Great things apparently, have happened while people were stuck in quarantine. For instance, Shakespeare likely wrote “King Lear” in quarantine. Isaac Newton, during the Great Plague of London in 1665, isolated himself and got to work developing calculus, analyzing light and color, studying gravity and, in his spare time, started developing his laws of motion (all in the same year!). Victor Hugo chose to escape Napoléon’s grasp by exiling himself in Jersey and, while he was there, wrote Les Misérables. During a cholera epidemic, Mary Shelley and her husband escaped to the countryside where they passed their time telling scary stories until Shelley figured out that the scariest story had yet to be written (she fixed that). And it was in seclusion that Edward Munch painted, “The Scream” (fact: while you may think “The Scream” is a painting of a man screaming, it is actually a man hearing a ghastly scream and responding in horror). And me, this quarantine (my first), I’ve mastered eating popcorn quietly so I wouldn’t miss any of the lines in Hamilton.
What are you mastering these days?
Paul in 1 Corinthians 6, is talking about our rights as Christ followers. While he agrees in theory with the Corinthian slogan that “Everything is permissible,” he wants to make a few disclaimers (his whole argument is set in a “yes, but” format). He started off by saying, “yes, we are free in Christ, but not everything we are allowed to do is beneficial for the people in our lives. Hence, the law of love prohibits us from doing it. Think of his argument this way. Yes, I am free to ride the spinning-Round-Up-centrifugal-force ride at the local amusement park; but I know that If I do, I will toss my lunch, breakfast and last night’s dinner. This is not merely possible. It is guaranteed as soon as the ride starts spinning. Yes, I can ride it, but the law of love for my neighbors on both sides of me, says I should not. Paul says, before you start promoting your rights, think about the people who may get splattered and then, for the good of all, don’t do it.
But Paul is not nearly done. In verse 12b of the NIV, he reiterates the slogan, “I have the right to do anything.” (Other versions have translated it “All things are lawful for me,” but I learned it years ago as, “Everything is permissible”). In any case, Paul then adds a new caveat, “but I will not be mastered by anything.” Paul’s question here is rather straightforward: “Does what you want to do have the potential to control you?” If participation in this act has the power to sway and/or enslave you, Paul would urge us to walk away. While Paul’s first point asks how our actions affect others, this one asks how our actions affect us.
Now, this question is quite easy to apply in many areas. There are things out there that can’t wait to enslave us! Drugs come to mind, as does alcohol, lust and gambling and so forth (feel free to fill in your favorite 12-step support group’s name here). Now, Paul is rather adamant about this. If what we are doing has the potential to gain mastery over us (the very definition of an addiction), then we should not participate. Paul says this more directly in Ephesians 5 (18): “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead be filled with the Spirit.” In Paul’s thinking there should only be one master who controls us and that is the Spirit, which is why we should say no to drugs, alcoholism, sex addictions and excessive gambling. That all makes sense. But what about the exercise of our rights? I’ve checked. There is no “I’ve got my rights” support group. But if the outcry of people demanding their rights (their right not to wear a mask, their right not to keep socially distant, their right to do anything, say anything, wear anything they want, etc.) doesn’t strongly indicate we are addicted to “having our rights,” I don’t know what would. And I wonder, just like money is not the root of all evil, but rather it’s the love of money, so also here. Our rights are not bad, but I think Paul would say our love of our rights is.
But maybe, it is more insidious than that. What does “demanding our rights” give us that makes doing so, so addictive? I wonder if it is a matter of power and control. When I have my rights, I am not powerless. Not only that, but my rights give me some measure of control over my life. We also believe our rights give us freedom to do what we want (a life without any restraints! Halleluiah!). I think we would also say that our rights make us significant and important (“I am not a number. I am a free man!”). And we feel that our rights protect us.
Now, if I were to ask an ancient Israelite what worshipping idols did for them, their answers would be eerily similar. Think about it. Idols promised control over a chaotic world. They gave the worshippers power. They could do something to ensure a good prognosis of the future. Sacrificing an offering to an idol also removed that sense of dread that came with being powerless since now the worshipper was active, not passive. And idols provided freedom. An example will help here. It would be extremely scary to venture forth on a journey, and people were averse to do so, without first making offerings to their gods to secure their promise to go with them and to bless them on the way. In fact, it would be foolhardy not to start any venture without first attending to your gods to obtain their favor. But once you purchased the blessings of your gods, you could go forth in peace, in confidence, in anticipation of good things. In short, you purchased freedom so that you could go without fear. And worshipping idols protected you from harm.
The worship of idols promised all of that and more. And in a world that was as scary as the ancient world was, idols brought hope. But here’s the thing. Once you started down the path of idolatry, it was hard to get off. Why? Because idols are addictive. There’s a powerful and graphic passage in Jeremiah 2 where the prophet castigated the people for both their idolatry and their denials of that idolatry. He cries out (Jer. 2:23-25): “How can you (Israel) say, ‘I am not defiled; I have not run after the Baals’? See how you behaved in the valley; consider what you have done. You are a swift she-camel running here and there, a wild donkey accustomed to the desert, sniffing the wind in her craving—in her heat who can restrain her? Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves; at mating time they will find her. Do not run until your feet are bare and your throat is dry. But you said, ‘It’s no use! I love foreign gods, and I must go after them.’” Underline that last line: “It’s no use! I love foreign gods, and I must go after them.” The very essence of idolatry is in that line as is the very essence of addiction.
And that brings us back to our rights. Paul says, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be enslaved by anything.” When we first read it, this last statement seemed so irrelevant to our conversation, but now it seems to be a death knell. When we demand our rights and disregard the law of love for our neighbor, when we refuse to put aside our rights and instead feel compelled to go after them, then the use of our rights have become an idol; and idols enslave. We think they are the path to freedom; but instead, they become our masters.
Paul says, “but I will not be mastered by anything.” I fear I am mastered by too many things; but now before I act, I have a new question to ask: “Does this have the potential to turn into an idol for me?” If the answer is yes, I either need to stop right there or proceed with extreme caution because we all know it is so easy to slip into idolatry. But you object, saying, “To think through all of this every day is just so hard!” You’re absolutely right; but if there is one thing I’ve mastered in these strange days, it is to quote from Hamilton: “Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.”