Liberty and Holiness

In a Facebook discussion recently on a mildly contentious topic, a friend brought out a line of argument that has me ruminating. Here’s what he said:

I think there is a lot to be said for the liberty we Christians have to partake of things, but there are certainly things the world has devised that are inherently unpleasing to God in any form. The question is – are we certain enough – do we have enough firm evidence that these [disputable] practices discussed above are absolutely not going to offend God that we can participate in them with a clean conscience? I know this – I have been bought with a very high price – the blood of Christ, and all too often, I do not reflect that in my conduct, but I should. I hope that we all are moved by that high price to think not of how far out to the boundaries of God’s permission we can roam in our conduct, but how near to Christ we can get.

This is a familiar argument in many ways. (How many times have I heard this as the preferred answer to lusting teens asking “how far is too far?”!) And indeed, it seems almost foolhardy to try to argue against the “how near to Christ can you get?” position. But on this question of liberty and holiness I think we could frame things up a little differently.

First, liberty and holiness are not two ends of the same spectrum. Here we need to distinguish between liberty in permissible things and freedom to sin. Freedom to sin using the excuse of abundant grace is clearly out of bounds (Romans 6:1). But liberty in matters of conscience is something different. When Paul instructs the Corinthians about meat sacrificed to idols, there is no suggestion that meat is OK, but not eating meat is more holy. There is holiness in exercising liberty.

Second, all good things come from God. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” (James 1:17). Paul tells us that “God… richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). God has not called us to be dour ascetics. Rather, he has called us to explore and enjoy His goodness to us in His creation. Which leads me to my last thought.

While I can hardly criticize a desire for holiness, at times I wonder if people may stress this desire to hide an underlying sense of fear or unease: fear of God moving in unexplained ways, fear of the Holy Spirit speaking unexpectedly, fear of seeing things that look like God working outside of the careful boundaries we’ve come to expect He should work in. And while we need to be ever sensitive to the Spirit’s leading when some particular idea or practice might be truly too far, we can do ourselves a disservice if we approach each experience or opportunity with suspicion instead of expectation. If, for example, the steak from the pagan butcher or the unfamiliar lectio divina is partaken with a prayer of expectation and a request for God’s blessing, why should we fear it?

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13)

My friend’s argument in questionable areas, if I can paraphrase, seems to be that “the default answer should be ‘no’ unless you’re really, really sure that it can be ‘yes'”. What I’d like to advocate for, though, is to turn that around; that we can, without fear, start with a default answer of ‘yes’, trusting that the Holy Spirit will make clear when the answer should instead be ‘no’.

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