|Making Right Choices
September 6, 1998 / Romans 5:6-11
During two weeks in Kenya recently, I chose not to drive an automobile. For one thing, lingering English influence in the country means that people still drive on the left side of the road. Iíve driven that way in some of my travels outside the United States. But itís a problem for me. And by far the most difficult thing to me are roundabouts.
A roundabout is an intersection without 90-degree angles, stop signs, or stoplights. Roundabouts are used in most European countries ó no matter which side of the road is used for driving. As best I understand these traffic circles, a driver has to know which lane is going to take him where he wants to go before plunging into one. You stay in the outer ring if you intend to exit at the first turn, pick the middle lane if you are going halfway around ó "straight ahead" to an American driver ó or the innermost track if you mean to go three-quarters of the way around. The fear of a novice like me is that he will get in the wrong lane, miss his turn, and die going round in circles!
Regardless of the danger of dying in traffic in a roundabout, my sense is that there are millions of people in that spiritual situation. They are "going in circles" with their personal, family, and career lives. They donít know how to make decisions. They donít know how to weigh spiritual alternatives. They donít know how to live ethically virtuous lives. They are simply caught in the spin of a hedonistic, relativistic culture and have no idea how to exit the roundabouts of their confusion.
If there is any hope for our world, we are going to have to learn to think more clearly than most of us are at present. If Christians are serious about imitating our Lord, we are certainly going to have to extricate ourselves from the fuzzy thinking and decadent lifestyle of our time. "What Would Jesus Do?" needs to be more than a T-shirt or wristband slogan. It must become the overriding question to our process of thinking, choosing, and acting.
If we arenít serious about holiness, I suggest that we change the titles of some of our hymns to reflect a more honest faith. "My Hope Is Built on Nothing Much" would be more straightforward than "My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less Than Jesusí Blood and Righteousness." "Where He Leads Me I Will Follow" likely needs to become "Where He Leads Me I Will Think About Going ó If It Doesnít Cramp My Style." "Spirit of the Living God, Fall Fresh on Me" may need to be redone as "Spirit of the Living God, Fall Somewhere in My Vicinity." And this much is certain: If we donít take the demands of Christian discipleship seriously, "When Peace Like a River" will most assuredly have to be rewritten as "When Peace Like an Occasional Trickle."
But I do take the call to follow Jesus seriously. And I believe you do. So why is there so much of the worldís way of thinking among us? How can we extricate ourselves from the moral confusion of our time and learn to make right, Christ-honoring decisions?
The Bible on Making Choices
Some of the most powerful texts in all of Holy Scripture have to do with making choices that honor the Lord. For example, what was the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Gen. 2:17) but the symbol of the initial choice humanity had to make between good and evil, obedience and disobedience? Yes, I believe there was an actual tree in the Garden of Eden that was forbidden to the original couple. But I donít believe it was a magic tree whose fruit had enchanted enzymes or supernatural powers that would unlock Adamís intellectual ability to distinguish right from wrong. I see it as the tangible means by which he was supposed to show his trust in Godís guidance for and sovereignty over his life. His decision to eat the forbidden fruit was Adamís choice to strike out on his own. It was his declaration of personal independence from the Lord. What a disastrous choice it was.
When the world became so corrupt that God determined to destroy it in a flood of waters, he extended grace in the form of an ark. For a hundred and twenty years, Noah gave people the choice between arrogance and self-will on the one hand or faith and preparation for judgment on the other. You know the outcome of that choice for all but eight souls.
Then there was Mosesí final charge to the nation of Israel. He called on that great body of people he had led for four decades to follow Yahweh in faithfulness. The outcome he saw for their faithfulness was this: "The LORD will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the LORD your God and walk in his ways" (Deut. 28:9). What if the people chose to be faithless and disobedient? "The LORD will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him" (Deut. 28:20). Do you think these different fates come to nations today in relation to their choice between righteousness and spiritual folly? If so, what do you sense about what we are experiencing in our culture?
Most every Bible student recognizes these words from Joshua: "Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. . . . But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD" (Josh. 24:14-15). This was his challenge to the nation he had led from Mosesí death until his own career was finished.
Similar challenges about choosing to follow the Lord are found in the prophets of the Old Testament. All they said was eventually summed up this way by Jesus: "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Matt. 7:13-14).
All these challenges about choosing a lifestyle that honors God and righteousness presume that it is within the purview of human power to make such a choice. Of course they do. There would be neither praise nor blame for human behavior unless we do the things we do by choice. There could be no accountability. There would be no such thing as right or wrong.
Everyone operates with this assumption of free will in the routine things of life. Thus we discipline our children, trust certain people more than others, and have a sense that child molesters and drug traffickers need to be thwarted and punished. But are you aware that this common-sense assumption has been severely eroded in recent times?
"But I Canít Help It!"
We have come to a point in our culture that the message of absolution from personal accountability and responsibility has reached epidemic proportions. That our genes or life circumstances make it inevitable that certain things happen is such a widespread defense of the indefensible that it is heard constantly. "But I canít help it!" was the defense offered me a while back by a man who had just beat up his wife. I have heard the same line from people addicted to chemicals, lazy students, procrastinators, habitual liars, and murderers.
The notion that we are what we are because of circumstances beyond our control is the ultimate self-deception. Perhaps it is comforting and conscience-salving, but it is a deception nonetheless.
To be sure, all of us have certain inborn qualities that predispose us to things ranging from athletic skill to alcoholism to musical giftedness. And we are all conditioned by life events ó especially, it seems, the very early ones ó to live out scripts that others have written for us; so different ones of us learn to handle conflict by shouting, to ignore long-range outcomes for short-term goals, or to manipulate people through false flattery or contrived guilt.
It is also true that both the Bible and human experience teach us that people become "enslaved" to certain things. That is, one can forfeit part of his will and behavior to some person or thing, lose the ability to consciously control certain actions, and be incapable of changing his conduct without external intervention.
But to say that we are what we are without the ability to be otherwise is false. It denies human responsibility and makes all notions of reward and punishment meaningless. It contradicts the notions of freedom and choice for human behavior that are so clearly taught in the Bible. And it contradicts the command of God through Scripture for people to think, act, and be otherwise than we often are.
Did you catch the critical phrase "without external intervention" a few sentences back? Many people have foul mouths, bad tempers, or self-destructive habits they cannot alter without help. But help is available. God has made each of us responsible for his or her own life. Things can change. And some must change for the sake of the accountability that lies ahead at Judgment Day.
It's high time for some us to stop blaming parents, genes, or God for our foolish ways and to begin seeking the power of the Holy Spirit to change. The power of God to transform his people is greater than any negative behavior.
A Case Study
A lady whom I will call Beverly was out of control. She had already wrecked two marriages, lost custody of her four-year-old son, gotten fired from nine jobs in five and a half years, and guzzled enough alcohol to float a barge. Yet some of the people who loved her just wouldn't give up on her. They stayed in touch with her. They stood with her through some tough times without excusing or pitying her. And finally they teamed up (not ganged up!) to confront her about her chosen path toward self-destruction.
They really did believe that Beverly's hell-bent path was "chosen." At that moment, she was enslaved and overpowered by her lifestyle. Moreover, she was powerless to fix what was wrong with her. But staying on that path, refusing to get help, and dying was a choice she was making. She could choose other ó and better ó options.
So they lovingly but firmly confronted her about what was happening. She shrugged, lied, denied, and got angry. But they wouldn't be intimidated. Gently, yet without retreating from the truth, they held the mirror of specific events before her. Beverly took her first positive step in years: She admitted her life was a mess and that she needed help.
Heartened by her confession but knowing that it must be followed up with action, one of her friends became her sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous. One reason I think so highly of Alcoholics Anonymous is its realistic and biblical approach to addictive behaviors. Is alcoholism of drug addiction in any sense a "disease"? Yes, because it has the physiological phenomena of a predictable course with a documented inheritance factor. But A.A. doesnít use the disease concept to excuse out-of-control behavior. It uses the disease model to introduce the person who is addicted to a powerful drug to the prospect of hope. It doesnít use the disease model to dismiss the notions of accountability and responsibility. But back to Beverlyís story.
Another of Beverlyís friends linked her with a church that understood the Beverlys of the world and looked at her with compassion rather than pity, with concern rather than scorn, and with understanding rather than judgment. That church surrounded her with loving support as she began taking the first positive steps in her life in years. Rather than excluding her as a hopeless sinner ó thus deepening Beverlyís sense of guilt and shame ó different members of that church confessed their own sins of greed or lust or bad temper to her. They likened the church to "Sinners Anonymous" where the first condition of membership was the confession of powerlessness before sin. They surrounded her with the unconditional love and acceptance she would need to begin a process of recovery.
A wonderful series of things started happening in Beverly's life. As she began making positive rather than negative choices, she began liking herself for the first time in years! She even became convinced that God still loved her and wanted her life to be good. She had become a Christian in her late teens, and Beverly chose to recommit her life to Christ. As she "started over" with her life, she sensed an empowering of her purpose, choices, and new behaviors that she knew was from God. Things had really begun to change for a woman who once said she couldn't change.
People can and do change. It isn't easy. It doesn't happen all at once. And it certainly doesn't happen without effort, pain, and an occasional setback ó sometimes major in nature. But it happens. Yet I may have just seriously misstated things. Saying that people "can change" (active verb) and "do change" (active verb) would more correctly be stated this way: People are changed (passive verb) when they allow God to work in their lives. "Do not conform to the pattern of this world. But be transformed by the renewing of your mind . . ." (Rom. 12:2). "We are being transformed . . ." (2 Cor. 3:18).
I referred earlier to Paulís struggle with doing the right things he knew and avoiding the sin he despised. Do you remember the solution he found to his dilemma? After confessing his inability to carry through on his own, he discovered that God had provided power for him through the Holy Spirit. "Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death" (Rom. 8:2).
We do not have to be as we have been. Nobody has to remain enslaved forever to people, attitudes, or things that are destructive. God has provided the means to change through his own divine power. Bad habits can be broken and new, good ones put in their place. It is God's doing, but we have to be open and willing for him to act.
Step One: Admit the need for change. This is what the Bible calls "repentance." It is accepting the truth about oneself that things are not as they should be. It is ceasing to blame others and circumstances for the way things are. It is saying genuinely, "I am this way today because of my own bad choices yesterday." Only then can one say, "Now I choose to be otherwise."
Step Two: Permit external intervention. This just means allowing someone to help you. Stop trying to go it alone, and reach instead to the resources God has put at your disposal. It may be a mate, minister, psychiatrist, friend, AA group, videocassette, book, etc. If you don't know where to turn, talk to someone who has been through a similar ordeal. Whatever else you reach for, you will ultimately need to turn to Christ. This is what the Bible calls "salvation."
Step Three: Put positives where the negatives have been. Major in truthfulness, honesty, kindness, and virtue. Pick new environments and friendships, if necessary. Accept the truth that God's power is at work in you now to achieve holy goals. This is what the Bible calls being a "new creation." Since Christ has come, nothing has to stay as it has been. "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:13).
There is a very real sense in which freedom of will is the supreme good in human experience, for man is not man unless he is free. Yet freedom can quickly become an evil thing. The freedom God has given us is so real that it can destroy us when misused.
Because this matter of making choices is so critical, we must take our role in the spiritual universe very seriously. To make these choices wisely is to honor God. To be careless about them is to pervert the great gift of freedom he entrusted to us. To be open to the intervention of Godís Holy Spirit in our lives is to be both saved and empowered for holiness.
Perhaps today is your day to make the choice that will determine your future in this life and in the world to come.
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