I recall a song my mother often sang when I was a child. The chorus urged, "Just keep along the middle, keep along the middle, keep along the middle of the King's highway." As an adult, I realize how vital that admonition was.
In all of life, finding and walking in the middle of God's pathway prevents the risks of extremism on both sides of the road. On one hand, excessive permissiveness leads to anarchy without the safety of wisely planted boundaries. On the other extreme, rigidity becomes deadly legalism with its spiritual condemnation and torture.
My grandfather was a Wesleyan Methodist evangelist, a circuit rider on the plains of Kansas in the 1880s and 90s. It is alleged that he was known for his "fire and brimstone" sermons that terrified the ranchers into coming to Christ. My mother, strongly influenced by her powerful father, developed her own belief that God was a frightening figure, waiting to pour out His judgment in wrath.
She raised her seven children, therefore, in a rigidly legalistic way. Her strictness extended to our mode of dress, our household chores, and our conversation. I vividly recall feeling that I was never good enough. From the way I dusted the furniture to the way I stood or sat, I was wrong.
It is this level of judgment and demand for perfect performance that defeats victorious Christian living and deters people from wanting to follow Jesus. It is based on fear and a profound misinterpretation of the gospel. When our work for God and our walk on His highway demands this absolute legalistic perfection, we become humanistic and lose the glorious truth that our salvation is truly by His grace (Romans 3:24).
Remember that giving up all self-discipline, offing all rules, and living as our human nature may impulsively desire, is even more dangerous. A friend of mine fell into exactly this mode of reasoning. John 8:36 reads, "if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." Using this incredibly meaningful promise as her text, my friend decided she was free to drink alcohol as much as she wanted. She became and remains a serious alcoholic.
The bonds of rigid thinking can create a powerful belief that one is absolutely right. The way one interprets God's Word may or may not be the way He intended us to understand it. But Christians in all ages have fallen into this trap of self-righteousness. This so often leads to wounding other believers and deluding one's self.
As a psychiatrist, I fight this concept of "wanting to be right" in many therapy sessions. Let me provide a personal example. I love the classic old hymns and gospel songs of the church. Their musical harmony and profound spiritual truth inspire me as nothing else can. However, my church has almost totally replaced them with choruses. Younger people, including my own family, love these praise choruses and are drawn to church because of them. It is taking heroic willpower, but I have decided to give up my preferences for the good of the most people. If this were a truly moral issue, defying a clear command of Christ, I, of course, ought not to give in.
Just how, then, can all of us determine the issues God wants to make clear and to maintain? And what are the non-essentials based on personal convictions and ancient church edicts rather than God's Word?
The most vital step is to know the Bible in its entirety. Recently I read the simple words of Jesus in a red-letter New Testament. There were about thirty clear and positive commands such as worship, preach, heal, love, do good, pray, give, be humble, and forgive. There were only two "don'ts"—don't be afraid and don't put God to a foolish test. I urge you to study His words yourself!
No decision about morality and interpreting the Bible is safe when it is made at the human level. We are all vulnerable to deception. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit is available to us. John 16:13 states, "when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth."
It is vital that we never speak for the Holy Spirit. I worry a bit when I hear someone say, "God told me . . ." While God does speak to people and we do need to listen, we need to be careful that what we hear is truly of Him, and not from our own subconscious desires. Our Heavenly Father will reveal the same truth about any issue to all those involved. I urge you to keep your heart filled with the Spirit and your mind open to His truth, not your own beliefs.
I marvel at God's courage in making humankind, and I can't begin to understand why He gave us the power to choose. From Adam and Eve on, we have royally messed up our lives and our world through bad decisions. But the exciting and incredible fact is that the Holy Spirit will indeed guide us to His truth.
Ask yourself, "Am I using my power to choose to create anarchy, or dictatorship, or to find the middle of the King's highway?" Or "Am I willing to give up being right in my own eyes in order to help solve problems and promote the building of God's Kingdom and His righteousness, not my historic legalism?"
If believers will explore a middle ground, balanced walk with Christ, there's no telling how God will bless our relationships and lives!
Grace H. Ketterman is a child and family psychiatrist in Kansas City, the author of 20 books, a mother and grandmother, and a frequent speaker on family concerns.