[Today’s Christian, Nov/Dec 2004]
Q. The Bible tells us to serve. I have a friend who is having some difficult times. How do I know when to help and when to let God teach her through the circumstances? I have helped in the past, but should I bail her out each time?
I hear a bit of exasperation showing around the edges, Kathy. You’re right that the Bible emphasizes helping others. Jesus told his followers to be “last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35), and not only to our relatives and friends, because “even sinners do the same.” Instead Jesus says, “love your enemies…and lend, expecting nothing in return.” That’s how we imitate the Father, who is “kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish” (Luke 6:32-36).
Your friend may not have reached the point of being ungrateful and selfish, she may only be scatterbrained and irresponsible, but you’re still not sure you should go on tossing her life preservers. You can look at the problem two ways. If the question is, “Should I always be generous?” the answer is yes. No matter how much you pour out God will replenish, and you will grow further into the likeness of the all-generous Father. The saying is trite but true: You can’t out-give God. Testing this premise is one of the joys of Christian life.
But if the question is, “Should I always bail my friend out?” the answer might be no. After all, even the all-generous Father doesn’t give us everything we ask for. He gives us everything we need, and sometimes what we need is a lesson. “The Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6). He might be trying to lead your friend toward greater maturity in solving her own problems, and your rescue maneuvers could be getting in the way. Friends can help a person delay learning hard lessons, but when the inevitable finally arrives, the lesson has gotten much harder.
The mystery is why God mixed us all up in this world together, instead of dealing with each person in hermetically-sealed isolation. It would be a snap for you and your friend to do God’s will if you each wore a headset phone connected directly to the Throne Room. If we got that kind of instantaneous instruction, we wouldn’t need each other. But for some reason God chose the less predictable course of throwing people together in families and communities, and telling us to love each other. He prefers that we figure out how to do it, bumping along, supporting and exhorting, because we are gaining something from this interaction that outweighs the loss in crisp efficiency. What you and your friend learn in this stressful process is another part of God’s goal. There’s another saying: “We go to heaven together and to hell alone.”
Q. I am deeply disturbed by my mother’s constant obsession with "feng shui" despite the fact that she claims to be a practicing Christian. She gets angry with me when I tell her that Christians should not even be believing in such things. What should I do?
A. Anyone who claims to be a practicing Christian wouldn’t also practice something they recognize as another religion. But things that present themselves just as measures to gain “good luck” look like a gray area. Whether these harm a Christian’s faith or not depends on what he believes about them. A Christian can pull the Thanksgiving wishbone, blow out birthday candles, or read a fortune cookie without imperiling his salvation. He takes these things lightly, and doesn’t believe they will influence God’s sovereign provision.
But some areas are grayer, such as reading a horoscope column or believing you have a lucky number. If your mother is “obsessed” with feng shui it’s probably gone too far. Classic feng shui claims to be a science, not a religion. Practitioners try to manage the “flow of energy” through a space by analyzing factors like a building’s compass settings and the occupants’ birth years. As I looked at a feng shui website today I learned that it’s a bad day to break ground for a new building, which suits me just fine.
Of course, in American practice feng shui is greatly simplified, de-mystified, and arranged around things you can buy. It may not be as dangerous, depending on how the person approaches it. A lot of home decorating “tips” in a feng shui magazine article are just common sense. I’ve been in homes where the furniture just doesn’t work—where you sit in the living room for a conversation and have to shout because the sofas are pushed all the way against opposite walls, for example. Or where a big table in the kitchen makes that room a traffic jam. A feng shui practitioner might have a fancy name for these problems, but they’re simply bad design, and rearranging the furniture after reading the article is not tantamount to losing your faith.
St. Paul was able to eat meat that had been sacrificed in a pagan ritual because he believed the gods it had been offered to did not even exist. But he was aware that some immature Christians might be confused by his liberty, and moved to superstitious fear. This would make they prey, not of those non-existent gods, but of demons. We Christians can walk wisely through the world, using aspects of other cultures wisely, as long as we have unshakeable confidence in who the only God is.