by Mike Ford (1955-2021)
“All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” —I Corinthians 6:12
I am a fan of Western novels and movies, and one of the best of that genre is Lonesome Dove. Originally written as a movie script by Larry McMurtry in 1972, it was to be directed by Peter Bogdanovich and would have starred James Stewart as Gus McCrae, John Wayne as Woodrow Call, and Henry Fonda as Jake Spoon. Wouldn’t that have been something? Well, the story goes that John Wayne turned it down on the advice of John Ford, causing Jimmy Stewart to back out, and the project was shelved.
Mr. McMurtry came back in the early 80s and reworked the script into a full-length novel. It won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and then became a miniseries on television, winning seven Emmys.
The story is set in 1876 Texas, and Gus, Woodrow, and Jake are former Texas Rangers. Gus and Woodrow run a small cattle ranch in south Texas and see life clearly in black and white. Jake, not so much. He does not really have a job; he just likes to drink and gamble and carouse.
As the story opens, Jake shows up at the ranch after an absence of ten years. He had had a misunderstanding up in Arkansas over a game of cards and shot a man. Jake talks Gus and Woodrow into taking a herd of cattle to Montana, and he says he will go along. But he soon decides that is too much work and runs off again.
The story follows Gus, Woodrow, and their cowboys on the drive north, cutting away from time to time to follow Jake as he wanders. While gambling and drunk, Jake falls in with the three sadistic Suggs brothers and becomes a party to their murdering and stealing. He does not really participate in their crimes, but he is present when the crimes are committed.
Even though they are no longer lawmen, Gus and Woodrow, still on their cattle drive, end up capturing Jake and the Suggs brothers and decide to hang them. As the cowboys are throwing the ropes over the tree limbs in preparation for the hanging, Jake Spoon says, “Oh, you don’t need to tie me up, I didn’t kill anybody! I just fell in with these boys to get through the Territory. I was gonna leave ’em first chance I got!”
Gus replies, “I wish you’d taken that chance a little earlier, Jake. A man who’ll go along with five killings is takin’ his leave a little slow.” As they talk, Jake begins to realize that his old friends are intent on hanging him along with the outlaws. Finally, Gus says, “You know how it works, Jake. You ride with an outlaw, you die with an outlaw. I’m sorry you crossed the line.”
Jake responds in a pleading voice, “I didn’t see no line, Gus!”
We talk about “gray areas” in life, but where there is a line, there is no gray area. On one side is right, on the other is wrong. For a Christian, it is critical to see the line. It is possible for people to see that line in different places, depending on their faith, depth of knowledge, experience, and so on. We all seem to be very good, experts in fact, in seeing where the lines should be for others but not so much for ourselves.
The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 14:23, “Whatever is not from faith is sin.” This indicates that there is more to Christian living than merely following rules. It is key for a Christian to understand the principles involved in God’s laws, not just the letter-of-the-law wording.
Those in the world argue that the law is done away altogether, and believing this, they find numerous gray areas. To support this belief they will use, for instance, I Corinthians 6:12, where the apostle Paul writes, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” However, just a few verses earlier, he seems to say something totally different! Notice verses 9-10:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.
Paul does not intend for this list to encompass every sin possible, but he does cover a lot of ground. In addition, he begins verse 9 with “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom,” which casts a wide net. So if fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, the covetous, and drunkards will not enter the Kingdom of God, how then can all things be lawful?
Verse 12, we find, is a poor translation. Paul is paraphrasing what some people were saying—and still say today. Notice that he repeats “all things are lawful for me, but . . .,” following each phrase with an objection. The Contemporary English Version renders verse 12 as, “Some of you say, ‘We can do anything we want to.’ But I tell you that not everything is good for us. So I refuse to let anything have power over me.” The New International Version is similar: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything.” Clearly, Paul is telling us what others have said and giving his response.
We are free-moral agents, in other words. We can make our own decisions. We can sin, if we wish to, but there are consequences. This may seem to be off-point, as to “do we see the line,” but it really is not. Paul says he refuses to let “anything have power over me.” He implies that he keeps a close watch on his thoughts and actions.
Notice verse 9, again from the Contemporary English Version:
Don’t you know that evil people won’t have a share in the blessings of God’s kingdom? Don’t fool yourselves! No one who is immoral or worships idols or is unfaithful in marriage or is a pervert or behaves like a homosexual . . . .
Are there gray areas here? Not to God, but our definition of “evil people” might be different. Certainly “immoral” is open to wide interpretation these days in the world. To “worship idols” can be looked at in different ways. Is “unfaithful in marriage” just an affair or is it more? Each of us knows exactly what these things mean to us, and that is as it should be. We do not need an exhaustive list, or we should not, of all the possibilities of each category. We should know the principle involved.
This is one reason we do not see many lawyers as members of the church. They are taught to see everything as a gray area. “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” as the lawyer Bill Clinton once said. It seems that, as we grow in the faith, gray areas disappear, and the line becomes clearer. Satan and his world, on the other hand, are busy blurring the lines, trying to make us feel guilty or prudish if we judge something to be sin and choose not to participate.
I have known ministers who thought they were the town sheriff and had to be in on all decisions in our lives. Others, though, taught the principles involved and left it to church members to make decisions for themselves. Undoubtedly, there are still some Marshall Dillons out there, but once our teachers have taught us God’s way, the burden is on us, not them, to know right from wrong. We must know where the lines are.
Thirty-Nine Sabbath Rules
An interesting example here is the way Orthodox Jews keep the Sabbath and the 39 forbidden Sabbath activities (melachot) that they have come up with. Rather than learn the principles involved in Sabbath-keeping, the attitude seems to be, “Let’s just have a rule to cover every conceivable development.” For instance, ancient Israel was told, “You shall kindle no fire throughout your dwellings on the Sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3). This command directly follows a command not to work on the Sabbath, so in saying not to kindle a fire, God was speaking of a fire employed in work, such as one used by a smith to shape metal, not a home heating fire.
However, the Orthodox Jews take it to an extreme, teaching that it includes the modern analogy of moving electricity through a circuit. If a person opens his refrigerator door on the Sabbath and the light inside comes on, in their judgment, he has “kindled a fire.” So, the Orthodox Jewish solution is to unscrew the bulb in the refrigerator on the Preparation Day so that no light comes on when the door is opened on the Sabbath.
On the Sabbath, a Jew cannot turn the lights on in the house or the burner on the stove. To get around this, Jews use timers. Note that they do these things to “get around” the law. To this end, their sages have come up with the concept of grama, and this has nothing to do with the nice older lady who gave you cookies as a child.
In Jewish law, there is a difference in direct and indirect action on the Sabbath. For instance, a Jew cannot intentionally extinguish a flame, but if he opens a window and the wind blows out the candle, he has not violated Sabbath law. Such an indirect action, whose result is not guaranteed, is called grama, which comes from the Hebrew root meaning “to cause [something to happen].” If a fire breaks out on the Sabbath, a Jew cannot put it out, but he can fill water jugs and place them in the path of the fire. When—or if—the heat bursts the jugs, the water may put the fire out. There are more subtleties to grama, but that is the short explanation.
So, in this modern, technological world, the Jews use the grama principle in numerous ways. Opening and closing electrical circuits would be work. But if the switch has a delay so that, when a Jew presses or turns it, nothing immediately happens, yet a few seconds later something does happen, that is not considered work.
Since they do not drive on the Sabbath, Orthodox Jews live within walking distance of the synagogue, but this still poses a problem for those Jews who have trouble walking. We have all seen the scooters that have become so popular for those with disabilities. At least one brand of scooter is now approved for Sabbath use. Mike LaBrake, Director of Operations for Amigo Mobility International, writes this about his company’s kosher scooter:
There is a Shabbat/Normal switch on the Amigo. It is spring loaded and the toggle lever must be lifted before it can be switched to a different position so the user cannot accidentally switch the Amigo back to Normal mode during the Shabbat period.
Once the switch is activated (and the key switch turned “on”), the software is designed so the start up signal goes through a timing circuit. The timing circuit is where the Gramma [sic] principle of an indirect action comes into play, thus the user is not activating the motor circuit directly. Once the timing circuit is complete the Shabbat module will close the motor circuit and the system is programmed so the Amigo “crawls” at a very slow speed without the user touching the throttle lever. . . . During crawl speed the goal is to be able to stall the Amigo by turning the tiller all the way to the right or left. If the user feels that they are in physical danger at anytime they can depress an emergency brake switch and the Amigo will come to an immediate stop.
Once the Amigo is in the crawl mode, if the user wants to go faster they pull on the throttle lever and the Amigo picks up speed just like normal. I’m told that this action is approved because the user is not opening or closing a motor circuit, they are just modifying the amount of current going through it.
Other manufacturers have also installed “Sabbath” modes on their appliances. On some new refrigerators, unscrewing the light bulb is not so easy. So now, more than 300 types of ovens, stoves, and refrigerators can be set to “Sabbath” mode, which, when enabled, means lights stay off, displays are blank, tones are silenced, fans are stilled, compressors slowed, etc. To quote WIRED magazine’s Michael Erard in “The Geek Guide to Kosher Machines”:
In a kosher fridge, there’s no light, no automatic icemaker, no cold-water dispenser, no warning alarm for spoiled food, no temperature readout. Basically, [Sabbath mode] converts your fancy—and expensive—appliance into the one your grandma bought after World War II.
The Law and Its Spirit
If we have to jump through these mental and physical hoops to follow God’s laws, have we really learned the principles involved? During the Feast of Unleavened Bread, God draws a clear, physical line for us—do not eat leavening for seven days. We can make gray areas for ourselves—what about baking soda in toothpaste? Or yeast in beer? and more as well—but these are not really gray areas if we adhere to principle. We are taught that leaven symbolizes sin. Leaven makes bread rise just as sin causes us to puff up through our pride. That line is fairly easy to see.
Anything questionable comes back to “whatever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). This will vary a bit for each of us. Just as the Feast of Unleavened Bread makes us concentrate on everything we eat, and it is hoped, makes us concentrate on our daily actions as well, we must carry that attitude through the year. We have to make our judgments as simple as asking ourselves on the last day of Unleavened Bread, “Can I have a doughnut today? No. Can I have one tomorrow? Yes.”
In Matthew 5:20, Christ says, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” As we saw from just one area of the law, the Sabbath, the “scribes and Pharisees” have literally come up with a long list of dos and don’ts to keep from sinning. What does it mean that we have to exceed their righteousness?
The rest of Matthew 5 is Christ explaining just how to do that. If we learn the principles behind the law—the spirit of the law—we will know just where the line is. For example, if our “Yes” must be yes and our “No,” no, then adding a crude four-letter word in front of or behind our answer is sin. Adultery is not just “cheating,” as we like to call it, but includes anything that causes a person to divert his or her love and attention from his/her mate. It is not enough to love our friends; we must also not hate our enemies but do them good.
We have been given the law and the principles behind the law so that none of us can stand before God and say in the pleading voice of Jake Spoon, “I didn’t see no line.”