Over the past couple weeks we’ve dealt with common topics for New Year’s resolutions, like food and money. But, since most resolutions don’t make it out of the first month… chances are good that if you made one about either of those, it’s already un-resolved.
Don’t worry. That doesn’t mean we can’t still make 2018 a better year.
Today I want to address something that is kind of like an umbrella for all resolutions, New Year’s or otherwise: How to make decisions.
Some decisions – many, really – make themselves. Should I brush my teeth this morning? Yes. Should I go to work today? Yes. Should I call my dad on his birthday? Yes. (Happy birthday, Dad!)
But some decisions seem to resist being made. They appear as two equal parts, different but hard to tell which is better or worse. The longer we sit and stare at them, the more time they have to build a fence – a nice, big fence. While we’re thinking we climb up on that fence to sit, one leg straddling each side. We sit there and sit there and sit there, paralyzed by the inability to decide which side is better.
I’ve been on the fence more than a few times. One of the worst was during the end of my time working at Wilderness Trail, a backpacking ministry that I love. I worked there for 8 summers while I was in school, then 7 full-time years after I graduated. Some of my biggest laughs and most powerful God moments have taken place there. I even met my husband there.
But at the end of my time as an employee, things didn’t feel so good. I wasn’t sure what was supposed to come next for Wilderness Trail. The ministry was facing new challenges in areas where I was less skilled. I was newly married, and spending the summer away from my husband was hard. I was also getting more and more involved in my local church – was now the time to change roles and answer a call as a pastor?
The need to move on seems obvious in retrospect… but let me reiterate that I *LOVE* Wilderness Trail. Leaving wasn’t something I was eager to do.
I mulled this over for a year before making my decision… and then changing my mind and getting back on the fence. I sat on that fence, and sat, and sat. Eventually I became depressed.
If you’ve ever been stuck like that, then you know how miserable it feels. It’s like a gridlock between two competing decisions and neither will let go. If you’re in that place right now, then today’s Scripture is for you – because the Corinthians are in just that kind of gridlock. Theirs isn’t about a job, but about food. Not a food issue we know, though – they’re on the fence about meat sacrificed to idols.
The culture they lived in involved the worship of many gods. Green and McDonald say that “religion and society were so fully integrated in the Greco-Roman world that it is hard to imagine participating meaningfully in community life without also participating in the religious life of the community” (115). “Temples provided dining facilities for private parties, local guilds, and political associations” (114). Further complicating things, “Almost all meat in Greco-Roman society came from a pagan sacrifice, but libations and grain offerings made to other gods consecrated all the wine and bread in a house as well” (285).
This gives us a little perspective. Our opinion – 2,000 years removed – might be, “Well, just don’t eat the meat!” But that decision cuts someone off from access to decent food and important social connections. I can easily imagine the argument on both sides of this fence. I see the Corinthians eagerly awaiting this letter so that Paul’s response might decide, one way or the other.
Instead, Paul argues that both approaches can be right or wrong. Paul explains this with two decision-making factors: knowledge and love.
Knowledge makes a clear case, built on logic. Fact: idols aren’t real. Fact: there’s only one God. Therefore, this meat that’s been sacrificed to idols isn’t “real,” either. Why would there be any problem with eating it?
Paul agrees with all that. It’s true and reasonable knowledge. It should be considered. It must be considered.
But we don’t make decisions on knowledge alone. We also consider love.
We do that because we’re followers of Christ. Jesus knew the law. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus taught about the Jewish law repeatedly – and at the end, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-9). But Jesus didn’t only act out of that knowledge. Jesus sometimes chose to break a law out of love – like healing someone on the Sabbath, the day when all faithful Jews were prohibited from work (Matthew 12:9-14).
Paul is arguing for a similar approach. Don’t just make your decision on knowledge. Consider love; what would love lead you to do?
Love might lead you to consider new Christians who have trouble with this meat-for-idols thing. They can’t shake the idea that there’s something wrong about it. For them, eating the meat might cause harm to their new faith. Their faith might even be harmed by seeing Christian leaders in the community eating that meat. So no, Paul says – there’s nothing really wrong with eating the meat sacrificed to idols. But when you make your decision, be compassionate to your brothers and sisters in Christ. Think about how your decision affects them.
John Wesley said this another way. The Methodist movement he started was fueled by small groups called “societies.” To be a part of those societies, there were standards to live by – “General Rules.” They boiled down to this:
- Doing no harm.
- Doing good.
- Attending to the ordinances of God (i.e., doing things that nurture your relationship with God).
Of most interest here – as we think about the Corinthians and their dilemma with idol-meat – is “do no harm.” Paul is pointing out that, while it’s really OK to eat that meat, it may potentially cause harm to a new Christian. That potential harm is reason enough to reconsider that decision.
In our Book of Discipline we get a list of examples of “harm” we ought to avoid. Noteworthy among them is this: “Slaveholding; buying or selling slaves.” Wesley lived the 1700s when slavery was still legal; it was abolished in Britain in 1833 and in the United States in 1865. Arguing against slavery wouldn’t have been a popular stance. Some in that time even made logical, knowledge-based arguments for slavery. Wesley saw slavery as clearly in the category of causing harm, a reason to override knowledge and act differently out of love.
Making decisions using knowledge but ultimately out of love is the way of Paul, the way of John Wesley, and (most importantly) the way of Christ. Love reveals any potential harm that might come out of a decision. Love leads us on the right path.
Love will help us make better decisions.
But not faster ones.
Love is what made it so hard to make a choice about Wilderness Trail. I didn’t want to abandon an organization I cared for just because things got tough. And honestly, I loved myself enough to try and avoid making a rash decision I’d regret; I knew once I stepped away from the lone full-time position, there’d be no going back.
I remember one moment in particular when I paused in the middle of the day to say a desperate prayer. I was pulling out of our driveway, on the way to run some Wilderness-Trail-related errand. Before I turned onto the street I stopped to pray, “God, please tell me what to do!”
Immediately, I felt a response. I didn’t hear it out loud, but the words came loud and clear into my mind, hushing all my mental chatter. It was like they were printed in bold letters on my windshield. What I heard God say was:
Ridiculous, right? I remember laughing out loud, all by myself in the car. I laughed not just because God was giving me the one response I didn’t want… but also because God had said this same thing to me before, during another time when I was stuck on the fence. What I realized then was also true here: God wasn’t going to hand-deliver the decision to me; God wanted me to work this through, to learn something from the decision-making process that would be important going forward.
Being stuck on the fence feels awful. But sometimes, we might not be stuck – we might be rightfully discerning. It might even be love that keeps us there. Love is Paul writing his response to the Corinthians, not telling them definitively “do this” or “do that” but saying, “Wait a minute before you choose. Will you be harming someone?” Love says the same thing to us, as we are about to jump in to something too quickly. Love makes us pause, and pray, and proceed carefully.
During those periods of waiting – and especially, if you’re there right now – remember this:
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Cor. 8:1). Yes, collect all the knowledge you need. But also: what does love have to say about this? Is your decision made out of compassion – for others and for you? Which decision causes the greatest harm – not just now, but also later on down the road?
May God give you all the wisdom you need.
But most of all: May God give you all the love you need.