Judgment or Discernment?

Journal 2005

I’ve been working through how to recognize the difference between God’s standard and men’s standard of conduct. For example, I came out of a system that taught it was a sin for a woman to wear pants, and though I threw that false belief out years ago, I wonder about wearing skimpy clothing. A judgmental attitude (which I’m prone to have) is a self-righteous attitude about how others conduct themselves—usually because I don’t do it myself. And often the item or “sin” in question reflects a tradition of man rather than breaking a direct command of Scripture. Discernment, on the other hand, involves understanding the intent of a command in Scripture and applying it to myself.

One’s choice of dress falls on a continuum: from a Middle Eastern burka all the way to public nudity. What’s modest for one culture may be immoral for another.* I’m sure my upbringing in an African village impacts my confusion. Does God’s Word dictate standards of dress, or does God look only on the heart? (I can dress like a Puritan and not have a pure heart.) The other end of the continuum is harder for me to gauge. At what point does my dress choice cross into sin? Can the discussion focus on the amount of material, or should the focus be 100% on the heart?

Or what about my media viewing choices? Is there a point at which what I watch becomes sin? Or is it all about the condition of the heart? I cannot judge another’s motives, but personally, I’d prefer wholesome rather than on-the-edge. Better to hug the mountain side than the cliff side in these gray areas.

*Funny story from Stormy Omartian’s book The Power of the Praying Woman. Seems an offended missionary decided he should supply the topless natives with t-shirts. The next day the ladies showed up at church proudly wearing their new garb—with holes cut out for their breasts (so they could nurse of course). Made perfect sense to me!

2023 Update. I must have worked through these questions sufficiently as I have no emotion today when the subject comes up. I know now that I am not responsible for anyone’s heart but my own, and I can trust God to convict me when needed and guide me into all truth.

Command or Culture?

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind (Romans 14:5 NIV).

I just returned home from my mission boarding school reunion in Texas. One topic of conversation among the MKs (Missionary Kids) was the memories of what activities were forbidden growing up (going to movies, dancing, playing cards) and what our parents permitted us to do on Sundays (not much!).

How does one determine in the Scriptures what is an Old Testament command or a promise for the Israelites and what is intended for the believer today? How can we pick and choose which of Paul’s admonitions are meant for us and which for the church in his day?

When Paul asked believers to pray for him while he was in jail, this is obviously not a command for us in the 21st century to pray for him. But when he asks us to remember those who are in prison, we can certainly apply that injunction to someone today who is incarcerated.

What about when he told the Corinthian women to cover their heads? Was this a command for every woman across every culture and ethnic group and time period? Some people believe so. I’m not one of them.

How then do we discern and determine what commands God has for us today? The apostles grappled with this very thing in the first century. Were they permitted to eat meat offered to idols or not? I think every generation must struggle with and debate the controversial topics that arise at the time.

I remember back in the 70s when male Christians were admonished not to grow their hair long or wear facial hair because—at that time—it represented a worldly symbol of rebellion. Today, that connotation is gone. (In fact, I quite like the look of my sons-in-law with their beards.) And a time when women’s hair must never be cut, for that was their glory. Is God less pleased with me because mine is short?

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Two handsome dudes — Josh and Alex

Or take the subject of modesty. There was a time in our country’s past when it was considered inappropriate for a lady to show her ankles. And a time when showing cleavage was quite fashionable (though only in the evening)—and then it wasn’t—and now it is again. Yet where I grew up in an African village, the women all went bare-chested. (Today, not so much.)

So who gets to dictate the standard for modesty? Can it change over time? From one culture to another? Are there any absolutes, or is it always first and foremost a matter of the heart?

So I have to ask myself where is my heart today? Do I hold some pet traditions that I think are biblical mandates when in reality they’re merely cultural preferences? Is it okay for men to wear ball caps indoors today, whereas in the past it was considered quite improper? Does the Bible address this issue?

The Scriptures say each person must examine his or her own heart and be fully convinced as to what’s right for him or her regarding sacred days. We are to listen to our inner conscience as directed by the Holy Spirit. But I don’t like that. I’m just enough of a Pharisee that I want absolutes: put on this, don’t wear that. Give me rules any day over principles and then I don’t have to grapple with the subject. With principles, my judgmental spirit is required to relax and be more grace-filled with those who differ from me.

Guess I’ll go buy a headscarf and see if I’ll feel more spiritual—or not!

What issues, cultural or scriptural, do you grapple with today and why?