The young adults I worked with during my time as a youth minister all had the same question on their minds.
As part of the program that we ran, we would talk with young people about relationships and sex.
Every youth wanted to ask the question, but few had the courage to speak out (especially if they were already dating someone) so I used to pre-empt it by answering it.
The question went something like this: “How far can we go?”
It might be more creatively (or crudely) put, but the “How far can we go?” question was an important one.
I admired the fact that these young people wanted to know how to live as a follower of Jesus in this area of their lives, even if they found it embarrassing to ask.
It was important to give clear and memorable guidelines, which I did. We’d also give clear and practical advice about all aspects of relationships and sex, not just “how far can we go?”
However, there is another way of interpreting that question: “What’s the most we can get away with without actually going against what God says in the Bible?”
That approach is legalistic and inflexible. It seems to be close to the attitude Jesus was criticizing in religious people of his day – keeping the letter of the law but not the spirit of it (see Mark 2).
He challenged that approach in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) when he spoke about how our attitude can break the law even if our actions don’t – hating is as bad as hurting; lusting is as unfaithful as adultery. What’s in our heart is what counts.
Even though my days of youth ministry are behind me, I still encounter this approach today.
The “what’s the most we can get away with before we have gone too far?” or “what’s the minimum we have to do to get by?” approach is alive and well in churches.
But Jesus was not about half-hearted measures. He encouraged an “all out” approach to following him and our relationship with God.
Paul described it as “living your life as an act of worship,” literally offering ourselves as “living sacrifices,” in Romans 12:1.
Paul also wrote these words in Colossians 3:15-17: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”
He continued, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
When dignitaries visit places, the locals go to great lengths to make them welcome and make sure everything is “just so.” Why should it be any different with God? Indeed, surely as he is God, we ought to exceed those standards of excellence for him!
So, rather than take a “what’s the minimum we have to do to get by?” approach to our individual and collective discipleship, we should seek to offer our lives as “living sacrifices” through striving for excellence in whatever we do.
If it’s washing up, make the plates as clean as you can.
If it’s feeding the hungry, give them the best food you have.
If it’s performing magic tricks (my favorite hobby), perform them as well as you can.
If it’s telling people what you believe about Jesus, tell them as clearly as you can.
If it’s singing your least favorite song or hymn in church, sing it as if it’s your favorite.
If it’s making a cup of coffee for your colleagues at work, make it the best you can.
If it’s driving, be as careful and courteous as you can.
You get the idea.
Nick Lear is a regional minister of the Eastern Baptist Association in the United Kingdom. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Nukelear Fishing, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @NickLear.
Nick Lear is a regional minister of the Eastern Baptist Association in the United Kingdom.