Useless gestures

by Michael E. Brooks

“Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations – ‘Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using – according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:20-23 NKJV).

Abishai, the three year-old son of one of our Khulna Bible College teachers, was eating breakfast in the school kitchen one Sunday morning. Someone put a green chili pepper on his plate.

Evidently his mother warned him it was hot, and to be careful. When I glanced over at him a moment later he had picked it up and was holding it in front of his face, blowing on it.

When we were little and fell and skinned our knees, our mothers would pick us up, hug us, and kiss the hurt spot. Soothed by the attention and sympathy we felt that mother’s kiss had great healing power.

Now older, we know the true cause and effect and look back with amusement at the naiveté of children.

But the temptation to blow on a pepper, or kiss a wound is still there. Only now we apply it to more serious matters. With social ills we throw money at a problem, thinking some program, committee or governmental intervention will solve poverty, illness, or crime.

In politics it is our vote that we think makes a difference, if only we can elect the correct candidate.

Religious people are not immune to this thinking, either. As Paul noted in Colossians 2, the doctrine of asceticism (self-denial) has great appeal with some.

Their reasoning is simple. Sin is about indulgence of the flesh. If I deny my fleshly desires and appetites, I will better be able to resist sin. Paul agreed that this seemed sensible. There is only one problem — it just doesn’t work.

The history of ascetic movements is filled with stories of excess, immorality, and perversion.

It was this which in part prompted Martin Luther to turn against the hierarchy of the church of his day. On a visit to Rome the hypocrisy and lustfulness which he witnessed discredited the entire religious apparatus in his eyes. The Protestant Reformation soon followed.

If denial of material things does not help us resist sin, then what does? In Abishai’s case the answer was “don’t eat the pepper”. That is not preaching abstinence from eating — but only from the thing which would hurt him. Whether he ate his rice or not had nothing to do with the effect of the chili.

They were different matters altogether.

So it is with us. Abstinence is good and productive, if we are abstaining from sin itself. Paul himself commanded, “Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22). But he also condemned those who forbade the eating of meats, saying “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused” (1 Timothy 4:4).

An even better answer to the question of how to resist sin is that given by the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:16, “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.”

If we can subject our physical side to the spiritual, understanding and honoring the importance of our eternal souls, discipline and moral purity will be possible. “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18).

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Michael Brooks

Since 1988 Mike and his wife Brenda have been involved in foreign missions in South America, Africa, and South Asia. Beginning in 1999 they devoted full time to missions, primarily in Bangladesh and Nepal.

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