Of Man or of God? Finding the Edge

SONY DSC“Of man or of God?” I ask myself that question a lot.

It comes from a story in the book of Acts, Chapter 5. Peter and other apostles are brought before the Sanhedrin for defying their orders not to preach the gospel. The council leaders are enraged and want to execute the apostles, but Gamaliel, “a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people,” intervenes. Gamaliel calls for a short recess and advises the council, “So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” The Sanhedrin are said to take his advice, but perhaps only halfheartedly since they beat the apostles before releasing them.

As I follow Jesus and grow emotionally and spiritually, Gamaliel’s counsel to the Sanhedrin has stuck with me as a method of discernment. Life is complicated, and everyone is trying to sell you something – an idea, a product, an activity, a lifestyle, or an ideology. How am I to tell which things are good for me and which are harmful? Asking, “is this of man or of God?” has helped me here.

In practice, it’s not always so simple. The created world, proclaimed by God to be very good, has been corrupted by sin, and so the good things of God are diverted by men to further their own aims. For example, the gospel of Jesus Christ is of God, but the “prosperity gospel” is of man. Material blessings are of God, but materialism and consumerism are of man. We humans have a propensity to turn the gifts of God into our new gods. Idolatry-R-Us. It’s just what we do.

In the healthcare field where I work, new treatments are certainly great gifts from heaven. Many people who would have died of illness in earlier generations are alive and well today because of advances in immunization, surgery, antibiotics and other therapies. But again we take things too far. Patients look for healthcare to solve their emotional and spiritual problems. Providers of all sorts sell healthcare solutions that don’t actually help people (or at least help as much as advertised), and many with large financial interests in healthcare act to further their own interests.

Seeing things this way, I’m beginning to look for the “edges” between the “of God” and the “of man” in the world. Where is the end of the gift and the beginning of the sin? Not that there are many clear edges, but this method of inquiry seems to be helping me. Discipleship does mean limiting my behaviors compared to what the rest of the world may be doing. There are lines I should not cross and edges from which I should stand back.

It’s not always easy of course. One issue that I am noticing is that, in general, the things of God do not seem to be associated with large amounts of money and that the things of man are where big profits are made. The Bible preaching church has a tight budget while the prosperity gospel mega-church rakes in mega-millions. Legitimate self-help books sell poorly while Fifty Shades of Grey is an overnight sensation. Chips and dip are more profitable than vegetables. When is the last time you saw TV ads for carrots, broccoli and tap water?

As an American, this is an uncomfortable idea. Surely money is a blessing from the Lord!  Yes it is, right up until we make it an idol. Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs believes he is doing God’s work as a banker. Maybe, maybe not. It’s not for me to decide anything about Mr. Blankfein. What is for me to decide is my own situation – am I doing God’s work, or am I doing my work? Is my work of God or of me? Where is the edge? Am I over the line?

These are hard questions, and yes, I am probably over the line all the time. How could I not be? I’m a sinful person like the rest of humanity, but, as a disciple of Jesus, I am not a slave to sin. The Holy Sprit frees me to have a different orientation.  My eyes are open.  I can look for the line. I can try to stay back from the edge. And when I fall over it, Jesus has already caught me.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.    1 John 1:8-9