Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV), which causes chicken pox, also causes shingles. Even though my mother had chicken pox as a child, she once experienced a very severe case of shingles as an adult. Knowing her immune system was weak in the face of VZV, she avoided me as much as possible. My father, on the other hand, has an incredibly strong immune system. While my mother ran for cover every time I entered the room, my father sat, undisturbed. The possibility that I might be infected with VZV did not cause him any worry whatsoever. Reflecting upon this situation, I am reminded of a passage from the Book of Romans:
Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. (Romans 14:1-4, Emphasis mine.)
How does this relate to my unidentified illness? I'll give you an illustration. Let's suppose that every time I walked into a room, my mother wore a surgical mask and sprayed disinfectant on everything I touched. Then imagine my mother looking down her nose at my dad because he isn't as health-conscious as she is! Of course, this would be unreasonable of my mother, because my father has no reason to care about being exposed to my germs. It's not because he's stupid, careless, or even attracted to the idea of getting sick. No, the reason my father doesn't care about being exposed to my germs is because he knows VZV does not pose a problem for him personally. My father can handle my germs because his immune system is strong. My mom, in spite of all her pious displays of good hygiene, would only be performing these silly rituals for one reason and one reason alone: her immune system is weak.
The chicken pox scenario in my family is a lot like the way we behave when we are being legalistic, isn't it? When we judge others, it gives us the illusion that our faith is strong. We think, "Oh look at that one wearing makeup, or cutting her hair short, or having a career, or sending her children to public school or feeding high fructose corn syrup to her family or (insert your favorite example here)!" We shake our heads in false pity and feel sorry for this "carnal" sister. After all, her faith is weak. She is easily lured by the ways of the world. You and I, on the other hand, choose to stay far, far away from those things. This is because we have the strength to resist them, right? Wrong.
Look carefully at that passage again. Who in the passage is described as being weak? Is it the one who eats meat sacrificed to idols? On the contrary, the one who is weak is the one who abstains. I'll give you a personal example. Geraldine is on Facebook, and I am not. There have been times in the past when I have openly denounced Facebook with such a passion that I have caused Geraldine (and others, I'm sure) to feel conflicted about it. On the surface, I appear to be the strong one. After all, I'm the one with conviction, right? Geraldine, who experiences doubt about her choices from time to time (thanks to me and my strong convictions) appears weak in her faith. But look carefully at that passage again. Who in the passage is described being as weak? Is it the one who eats meat sacrificed to idols? On the contrary, the one who is weak is the one who abstains. Why is this so? Because the one who abstains is the one who struggles with something that isn't necessarily unclean! (Romans 14:14,20).
I could argue that Geraldine is weak in her faith because she doesn't have the strength to resist Facebook. But in reality, I am weak in my faith because I don't have the strength to use Facebook without encountering a problem. Facebook to me is like the Varicella Zoster Virus. I know that if I am exposed to it, I will stumble into all kinds of sin. Geraldine is not prone to the same sins I am. She can openly be exposed to Facebook and not get sick. Therefore, Geraldine is the stronger of the two of us. And as a result, she has the freedom to enjoy all the fun that comes with having a Facebook account. I do not have this same liberty. Sure, I miss out on the fun, but I compensate for this by telling myself that I am just a lot more holy than all the people who use Facebook. (Do you see how this works? The flesh is clever, isn't it?)
Readers, do you see how deceptive legalism can be? Not only are we imposing rules upon people who do not need them, we are robbing people of the joy that God has freely given them to experience. It is wrong for us to rob others of the joy that comes with seeing a movie or singing a pop song on the radio or wearing the latest fashion, simply because it poses a problem for us personally. It would be like my mother requiring all of you to wear a surgical mask in my presence when being in my presence is not a danger to you to begin with.
At the same time, we are not to flaunt our liberty in the face of the weaker brother. Romans 14 warns the strong Christian to protect the weak one. In other words, if Geraldine were to brag about how much fun Facebook is, and how much joy I am missing out on, and check her Facebook account right in front of me, that would cause me to stumble and it would be sin on her part. But Romans 14 also acknowledges that an equal problem arises when the weak Christian looks down on the strong Christian for the very liberty God has given her to enjoy.
How many of us have deceived ourselves into thinking we were the stronger Christian? We set up unreasonable rules for people to follow, and anyone who doesn't abide by these rules we label "weak." Could this be you? I've heard it said that the number one sign that we are trapped in legalism is that our joy is gone. Consider the possibility that the years we've spent looking down on others for not homeschooling, or having a career, or wearing jewelry -- or whatever -- were not years spent in pious devotion to holy living. The time we spent pitying those "carnal" Christians trapped in bondage to worldly pursuits were actually years we spent in bondage to our own weaknesses. In a similar fashion, some of us have spent years of our lives under the thumb of these legalistic rules because they were being enforced by someone weaker, who appeared to us to be stronger. Well, appearances can be deceiving!
Remember, God has commanded us: "Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats" (Romans 14:3). In essential things, unity. In nonessential things, liberty. In all things, charity. Let's ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the viruses in our lives, so we can be free of the legalism imposed upon us by others, and in turn free others from the legalism we have imposed upon them.