In our Sunday School sessions, we’ve been studying the Sermon on the Mount, which has been really good. One thing I had never really considered was the underlying theme of the sermon. The Sermon on the Mount is all about the heart. Jesus constantly reminds us that externalism just doesn’t work, and that it is the attitude of our heart that matters to God. So it is not surprising that we only got to Matthew 5.13 before the topic turned to a discussion of externalism and what it really means to live out the Christian life. And this is where we’ve been for several weeks and probably will be for some time yet. There have been many thought-provoking conversations which inspired me to write about it myself. And then I realized this fit into my “rebel” series since this is another downfall I am passionate about trying to avoid. Why is this such a big deal to me? It gets to the core of the Gospel. Did Christ come to whitewash us into nice, respectable people who live neat, tidy lives? Is the essence of the Gospel about changing how we look or transforming who we are?
Externalism also tends to distract us from the root of sin. For instance, it is easy to look at our entertainment-based culture, with people living in front of their televisions and computers, and bemoan the fact that this is such a wicked generation such as the world has never seen before. Really? Are we saying that television causes sin or is a tool of our own sin? We can talk about all the statistics, the evil content of the television shows, the appealing and addicting nature of it, etc…but all we’re saying is that people are more depraved because of television, when the reality is that the television screen is filled with wickedness because we are depraved. It may seem like a subtle point, but it is important. Think about it this way. If television and modern technologies cause us to sin, the logical argument is that any cultures prior to this generation would be less sinful. Hardly. My recent studies of ancient Greece and Rome prove otherwise. For instance, when the ruins of Pompeii were found, there were certain rooms hidden from the public because of the horribly wicked and depraved images painted on the walls. And to this day (according to Wikipedia) minors can only access these areas with a guardian’s permission. So the fact that our modern world even recognizes the evil of these scenes to some extent seems to suggest they are truly dark and evil works. My point in this is that even in the ancient world people managed to find ways to unleash their depravity. One might argue that while those things existed in ancient times, they were not as numerous as the flaunted depravity of our day. But this argument doesn’t really hold up when you consider that we have very few remains from ancient days. So there is no way for us to compare the current times to an era of which we know very little.
The core point is that evil comes from within, not from without. We all realize the futility of monks through the ages as they sadly thought they could isolate themselves from the world and therefore isolate themselves from sin, not realizing their very existence was the source of sin.
Externalism is such a tempting viewpoint because it is so much easier. It is easier to look at others and say, “oh, I’m better than that person because I do this spiritual thing, while they do that worldly thing.” It is easier to feel “good” when you’ve created a list of external rules. It is easier to follow a list of external commands than attempt to bring your heart under the submission of God. Externalism is easier because we can appear holy on our own. We don’t really need Christ’s grace to put on a show. Externalism gives us superficial comfort. It distracts us from having to consider the true state of our soul. We can stay so busy following our rules and condemning others for not following our rules that we don’t have to think about the sin still lurking within.
So, what do we do? How we do not fall into the trap of externalism?
To me, the biggest distinction between discernment and externalism is motivation. Why are you doing this thing? For instance, people can eat for the purpose receiving emotional comfort, purpose, or satisfaction. It can get their mind off problems, just as people can use drinking or drugs to avoid facing their life. This is not a wise use of these substances. But what if someone just enjoyed eating? They took pleasure in food because it was a demonstration of God’s love and creativity towards His creatures. Would this be wrong? I think not. So there can be instances of people engaging in the same activity for completely different motivations, and it is sometimes extremely difficult to discern the heart of another. And is it really our business? I mean, why are we here on earth? To glorify God. Do we glorify God by being preoccupied with judging other people? Do we glorify Him by spending our time trying to divine the motivations of other Christians? This isn’t the reason we’re here. If we can help others along the way or encourage them to greater sanctification, that is a good thing, but it doesn’t really involve holding other people to our own scruples.
For the Bible is clear on moral issues. And we have a duty to admonish others to live by the laws of God. But there’s an awful lot God doesn’t specifically tell us about. Like watching television. Or listening to secular music. Or how to raise children. Or how to dress. And so we have moral principles that we must each apply as we are given understanding through the Holy Spirit. We simply have no authority to hold other people to our own standards on these issues.
So let’s spend more time cultivating the fruit of the Spirit in our own hearts instead of trying to conform ourselves and others to a set of external human standards. What’s more important, growing in love and and joy or making sure we listen to only “Christian” music and PG movies? Other religions are external. Christianity isn’t. This is what will set us apart. If the world sees our genuine love and peace, this will make a bigger difference than any of our own superficial efforts.
The Gospel isn’t about what we do, it is about what Christ has done for us. We must never forget that Christianity is grace. If we lose focus on God’s grace, we will become self-satisfied moralists, not sinners saved by grace alone.
“For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)