Personal Choices, Truth, Evil, and Trust

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What a fascinating time to live! Every day is an adventure, for you can’t predict exactly what you’ll encounter. One of the trends in our time is the emphasis on personal choices. You might recall that I’ve highlighted it in a sermon or two, using the Burger King slogan as an example: “Have it your way.” That’s only one very small example of a tidal trend that has been submerging our whole culture for some time. Choices are everywhere, and the act of making your own choices appears to be one of the most important or even sacred things in our culture.

Here’s another example that illustrates this trend. About 40 years ago, my parents bought a new TV. At around 25″, it seemed huge. We enjoyed it very much with its color and improved sound. I recall coming home from school and watching some TV programming for kids. Usually it was at least two of us watching at the same time. But the best memories involving the TV was when our family gathered around after dinner in the evening once or twice a week to watch some of the family-oriented shows together. We had different favorites, but we often watched them together anyway. We experienced them together. Video technology has come a long way since then. But detail, color, and sound fidelity seem much less important than the emphasis on that sacred treasure of our age: personal choice. Now you can have several people in the same home, at the same time, enjoying only the entertainment they find most satisfying and ignoring the rest — including whatever may interest others. Their ability to choose their own immersive entertainment prevents them from enjoying the experience together. It may even prevent them from sharing other experiences, like meals or other real-life adventures. The extreme ability to “have it your way” and the emphasis on its sacred importance has reduced our opportunities to experience things in common. It may be more pleasant, but is it more healthy?

No wonder the disagreements between people today seem to be more bitter and difficult to solve. We are encouraged to serve ourselves first, last, and at every point between. Those who understand the Christian faith as more than a set of rules or propositions can see that the loss of community in our society and the increased emphasis on personal choice is a challenge for Christian churches. An older example is the person whose taste in music or decor differs from others in a congregation, and decides it would be more pleasant and satisfying to switch to another church rather than to work out those differences with a compromise or mutual growth. The tension between so-called “traditional” and “contemporary” worship practices is a more recent example. In a land where anyone can start a new church, and many have even substituted an online “worship” experience for gathering with other Christians, there is a strong temptation to “have it your way.” Should you seek to please your personal tastes as they exist now, or is it better to grow with others by studying and worshiping together? Deciding you’re “done” trying to keep peace may be more pleasant, but is it healthy? For those who suspect it’s unhealthy to try to grow together, I have a solution that may help. But first, let’s consider what the church is and some weighty ideas that can involve controversy.

A church is a community centered on the gifts of Jesus that we receive together from Him. The clearest example is holy communion, for those who have finished their introductory catechesis. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus comes to us personally so that we can receive the blessings of His real presence together. The same principle exists for everyone in the proclamation of the good news from the pulpit, as well as the readings and prayers, and the absolution (forgiveness) pronounced through the pastor. Everyone present at a service is a full participant and recipient of the gospel, so that even guests are members of the community. From a Christian’s perspective, there are no outsiders, because the gospel is for everyone. (Colossians 3:11) But how does worldly culture encounter this community of the gospel?

The strong emphasis on personal choices in our culture tends to lead people away from absolutes like truth and evil. You may have noticed in the last 10 to 20 years that our society now shies away from terms like that. Some people see them as a problem because they imply that our personal choices or tastes can be right or wrong. These people tend to prefer thinking that each individual has his or her own truth. “If a choice is right for you, then who am I to contradict it?” Those who watched Seinfeld in the 1990’s might recall the bit where the characters referred to some questionable personal choices of others and then immediately added, “not that there’s anything wrong with that!” This comedy phrase has become a sort of creed in our time, maybe even shortened to the statement “nothing is or can be wrong.” The greatest “evil” recognized by present-day secular culture is bigotry. This prejudice originally held that people with different ethnicities or community roots have greater or lesser worth or honor than others. But the growing emphasis on personal choice has now become included, so that anyone who perceives differences in wisdom or moral value between the personal choices of others might be labeled a “bigot.”

Christians who take the Bible seriously as God’s word find themselves in an awkward social position. God is not ambivalent about truth and falsehood. He believes in good and evil, and expects us to follow His lead. Our culture with its addiction to personal choices might like to say that this is abusive and bigoted before even knowing what God says about truth or evil. So according to the worldly culture, the Bible must go and churches must get with the times. This worldly opinion is destructive to the Christian faith, yet even Christians sometimes find it attractive. Since compromise on our personal choices is so important, can we compromise in this area, too? It may seem that more of our friends and neighbors would find our church attractive if we soft-pedaled unpopular absolutes like truth and evil. Besides that, compromise can be a Christian virtue that helps us to keep peace with others.

As soon as I bring up that question, the answer may be clear. Some things can be compromised and others cannot. Being a Christian means accepting and trusting what God says. We struggle in this. But there are certain principles that we must accept in order to honestly consider ourselves Christians, just as there is a certain way of life that Christians are expected to follow. The Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed summarize what is necessary for a Christian to believe, or at least not to contradict. This is all drawn from the Bible, and taught in the Catechism.  Amid all of the choices in a person’s life, confessing the Christian faith by word and action is the most consequential. It implies that we believe in truth, and in the existence of evil. Philipp Melanchthon wrote in the preface of the Apology of the Augburg Confession, “We cannot surrender truth that is so clear and necessary for the church.” This sets us against the worldly spirit that makes a false god out of personal choice. It also unites Christians together in something stronger than our disagreements over taste and preferences, even as it helps us sort through them.

With that in mind, my suggestion for creating a strong and unified community at church is to do everything in light of the gospel. St. Paul writes in Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Our freedom of conscience in Christ creates an environment based upon trust. Here’s one way to put that into practice.

  1. Emphasize God’s amazing forgiveness in Christ, which frees us from condemnation, shame, and punishment.
  2. Recognize your own total need for that forgiveness, allowing you to set aside your own will with humility.
  3. Address fellow Christians as brothers and sisters whom Christ would have you serve and support.
  4. Address all people as objects and recipients of God’s undeserved love, shown even through you.
  5. In line with the Bible’s teaching, strive to support these priorities in yourself and others:
    1. Earthly and eternal safety
    2. Physical, mental, and spiritual health
    3. Ongoing growth and learning
  6. To support health in yourself and others successfully, aim to balance:
    1. Achievement, personal or with a team
    2. Love and respect both shown and received
    3. Times reserved for fun
    4. Times spent as chosen by the individual in reasonable freedom

This approach is not original with me, but summarizes the main points of a presentation I’ve seen. If you like it, you might be interested in seeing the presentation yourself.