Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could,
they didn't stop to think if they should.
Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park
I love using material from unlikely sources. And while you might be expecting a Bible quotation to provide the jumping-off place for our devotional, today we will use a line from the 1993 film version of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Why not?
In the movie (and in the book), these are words spoken by Dr. Ian Malcolm, a gifted mathematician who specializes in chaos theory. As he surveys the destruction (and, yes, the chaos) caused by the genetically reconstituted dinosaurs, he reflects on what the scientists have done - and he suggests insightfully that those scientists never considered whether they should have done what they were able to do.
It's a great quote. And this great quote gives rise to some great questions.
How do we decide how to act? How do we decide what to do? How do we know what is right and what is wrong? Should we focus on what we are able to do, what we can do, what we are free to do - or should we stop to consider what we should do?
I cannot imagine more timely questions for today!
Long ago, the Apostle Paul addressed this very concern. In two places in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul talked about the things that were permissible. (See 1 Corinthians 6:12 ff. and 1 Corinthians 10:23 ff.) Something that was permissible was something that was allowed; it was permitted. But Paul refined that category by quickly adding some additional considerations. He explained that even permissible actions were not always beneficial, and he explained that even permissible actions were not always constructive.
Then Paul summarized his point with this important word:
Nobody should seek his own good,
but the good of others.
1 Corinthians 10:24
If I dare to apply Paul's words to my own life, I realize that my behavior should be driven not by what I am allowed to do - but by what is beneficial and constructive. And it could be that I will sometimes choose not to do what I am allowed to do . . . and choose instead to do something that is beneficial, constructive, and for the sake of someone else.
In theory, most of us are probably fine with that.
In practice, not so much.
In fact, human beings are going to struggle mightily with Paul's teaching. And as American Christians, we will probably struggle with it even more!
As Americans, we are obsessed with our rights, our freedoms, our privileges. As Americans, we are schooled from childhood to focus on what we are free to do. As Americans, we are almost genetically predisposed to do what we can do. And we often do what we can do without giving much thought to how our behavior might affect others.
Because that's true, many of us are going to have a hard time with Paul's instructions. What's more, we might also have a hard time following Jesus.
Jesus did not insist on his own rights. Instead, he laid his life down. Jesus did not wait to have his feet washed. Instead, he picked up the towel and basin and took on the role of a servant. Jesus did not cling to his heavenly status. Instead, he emptied himself and he was obedient in every way. He laid down his rights and he went to the cross.
That same Jesus said, "Come, follow me." And he fully expects those who follow him to live in the same way that he lived.
What that means is that we will not always do what we are permitted to do. Instead, we will do what we should do.
Yes, this will be hard for us.
So what might living that way look like today? Well, a couple of examples come to mind.
It might be my right to ignore the instructions to wear a mask in public places.
But I might decide to wear one
because wearing a mask is beneficial and constructive.
I might wear a mask because it is good for someone else.
It might be my right to go about my business and live my normal life.
But I might decide to stay away from crowds and make a few sacrifices.
I might do that because it is beneficial and constructive.
I might do that because it might be good for someone else.
It might even be my right to carry my weapon into the State Capitol Building.
After all, the law permits that. I am allowed to do that.
But I might decide to leave my weapon at home
because doing that is beneficial and constructive.
It might even be good for someone else.
Claiming our rights and doing what we are free to do might be a defining mark of American citizenship. But doing that is not always Christ-like. And followers of Jesus will decide which standard to obey.
There are so many things that we can do.
But the subset of what we should do is much, much smaller.