December 2, 2010

To Live is Christ — considering the conscience of others

Our little granddaughter asked a visiting Christian friend to play with her while I was making supper. The friend agreed, but when the child pulled out a deck of cards to play “Fish” she asked if they could do something else.

Later she explained that her family had a history of gambling by playing poker. For her, a deck of cards represented a sinful lifestyle and in good conscience, she could not play cards. She was aware that this is not a problem for everyone, but it was for her.

I respected her for her attitude and remembered the words of Paul in Romans 14. He addressed the problem in those days of eating meat offered to idols. Some Christians thought that was okay. Others were convinced this was sinful. For Paul, the issue was not about eating, but about loving one another.

So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:19–23)
For the Christian who likes rules (eat this, do not eat that), this passage poses problems. How can one activity be okay for one person and not for another?

For my friend, it was card playing. I also heard of a man who had been a baseball fan to the point of neglecting his family and spending all his spare time either at a game or pursuing related interests. When he became a Christian, he put all that behind him. Then two men in his church invited him to a baseball game. He was horrified that they should want to do something that he considered very sinful.

The point is easy to see. It wasn’t about baseball but about his attitude toward it. The other men, had they known this man’s past, would have respected his conscience. For them, baseball was just baseball, but this man could not go to a game without feeling guilt and shame. To help him, they would need to obey the next two verses in Romans:

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. (Romans 15:1–2)
If I do not know the personal issues others have about things I feel free to do, what can I do to avoid putting them on the spot? Not everyone is as gracious as my friend was with the game of cards. She could have thought our home was terribly sinful because I allowed our granddaughter to play with cards.

Putting myself in the place of a “weaker” faith, how can I handle requests from others to do things my conscience will not allow? One author wrote of an unsaved woman she had befriended in her apartment complex. This new friend asked her over to smoke pot with her. The Christian woman said, “I’m not into pot, but I’d love to go for an ice cream with you.”

Offer alternatives. Realize that some requests, even sincere, might be stumbling blocks for others. Pay attention to people. Much is revealed in ordinary conversation. Be more concerned about the relationship and how I can build others up than I am about personal preferences. If someone thinks an activity is a sin because of their past, I need to care about their conscience. It isn’t about what they (or I) do or don’t do.

As Paul said, I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if my brother is grieved by what I eat, I am no longer walking in love. By what I eat, I must not destroy the one for whom Christ died. (Romans 14:14–15, personalized)

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