Book clubs can be dangerous things, and this one blindsided me. I was new to the area, the youngest person there with the least life experience and education. Everyone was a professing Christian. The first book up was a novel I had never read: it was saturated with pornography. So I stopped reading around page 5.
During the discussion about the book, nobody brought up the point that it was garbage, so I ventured a comment: “Yeah, it was really well-written, but I guess the thing that bothered me was all the pornography, which is why I stopped reading it.” Everyone’s defenses went up.
But it was well-written! And the author had an amazing life. And you could learn stuff from it. The discussion went back and forth for a few minutes until a lovely woman with breast cancer simply said, “Well, I found it helpful.” Period. It was obviously a no-go zone: there was no point in critiquing it when it helped someone.
Evangelicals often behave like that, explicitly or implicitly. We live in an age of convenience: ordinary life is to be made as easy as possible; trials are to be anesthetized. Anything that helps is game, apparently. Which is why nobody, including me, felt as though they could tell this suffering woman that it didn’t matter if she thought the book was helpful, it was really sinful. The illusion of helpfulness was actually damaging her soul.
Sometimes it is souls, sometimes bodies, relationships, or churches that are harmed by the “helpful = legit” thinking. Maybe we find it “helpful” to eat a pound of chocolate when we’re feeling down, perhaps it “helps” us to vent our anger to a friend, maybe we find staying home from church “helpful” after a long week. This mentality can be why a mother puts the three-year old in front of the tv all day, or why a pastor ignores a parishioner’s sin, or why your friend goes back to the secular psychologist, or why a classmate uses icons in his devotional life. But all of these backfire sooner or later to some degree.
It’s critics who take the initial heat, though. Naming a “helpful” but unbiblical practice brings negative response almost immediately. There are lots of examples: Al Mohler vs. yoga, dad vs. lame boyfriend, pastor vs. private communion, or any other teacher/parent/pastor vs. issue, there will be flack. Often, it paints the critic as hateful or cold or robotic, and tells others so. That’s ugly.
But the greatest damage is to the individual who is blind to the difference between helpful and biblical. If we can’t understand the difference between the two, then we are simply untaught. If we refuse to understand the difference between the two, that is pride, love of sin, or both. That’s when our souls are in the most danger as they become blinded and content in that blindness.
The “helpful = legit” problem is partly the result of our culture’s radical individualism. We are so immersed in our own rights and personal freedoms that this thinking is difficult to recognize in ourselves, and we are often angry if others point it out. We are also so socially sensitive that we avoid or drop these issues if they will be awkward, like I did at the book club.
There are several things we can do in order to fight this sort of thinking. One, if an issue isn’t sinful, don’t treat it like one. My sister is on a campaign in this area. “Argh! She’s wearing a big white t-shirt, denim jumper, and tights!” “Is that a sin? Then drop it.” “This hot dog isn’t organic, sustainable, fair trade, responsibly harvested, from a beautiful local farm!” “You can still thank God for it.”
Two, if someone you know is doing something “helpful” that is actually, biblically sinful, say so. Kindly and humbly. Do not let the awkwardness or relationship tensions make you lose sight of their spiritual health.
Three, be humble. If another Christian comes to us and says, “You know, I was thinking that ______ part of your life really seems unbiblical,” we can’t jump into our “it’s helpful” bunker and throw “you’re nasty” grenades at them. We need to seriously consider what they are saying and measure it against Scripture, realizing that we just might maybe perhaps have a little log in our eye (Matt. 18; Luke 7:5).
Of course, not everything that is helpful is unbiblical (washing machines, a good film, an ipod)! And biblical practices are ultimately helpful, though they may be inconvenient (eg., fasting, church membership, etc.). It’s our fixation with the helpful regardless of its Scriptural soundness that is dangerous. We live in the west, it’s 2014, and all things are lawful for us (1 Cor. 10:32). But we are pilgrims and strangers in this world (1 Peter 2:11), with renewed minds to discern the perfect will of God (Rom. 12:1–2). So not all things truly are helpful. Let’s pray for maturity to see the difference.