Those who are wise understand that when it comes to moral exhortation, one size doesn’t always fit all. The same piece of advice can be good or bad depending on the person and the situation.
Think, for example, how best to respond to belligerent nonsense. On the one hand, you should ignore fools full of such folly. If you try to answer them you’ll just end up looking foolish too (Proverbs 26:4). But on the other hand, go ahead and answer a fool. Otherwise he’ll continue in his smug stupidity (Proverbs 26:5). Sometimes fools should be ignored. Other times they should be answered. The wise man can discern which response fits each situation.
Similarly, the same exhortation can be wisdom for some people and foolishness for others. For example, Jesus instructs any who would be his disciple to “hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life” (Luke 14:26). Is this good advice or bad advice? Well, Jesus said it so we can’t say it’s bad advice. But in some situations it certainly could be. If you counsel a rebellious teen or a self-mutilating young woman with Luke 14:26 you’re probably giving bad advice. This is not because Jesus’ words are untrue. It’s just not what they need to hear at the moment. But on the other hand, if you are part of the gawking crowd, more interested in being entertained by Jesus than following him, then Luke 14:26 is precisely the word for you.
Which brings me to Jared Wilson’s comments from January which created quite the buzz on Justin Taylor’s blog over the weekend.
Yes, people watch too much TV and play too many video games and spend too much time on the Internet and what-have-you. But the proper response to our media over-saturation is not a rigorous attention to the explicitly “spiritual” in every margin of life. Be a Christian, not an ascetic. Don’t be lazy, but realize that Jesus Christ did not die and rise for you so that you would stress out about whether you’re being spiritual enough. So take a nap. Watch some television. The gospel frees you to chill the heck out.
Seven score and ten comments later, what’s left to say about this simple paragraph? Not much, except to remind folks that what Jared says is surely good advice for many people and bad advice for many others. Of course, the slacker Christian addicted to the Gilmore Girls and Halo 3 (this is a remarkably diverse slacker) will not do well to receive Jared’s advice. But given Jared’s larger body of work, not to mention Justin’s obvious appreciation for John Piper, it’s safe to assume neither of these guys are encouraging a mindless binge of media saturation. In fact, not only is it safe to assume this, considering the source, the caveats and the context, it’s uncharitable to assume otherwise.
The fact is some Christians do need to chill the heck out. There is such a thing as pathological seriousness. It is possible to be too intense. Young Christians, especially when they are getting meaty theology and God-centeredness for the first time, can be prone to manic bouts of self-flagellation, spurts of judgmentalism, and unhealthy hyper-watchfulness. I know because there have been times in my life when I’ve been prone to all three.
Of course,young Christians are prone to laziness too. And I suppose they might go off the deep end after reading Jared’s post. But if that paragraph ruins their spiritual lives, they were probably eager to be ruined anyway. Likewise, any teenagers in the crowd listening to Luke 14:26 who took Jesus to mean “Be a jerk to you mom” were no doubt jerks all on their own already.
I’m not arguing for careless exhortations, nor do I espouse moral relativism of any kind. But discernment is not the same as selling out. If you don’t need to chill the heck out, don’t. But some people do. And if you don’t think any Christians are wound too tight or introspective in unhealthy ways, then I’m concerned for you. Just like I’d be concerned if you thought the gospel was essentially about taking it easy.
It feels safer at times and more heroic to be unrelentingly consistent in every situation with every individual. But in reality, maintaining gospel consistency means we understand that the same piece of advice is sometimes wise and sometimes foolish. The hard sayings, C.S. Lewis observed, are beneficial only to those who find them hard. So if chilling the heck out feels like more of the same for you, go read Don’t Waste Your Life (a book I highly recommend). But if some down time feels a bit naughty, you may need to go on a long walk, play Settlers of Catan, or even watch the Final Four.
And by the way, if you do the latter, be sure to root for the Spartans.