Playing With Fire

All families seem to have stories that are brought up from time to time…stories that we tell at family gatherings to take us back to childhood and give us a good laugh. One of the stories that goes around quite often in my family is a story about when my brother decided to play with fire. We grew up out in the country, with our house on a couple of acres, surrounded by woods and fields. One day, during the midst of a very long dry spell of weather, my brother was over in the field next to our house experimenting with something we were always told never to touch: fire. The experiment was to set some dry grass on fire and see how big he could get it before stamping it out with his feet. You can probably guess at this point where this is heading. After a couple of successful sparking and stamping out episodes, he got to a point where the fire got a little out of control. Running back to the house for a bucket of water, my brother came back to the field and realized that bucket wasn’t going to do a thing. He had set the field on fire. Thankfully the fire department came and put the fire out and my brother was not hurt. But he learned a valuable lesson that day: there was a very good reason our parents told us not to play with fire.

How many of us have heard this warning from our parents multiple times in our life? “Don’t play with fire!” And yet, how many of us when we were kids, did not listen and played with fire anyway? Why did we do this? Because fire is fascinating. Fire is exciting. Fire is cool. We love fire. But as we all know, fire can be destructive. Fire can get out of control quickly. In a matter of minutes, fire can destroy a home, a building, or an entire city block. Fire can take away the lives of people we love. Fire is dangerous. Fire is deadly.

When it comes to our spiritual lives, there are things that can be just as dangerous to play with as fire is in our physical lives. Paul brings one of these things up in 1 Corinthians. It is the issue of idolatry. So, what exactly is idolatry? Essentially, according to the Bible, it is taking part in the worship of a god other than the one true God of the Bible. It is summed up in the first two commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” (Exodus 20:3-5). Essentially, the crux of the matter is that we are to worship NOTHING and NO ONE other than God.

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul is coming back to an issue he discussed previously in the book: eating at the meals taking place at the temples devoted to worshipping the many false gods. Worshipping these gods was a common part of the religion of the Greek and Roman cultures. Here he says explicitly that Christians have no business taking part in these meals, because taking part in these meals is giving honor to the false gods and thus is, at its very core, idolatry. He also brings up situations in the past in Israel’s history where the people of Israel took part in idolatry, among other sins, and were punished for it by not being allowed to enter the promised land (vs. 1-11). He gives a warning to the Corinthian church that if they worship other gods, then they too will not receive the reward of the promised land, which for us in this age, is eternal life.

In the past in Western Christianity, warnings against idolatry from the Bible have been a hard thing to apply. Most of the time, we have toned it down by saying that anything we give greater honor to than God is idolatry. For example, money can be an idol to us if we are too focused on it, and thus we are warned not to “worship” it. While I am not denying the validity of these applications, I wonder sometimes if in doing so, we downplay how horrendous idolatry really is. It is not just a matter of misplaced priorities. Idolatry is serious. It is destructive. It is deadly. In fact, Paul says that it is, in its very nature, an association with demons, the evil spiritual beings who are very real in the spiritual realm and are responsible for the worst evils of the world. Paul says, “The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons” (vs. 20).

There, I said it: demon. A dreaded, scary term that is limited in our culture to the jargon of horror films. In fact, I almost didn’t want to even write it. Yuck. But we have to talk about it. Because, evil is real and deeply connected to idolatry. And, unfortunately, our Western culture is changing so rapidly that we no longer have to come up with more toned down applications for the issue of idolatry. For the worship of false gods is rapidly becoming a core part of our American culture. Sadly enough, it is even thought of as “cool.” Hollywood applauds it through their movies, talk show hosts applaud it through their shows, and writers applaud it through their books. Jesus is considered out of style…outdated…boring. Buddha is in.

And according to Scripture, these other religions are NOT just another form of Christianity. Each god in these religions is not just the God of Christianity with a different name. They have very different characteristics. Furthermore, the religions themselves have very different practices and laws, many of which go directly against God’s laws and Jesus’ teachings. And the Bible makes a profound statement about these religions: the worship of these gods is associated with demonic activities. It is dangerous. It is deadly.

As the worship of false gods becomes more and more prevalent in our culture, we have to continue to examine and re-examine our association with these religions. How much do we keep ourselves separate from them? Do we watch movies in which the worship of other gods is shown in a positive light? Do we read books by those who practice other religions? Do we allow our kids to read books and watch movies in which the people in them are worshipping other gods? Do we take part in that yoga class everyone is raving about at the local health club? Where is the line?

Funny enough, the Corinthians were struggling with this very same thing! Maybe they weren’t dealing with Hollywood and yoga, but they were struggling to determine the line between what is okay and what is getting too close to idolatry. Paul says to them that it’s not okay to take part in cultic meals at the temple, nor to eat something that someone gives you and says specifically that it was offered in sacrifice (vs. 20, 28). But as for eating meat from the meat market, where some of it probably was taken from the meat offered in sacrifice, well, that’s not forbidden (vs. 25-26). It is a matter of personal conviction, and whatever the choice, we should display sensitivity to others. If eaten, it should be done with sensitivity to those who have convictions against it. If not eaten, it should be done with sensitivity to those who don’t know Christ, so that it will not create a stumbling block to the gospel in their lives (vs. 23-24, 29-33).

The principles underlying all that Paul says on this sticky issue are valid principles for us to apply on similar issues in our culture. And I think the key verse in this chapter that we can use as a filter for our decisions is this: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (vs. 31). God is not glorified by the worship of other gods. God is not glorified when we join hands with evil. But God is also not glorified when Christians are always characterized by their complaining about being offended. God is also not glorified when we cut ourselves off from those who don’t know Him so that we no longer have the ability to build bridges for them to Jesus.

Where things fall along these lines is a sticky subject. You will have to make the specific decisions for you and your family, using principles from the Bible along with the wise counsel from the spiritual leaders in your life. When faced with a questionable issue, you will need to decide: “Is this okay or am I playing with fire?”

Fire is fascinating and cool, but remember, every fire, no matter how big or destructive or deadly, started with just one tiny spark. And while my brother was lucky, usually people who play with fire are not so lucky. Because most of the time, as the old saying goes, when someone plays with fire, they usually don’t get away without getting burned.