But it worked out for me!

I have noticed a a tendency to argue in line with the title of this post quite a lot. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.

When the biblical argument is made that unbelievers and believers should not marry together, or that it is seriously unwise for a believer to date an unbeliever, someone will frequently pipe up, ‘but someone did that with me and I ended up becoming a believer!’ In other words, it’s fine because that ultimately worked out for me. All’s well that ends well.

When the biblical argument is made that people shouldn’t tell lies, there is normally one of several responses. Some will argue, ‘yes, I lied in that job interview, but I got the job that way so God blessed me doing it’. You can replace ‘job’ with asylum claim, getting my kids into a particular school or whatever you like and find people who have effectively said the same. Otherwise, you get people ramping up the scenario and then insisting that lying was necessary. Usually, it defaults to a hiding Jewish people from the Nazis scenario or someone will make a reference to Rahab. Normally, there is another principle being claimed overrules the command not to lie and, in the particular circumstances, the lie itself is deemed justified because the Lord blessed it.

When the biblical argument that preferring almost anything else to meeting with the Lord’s people is not something to which Jesus is indifferent, some will argue that there was something else was more pressing. Arguments then range from, ‘my kids became believers in the end, so what’s the problem?’ to arguments to apparent necessity and the lack of any discernible ill-effects (as far as they judge it) means that the Lord wasn’t so troubled. The latter, in particular, is rather like when people insist, ‘if you don’t want me to do this Lord, give me a sign in the next two seconds’ and then proceed to do whatever they want; insisting on the need for a sign to discern God’s desires, when his plainly stated will is roundly ignored.

I am sure you can think of all sorts of other examples. But what these arguments all have in common is a ‘but it worked out for me’ line of reasoning. That is, despite what God has said clearly in his word, they adjudge whatever they wanted to do to be fine because the Lord did not bring disaster upon them for it. Surely, if God wasn’t happy, he would have battered me for doing it, no?

Whilst I appreciate this sort of reasoning tends to be less interested in what the Bible actually says than it should. If it paid more attention to it, they would know that Paul specifically deals with this sort of logic in Romans 2:4:

do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

In other words, just because God hasn’t wrought immediate judgement for your sin today is not evidence that he is blessing your decision. Rather, in his kindness and mercy, he is allowing you (and everyone else) time to repent. Paul specifically says that judging God’s happiness with you based on whether he has enacted swift and immediate judgement is not sound reasoning.

But there is a further problem. If we concede the logic of the argument, we are essentially saying that we can do absolutely anything we like, no matter how serious the Lord considers it, because there was no apparent judgement. This opens the door to all sorts of heinous behaviour being justified. If God cared enough, he’d stop it. As he didn’t, he must be cool with whatever sin we’re justifying. It bears saying, it is an argument following a similar logic to Atheistic claims along the lines of the Epicurean trilemma. Both insist that God would act in a particular way if something else were the case and therefore make judgements about God based on their assumed understanding of how he would act. But it is telling that those who make the argument to justify their sin are running a similar logic to those who would deny God’s existence altogether.

Of course, some turn around and say that, if the whatever they are seeking to justify ultimately turned out badly, then that was evidence God wasn’t happy. We can’t go justifying the holocaust on that ground because it did not end well for those at the centre of it nor can we go justifying the actions of the jailed paedophile because it didn’t ultimately work out for them. The problem with even this concession is that it leaves us with the unfortunate conclusion that paedophiles and dictators who seem to evade justice in this life are apparently okay with the Lord – he was quite happy with their actions – because they weren’t caught and held to account. On the flip side, we would also be led to conclude that lots of the events in the Bible that appeared to turn out quite badly (cf. the early Christian martyrs), the Lord was actually pretty unhappy with their stand for him. The logic leads to some pretty odious and flawed conclusions.

The bottom line here is that it is never wise, nor right, to use our experience and place it above the expressed Word of God. If God has spoken in his Word, we are foolish if we insist that our experience (and our reasoning from that experience) can in any way overturn the clearer word we have in scripture. The moment the logic of ‘but it worked out for me’ rears its head, we are dealing with someone who is not so concerned with God’s Word as they are of justifying their own sin.

Even if we concede that sometimes people reason this way to good conclusions, there is still an issue. It is poor reasoning to say, ‘this worked out for good, therefore the thing the Lord says in his Word must be correct.’ It may encourage us when the things the Lord says appear (as far as we judge it) to work, but what do we do when (as we judge it) they don’t? What do we say when the Lord calls us to stand for him and, instead of working to our apparently worldly good, we end up ostracised, persecuted or dead? Was God wrong? Or, is our reasoning faulty?

We don’t believe God’s Word because we think it works (however we work that out); we believe God’s Word because it is God’s Word. If I believe it because it works, there is no more reason for me to listen to it than any self-help book that happens to work pretty well too. But I don’t believe it because it works, I believe it because only God can reveal himself to us and if I am to know him, and his will, he will have to reveal it to me himself. That he has done through prophets and then, later, through his Son, Jesus and eyewitnesses to his life, death and resurrection passed his teaching on. We believe it because it is from God, not because it works in the way I think it should.

In the end, ‘it worked out for me’ doesn’t really cut it. The only sure way of knowing God’s will, is asking God specifically what he said. And the only way to know that for sure is picking up your Bible and reading it. If the Bible says it, and we choose to do otherwise, no matter how well it worked out for you, God is not pleased and you need to repent. No matter how well it seems to work out as we judge it, if the Bible says it and we commit to doing what it demands because of our love for the Christ who demands it of us, we remain in God’s will and can trust – no matter how we judge it – the Lord is, indeed, pleased.