Drawing Lines

I came home from work the other day to a strange happening. The TV was on.

My daughter, home for the summer from her teaching job in the Republic of Georgia, was watching it.  Adding to the strangeness of the TV being on in the middle of the afternoon, was the fact that it was tuned not to PBS, or a movie on DVD, but to a network television program.  It took a minute of me standing dumbly for this to sink in. And then there was this: Tyra Banks who, as I recall, used to be a Victoria's Secret model, now has a talk show - like Oprah, except not.  It has that sort of  "Listen up girlfriend" tone, but without the mellowing that age and experience can bring.  It only took about 20 minutes of second-hand exposure to get the strong impression that original talk show topics have become as rare as original Cosmo and Parents' Magazine topics.

Anyway, Tyra looks as  gorgeous as ever and keeps a good chat going.

That day's topic was something like: "Extreme Fake-Beauty Practices (not including plastic surgery)".  What I gleaned from it as I went about the house tidying up and only half-watching was that lots of people do lots of things related to their looks that their friends and/or family members think go too far.  One guest appeared on stage to report that her sister had too many "weaves" and wigs - over 50 - and that she's let bills go unpaid at times so that she could spend the money on more hair.  She'd even lost a job as some kind of driver because she spent all her time fussing with her hair in the mirror instead of looking at the road.

Another gal had a sister (or friend; I don't remember) who had fake nails that were really long.  But what really got her goat was that this sister/friend also had fake toenails, also super long, which she thought looked "ghetto". They curved over the tips of her sandals.

Then there was a gal who stuffed her bra like crazy, and another whose mother wanted to confront her teenage daughter, on national television mind you, about how she wore too much make up.

If you've gotten this far, you're probably beginning to wonder what on earth I'm getting to.  I know I am.  I could go on about how TV has a lot of vapid programming, but I'm pretty sure no one reading this needs me to point that out.  And, yes, I thought the topic for the show was a reach, but that wasn't really what bit me. Nor was it the creepy-long toenails, or the obsessive hair collector, or the dark, voyeuristic feel I got from the whole thing.  What got to me was that the sister of the wig-lady showed up wearing a weave with fake bangs, and the mother of the make-up girl looked preternaturally young, and was heavily groomed and made up herself.

And there was Tyra. When Hair Collector made her appearance and reported on her wigs and all the extremes they have led her to in life, Tyra says words to the effect of, " I don't even have that many!"  When Make-Up Daughter, who, by the way, is a very talented make-up artist, admits that it takes an hour and a half to two hours to do her make-up for the day, Tyra announces, "I don't even take that long to get ready for a runway show!"  When, after her intervention (and apparently an off-camera bust-line makeover), Bra-Stuff gal is brought out wearing a normal, un-stuffed bra, Tyra goes on to point out how nicely the new flattering uplifting bra,  v-neck shirt, and MAKE-UP enhancing the illusion of cleavage, looks even better than a stuffed bra.  The implication being: my breast enhancement method is superior to and less silly than yours.

If it were satire it couldn't have been written better.  The unintended ironies were glaring and the absurdities apparently unnoticed.

But, I'm not here to mock Tyra. I have no right, because I do the same thing.  I don't do it on television, or even out loud - usually.  But I do it in my head.  Tyra's program merely led me to reflect on how decidedly blind I and my fellow humans can be to our own inconsistencies, and to the movable feast we make of our morality.  The only difference between Tyra and the people being confronted for their extreme behaviors was a matter of degree.  Tyra's line for others is drawn somewhere very near where Tyra draws it for herself.  Behavior which crosses that line is  behavior gone too far.  The guests had their lines. The audience had theirs.  I have mine. And the voice of my conscience whispers:
"Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things." (Rom. 2:1)
A pastor friend recently related a story about a Christian university that requires incoming students to swear in writing in no less than four places that they will not consume any alcoholic beverage in any form for the duration of their enrollment. This same document made no mention in any place about the use of tobacco.  (At this point it would help to mention that this educational institution is located south of the Mason-Dixon Line - tobacco country.)  Nor was there any mention of gluttony, which in Scripture tends to be paired with the sin of drunkenness. This school's policy, my friend remarked, is less a representation of Biblical values than it is a "cultural relic".  It reflects the mores of a certain place and time - the moral line drawn in the sand by a particular society.  The Scripture, on the one hand, does not forbid the use of alcohol for Christians. It draws the line at drunkenness, and gluttony. This school judges those who consume any alcoholic beverages at all as unfit for admittance, drawing a line where there should have been none.  On the other hand it permits gluttony, erasing a line.

Here in the State of California (wine and granola country) it is far less acceptable to use tobacco than it is to drink beer or wine, and gluttony (as evidenced by obesity) is heavily frowned upon.  That societal standard is echoed to some extent in the church. I know from experience that Christian colleges here are as likely to forbid smoking as drinking and that smokers and over-weight people are likely to be frowned upon in a way that a person who admits to moderate drinking is not. 

And so, this line-drawing is something organizations and societies do as well as individuals. In my experience it is as common among Christians as it is among those of other faiths, and the irreligious.  I think it would be fair to say that it is human nature.  I see it as an action of that thing we call conscience, that internal judge which compares our, words, and deeds, and even our thoughts, with the law written on our hearts, and which seeks either to excuse or condemn us.  Our hearts tell us some things are right and some wrong.  When we are at our best we draw our lines as our conscience dictates and respect those lines.  When society operates well, it draws its lines reasonably and people honor them.  But sometimes we find that something so desirable stands on the other side of that line that we feel we must cross it. And when we do we must deal with that voice of conscience. We will shout down, or sweet-talk, or whatever it takes to get it's permission. We reason with it, explaining why it really isn't so bad. We negotiate with it, promising it'll be just this once. We tell ourselves we deserve that thing, remembering how hard we've  worked and how good we've been. We look at what others are doing, explaining that it's normal and safe, or else point out how much worse others are, how far they've gone compared to what we're contemplating. Then we draw our new line.  We feel better. We still have a line; it's a new one; it's out a bit farther than the old one, but not as far out as it could be. And this is where having others to compare ourselves to comes in so handy.  As long as there are others "worse" than us, we can still feel okay about ourselves. Judging others serves us. It bumps us up a notch in our own esteem. We are okay. We're not like them. They've gone way past the line.  Maybe we can even reach out and help them and feel even better about ourselves (maybe even on national television).

I believe that this drawing and re-drawing of lines to suit our own preferred moralities at any given place and time is what Christ is referring to when He says, "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you." (Mt. 7:1-2) and when Paul says, "...you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things." (Rom.2:1) Every time we draw a line, for whoever, and for whatever reason (pride, fear, superiority, control, guilt), in the shifting sands of our hearts we become subject  to it.  And each time circumstances - good or bad - or temptations lead us to step over a line we've drawn our conscience is damaged. We can try to erase the old line and forget, but one new line drawn leads to another until the scars of them toughen leaving our hearts hard and bitter, our minds too dull to notice, and our recollection foggy as to how we got this way. And we become the joke Jesus told about a man with a log stuck in his eye offering to pull a speck out of his friend's eye,

So what are we to do?  How can we prevent the amorphous hypocrisy of the moveable feast if we don't draw some lines, and how are we to know we've drawn the right lines in the right places?   Anarchy, whether in a society or in an individual heart, is a great horror.  We all know, deep down, that without some boundaries we'll run amock. So we instinctively put up our barriers, some trivial and some with the power of life an death. We draw our lines here and there, to keep our world, even in the tiniest ways from sinking further into the intolerable, into ever-longer toenails, into more and more make-up, into more and more alcohol consumption, into a tackier, uglier, meaner, more vulgar, violent, and uncertain world. We reach into our own hearts and look around us for help, for indicators as to where to draw the lines. There are a world of messages, all mixed.  In one place we are told to "follow your heart", and in another that if you follow your heart you'll land yourself in a hospital or in jail, and in another that you'll answer to God's judgment.

Which brings me around to the Bible. As a Christian, I've been told all my life that the Bible is the place to go to learn from God how and where to draw your lines, and that if everyone would just learn God's laws and obey them we would have peace and blessing.  In fact, it feels like lately I've been hearing more of this kind of talk than ever.  "If only we could get America to enact and enforce God's laws He would bless us and we could get out of the mess we're in."  (By "God's Law" folks usually have in mind some modified use of the Mosaic Law.) As a Christian, letting God draw the lines sounds at first like a good idea, but when I think it through I run into a huge problem. God's law is far more exacting and detailed than the law written on the average heart.  Even the Apostle Paul admits that he would never have known coveting was a sin if the Mosaic Law had not told him.  And then there are the Jews to consider.  They were a nation which had God's Law, and consider what the Apostle Paul has to say about that:
"...Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
'None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.  Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. Their is no fear of God before their eyes.'
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that ever mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." (Rom. 3: 9-20 emphasis mine) 
If no single human being can be found just in the eyes of God through the keeping of the law, then no nation can either.  God's law was not given to keep people from facing God's judgment.  On the contrary, the law, whether it be the Mosaic Law or the one written in our hearts serves to reveal our sin, and to hold us all accountable.

Sin is the great equalizer. We are each wretched in our own way.  This is why there is no true hope or comfort to be found in judging others or measuring ourselves against them. But this need not be the bleak and hopeless observation it sounds like. Rather, it is the first baby-step toward true freedom and hope. We don't need to look to each other any more, either to judge or to compare. We don't need to labor any more to observe God's law in hopes of saving ourselves. Once we've reached this understanding, God's law has done it's work: it has pointed us to Christ.
"But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it - the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith." Rom. 3:21-25
We are all in the same boat. We are all sinners. None of us live our lives purely to the glory of God, in whose image we are created.  Few of us really even try. I am not better because I don't have wigs, or don't stuff my bra, or don't grow long toenails. I'm really not. Those people whose behavior I find extreme are not worse sinners than I am (especially not when I'm sitting in judgment over them).  I suspect that if Christ walked onto the set of Tyra's show, toenails would be the least of His concerns, and everyone else's. Christ doesn't look at outward appearances. Faced with the God who can look straight into our hearts and see all the lines we've crossed there, toenails fade in significance. Gazing into the face of  Christ I, too, can look past toenails, make-up, bras, plastic surgeries, crass behaviors, alternative life-styles, and more to see hearts just like mine, hearts that don't need new lines drawn but do need a Savior just like mine.

"Blessed are those whose lawless
deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom
the Lord will not count his sin." 
(Rom. 4:7-8)

Thank God Christ came to save sinners, because we are all sinners!


Betsy Markman said…
So much wisdom here!
Great stuff, thank you Laurie i can assure you the sweat of your pen is not in vain ! The essence here being your observation, 'God's law is far more exacting and detailed than the law written on the average heart.'

The most worrying thing is that some people really do not possess a conscience anymore whatsoever, the innate moral law written in their hearts seems to be utterly dead.

Once more I have to state that to such people telling them that Jesus died for their sins means next to nothing to them and even alienates them from Christ's message of love. This over-emphasis upon Christ dying for our sins completely distorts Christ's message. His Miracles and Parables are all effectively swept away by this one repetitive mantra 'He died for your sins', yet if Christianity is to survive and mean anything in the modern world a greater stress MUST be placed upon His miracles and the teachings of His parables, understanding of these will bring far more sinners back to love of God than brow-beating on guilt and sin. For myself I acknowledge that Christ died primarily for all of Humanity's collective sins, past and future, as well as, but not exclusively, mine.

For our modern age dare I suggest that Christ's feeding of the 5000 is the miracle which will have a greater resonance in the future.

Once again I recommend strongly Rob Bell's 'Velvet Elvis'.
Lennie said…
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Laurie M. said…
Ah Kevin,

You always leave me with some new thing to chew on! Thanks, as always. You've got me wanting now to contemplate and to write about the feeding of the 5000. I've had it in the back of my mind to blog my way through one of the Gospels some day. Perhaps I will.

Now, as for consciences, one of the points I was making, which clearly could have used some sharpening, is that in the very act of judging/comparing ourselves with others, we are revealing the existence of a functioning conscience. It may be quite defective, dull, distorted, deluded, and/or limited, but when you turn it's key, the engine still turns over. People, still get outraged when they read the news, or when some injustice is committed against them. This outrage and sense of injustice has its root in conscience. I think this is a part of what Paul means when he says the heathen are a "law unto themselves", and what Jesus is getting at when he talks about being judged by the measure with which we judge.

The truth of the matter is we all judge. The even sadder truth is that none of us succeed in living true even to our own meager tenets. Thus the existence of that ubiquitous sin of hypocrisy. No matter what ideology a person names, religious or secular, within it will be found hypocrisy. And wherever you find hypocrisy you find consciences blind to its existence - blind due to eyes squeezed tightly shut.
So true, Laurie, agreed hypocrisy often coupled with bottomless self-deception of all,me included !

Skip reading Bell and try Browne's 'Christian Morals' an advisio written in his old age for his grown-up children, some sage observations upon judgement, conscience, hypocrisy and self-deception there. I cannot resist these -

Affection should not be too sharp-eyed, and Love should not be made by magnifying Glasses.

weigh not thyself in the scales of thy own opinion.

But best of all linking self-assessment and the Day of judgement.

Mean while there is no darkness unto Conscience, which can see without Light, and in the deepest obscurity give a clear Draught of things, which the Cloud of dissimulation hath conceal'd from all eyes. There is a natural standing Court within us, examining, acquitting, and condemning at the Tribunal of our selves, wherein iniquities have their natural Theta's, and no nocent is absolved by the verdict of himself. And therefore although our transgressions shall be tryed at the last bar, the process need not be long: for the Judge of all knoweth all, and every Man will nakedly know himself. And when so few are like to plead not Guilty, the Assize must soon have an end.
Hmmm, re-reading you I have to momentarily remind myself which Paul exactly you are quoting !
TulipGirl said…
Thank you, Laurie. . .
John Child said…
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