In the first installment of this three-part series, Pastor Aaron Ritter explains that our questions about the “morality” of substances such as marijuana don’t go deep enough. Read part two here and part three here.
Now that it’s legal for recreational use in Colorado, is it still wrong for Christians to use marijuana?
What if state and federal laws conflict? Who gets to decide? Is it a matter of conscience that’s up to the individual?
As laws change, so do our questions. But even though this particular question is a relatively new and trendy one, it’s part of a family of questions that's pretty timeless — questions about the interplay between man’s law and God’s law, and between freedom and conscience.
Today, we live in a culture obsessed with defining the limits of our freedom. Tell me exactly what I can and can't do, and if there's something that can be moved from one column to the other, I want to hear about it.
As Christians, we know that the Bible sets certain boundaries, but it's also true that there are lots of contemporary issues that the Bible just doesn't address directly. Each generation has its own issues that previous generations never had to deal with, and apparently the writers of the Bible weren't deeply concerned about the pros and cons of smoking weed.
But that can actually be challenging for those of us trying to apply the Bible to our current circumstances. The Bible was completed 2,000 years ago, but culture and cultural mores are always in constant flux. So, how do the teachings of the Bible apply to these very contemporary questions? And how does God’s law, written so long ago, relate to state and federal laws, which addresses issues that matter now?
When we look for clues within the Bible itself, we quickly notice there are there are two distinct sections of the Bible and they seem to approach law in very different ways. The Old Testament laid out very detailed and specific instruction for relevant, everyday issues. If written today, it probably would have given us a word or two on marijuana. The New Testament, on the other hand, seems relatively uninterested in such questions. In fact, the New Testament is frustratingly non-practical. Couldn't we at least have gotten another paragraph or two more on how to raise children?
Now, if the New Testament doesn't speak directly to the current issues we wrestle with, does that mean that God is rather unconcerned with these types of things? Does God's apparent silence indicate that his main interests are in freedom and grace, and, therefore these kinds of decisions are left to personal preference? These and other questions are upstream from the marijuana question.
Where Is My Motivation?
But when we ask about the appropriateness of using marijuana, we betray what I think is a misguided, although very common, approach to decision-making. If the main criterion we use to answer questions like this is about what's allowable, then I think we've missed the thrust of the New Testament.
The New Testament seems so unconcerned with specific boundaries because usually such boundaries are downstream from bigger ideas. God wanted us to own the central, unifying principles, knowing that once the main idea is in place, the particulars naturally fall into place underneath it. Usually, when we find ourselves preoccupied with specific questions of right and wrong, it means we’ve lost sight of the ultimate goal. When that happens, experience and pleasure take the driver’s seat and life becomes about pushing the boundaries of freedom right up to the line without crossing over it. Just tell me what I can't do so I can go ahead and do everything else.
But when seeking the kingdom of God becomes my goal, there are certain practices that just don’t make sense. They might be permissible, but they don’t really fit into my game plan. The key verse that comes to mind is 1 Corinthians 6:12:
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.
The main question is not about what’s allowable, but what’s helpful. The olympic athlete can eat a box of donuts each morning, but it’s not going to help him achieve his goals. So it is with the Christian. Rather than being concerned about what’s permissible, we should work to make decisions based on how the value of a particular practice contributes to the pursuit of God and his Kingdom.
At this point, the discussion broadens. We’re no longer just asking about the permissibility of marijuana. Now we’re asking about how marijuana plays into the overarching objectives of life. And this moves the conversation away from simple right and wrong and toward goals and motivations. Why do people use marijuana? Or for that matter, why do people smoke cigarettes? Why do people chew tobacco? Why do people view pornography? Why do people gamble? These things are not necessarily illegal, but they can all exercise such powerful control over us that they can often be considered to be addictive.
But why are they addictive and why do potentially addictive substances or experiences challenge our consciences so much? And why do we long for someone to tell us plainly if it’s right or wrong to use them?
The answers to these questions move us into exploring the nature of addiction, which we’ll cover in the next part of this series.