second tier of ethical questioning. We think of a certain television series and, treating it like a tool, ask “how can I watch this in such a way that it’s beneficial?” Or we think about alcohol and, viewing it as a tool, ask “how can I drink in a beneficial way?”
Those are valuable questions and certainly ones that are worth asking. However, they skip over a prior consideration: the “should” question.
This is actually the question at the heart of Paul’s words. Sure, you can do what you want, but should you? When we allow a mechanical view of the world(and its correlated goals of maximizing efficiency and using all available tools) to dictate our questions, we ask “how”, forgetting that we ought to ask “should.”
The Kingdom of God refuses to ignore the should question. It recognizes the freedom we have, but the freedom is one to follow Jesus’s sacrificial lifestyle, even abstaining from some goods if necessary. The should question is going to be answered differently for all of us. Some shouldn’t drink alcohol, others should avoid certain kinds of relationships, still others should avoid certain types of television.
We may feel less culturally relevant or suave, but in the Kingdom of God, the should question still matters. The life God invites us to live is one that is fully human under his reign, and there’s no room for unhelpful things there.