Dealing With the Gray Issues
By Doug Clay
Jan. 13, 2013
The apostle Paul had two great desires in life: He wanted to make his life count for God, and he wanted to help others do the same thing. One of the reasons Paul left such an indelible mark on the Church is he had a proper set of convictions he lived by. Whether Paul was in prison, or involved in church planting, or mentoring another minister, he lived by his convictions.
As I look at how the Church continues to develop in our culture, I believe Christians need to identify convictions they will hold to no matter what. And that brings us to those areas of life we might define as “gray issues.”
The Bible is very clear on matters of sin. The Ten Commandments are not ambiguous. The Bible clearly identifies destructive works of the flesh. Scripture is really clear about a host of personal practices that are displeasing to God, and destructive to us and to those around us.
But what about the “gray stuff,” the things the Bible does not address directly? I’ve discovered it is not always the biblical absolutes that trip people up. Rather, the inability to handle the gray issues of life puts them on a path to ruin.
But the Bible does give us guidelines on dealing with gray issues it may not address with a specific prohibition. First Corinthians 8:1-13 offers a plan of action for such situations, with a focus on the first-century Christians’ struggle to address dietary guidelines if the food they purchased had been offered to idols.
Paul explained to the Corinthians it was one thing to have the knowledge that food offered to powerless idols was harmless. But it was another thing entirely to exercise love toward others with a weaker conscience who might be offended if a believer ate certain foods. Based on that central idea, let me offer some key guidelines — posed as self-searching questions — for today’s believer who is grappling with a gray issue.
Let me say up front that asking these questions will not make you a legalist. Your freedom in Christ is not compromised in any way, and the grace that has set you free is not diminished in the least, when your motivation in asking these questions is to accomplish all that God has for you. If a limitation in one area of life will expand your potential for effective service in the Kingdom, is it really a limitation?
Please consider each of these questions with me and connect it with whatever gray issue you have encountered.
Is it spiritually profitable?
In 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul contrasted his freedom to do something with his refusal to let anything become his master. We need to ask if our freedom to do something will hinder us in any way, or if it will promote godliness.
Just because something is not necessarily wrong does not mean it is automatically good for you. Sleep is not wrong. But not enough sleep, or too much sleep, is destructive.
If you look at something and ask yourself if you can get away with it, you’re already on the wrong track. It is always better to ask, “Will this benefit me?” Does that practice make you a better “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus” as Paul said in Ephesians 2:10 (KJV)? Looking at that same verse, will the thing you are questioning help you to carry out the good deeds God has prepared in advance for you to do?
Is it personally beneficial?
This is close to the first question, but this question brings it home to the real good your decisions should bring about. In this context, we ought to ask, “Does it have the potential to slow me down?” After all, Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:24,25 that we’re in a race. If I’m running to win this race, I need to ask if any of my decisions will slow my progress or even prevent me from winning.
The writer of Hebrews backed up this thought in Hebrews 12:1.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us” (NLT).
When you encounter a decision that involves a gray area in life, ask yourself if your choice will give way to “the sin that so easily trips us up,” or if it will help you to “run with endurance the race God has set before us.”
Notice the reference to “every weight that slows us down.” That really speaks to any form of needless bulk in our lives. These are things that divert our priorities, that keep us from fulfilling God’s divine purposes for our lives.
You may have to identify some areas in your life to trim back or eliminate. They may not be wrong in themselves, but they could be compromising your effectiveness for the Kingdom.
Will it hypocritically cover up my sin?
Peter said in 1 Peter 2:16, “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God” (NIV).
I’ve heard some Christians talk about their freedom to do certain things. They feel free to go to particular social events, watch certain television shows or movies, or pursue certain kinds of recreation. They play the “free” card, and yet all the while they are covering up their own lust or covetousness or some other ungodly characteristic.
Paul echoed Peter in Galatians 5:13 when he warned believers not to “use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” People who fail to address gray areas in their lives, and who use freedom to cross a line, will eventually pay a high price for covering up their sin.
Will it violate the lordship of Christ in my life?
Paul wrote in Romans 14:1, “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” Paul went on to apply this concept to the arguments in his day concerning clean and unclean food. And a fundamental, timeless principle emerged. Paul connected each Christian’s eating habits with his or her service to Christ.
Every Christian should live in submission to the lordship of Christ. But not all of us agree 100 percent on what the Lord would have us to do. People sense the lordship of Christ in different ways. As a result, individual choices may vary somewhat. But the key is to be sensitive to your conscience and to keep Christ in focus at all times.
If you will follow two basic practices, it will go a long way toward developing your understanding of the lordship of Christ in your life. First, read God’s Word regularly and study it deeply. Second, stay filled with the Holy Spirit. The interaction of the Holy Spirit with the truths of God’s Word in your life will leave very few questions when it comes to what Jesus Christ wants to see happen in you and through you.
Is it a positive example for others?
It’s tricky, but all of us must govern our lives according to the impact we will have on others. Paul said to the Corinthians, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9).
The power of personal example is huge. We should constantly ask ourselves if our example is helping or hurting other people. Is our attitude toward a waitress or a cashier helping that person understand the love of Christ, or hurting the cause of Christ?
Each of us should strive to be a healthy example. Be a healthy example of spirituality. Be a healthy example of humility. Be a healthy example of integrity. Be a healthy example of handling criticism.
Will it lead others to Christ?
Sometimes the choice you are making leads to something that is clearly good, but could have an unintended consequence of holding back another person from Christ. Paul wrote to the Roman believers, “Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil” (14:16).
Would Jesus do it?
That may sound old school, but it is a very good question. John wrote in 1 John 2:6, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.”
Yes … Yes … No … No … Yes … Yes … Yes
If you can offer that sequence of answers to the above seven questions, your “gray issues” will resolve into clear life direction. Your public reputation, your personal character, your testimony within the body of Christ — these are the identities at risk when you fail to correctly deal with gray issues. These same identities can be wonderfully enhanced when you seek out God’s direction and live purposefully for Him.
DOUG CLAY is general treasurer of the Assemblies of God.
Email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.