Do You Look for Loopholes as a Christian?

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

The standard definition of a loophole is an ambiguity or inadequacy in a system, such as a law or a set of rules, which can be used to circumvent or otherwise avoid the purpose, implied or explicitly stated, of the system. It is basically a small mistake which allows people to do something that would otherwise be illegal. Generally, the cause of a loophole is a divergence between the text of the law (how it is written) and the meaning of the law (its intended effect).

Loophole Graphics

PHARISEES AND THEIR THEOLOGICAL LOOPHOLES

Pharisee Pointing

It’s no secret that the Pharisees of Jesus’ days were typically angry over infractions of the Sabaath. This was a huge issue between them and the Lord. Interestingly, the Pharisees created a loophole that allowed them to break their own rules regarding the Sabbath whenever convenient. According to Rabbinic teaching, a Jew could take no more than 3,000 steps on the Sabbath, nor carry more weight than half a dried fig. To circumvent this law, the Rabbis designed a small wearable tent. The tent had poles that rested upon their shoulders, lifting it from the ground. A chair was fastened to their rump Accordingly, they were not technically carrying anything. They would walk 3,000 steps, sit on the stool, then stand and walk 3,000 more steps, repeating the process over and over until they arrived at their intended destination. They declared the tent to be their home each time they sat down. Their “theology” gave them a loophole for travel and manual labor on the Sabbath if they found it necessary. Technically, they were in the clear. That’s what loopholes do for us—permit us to be “technically” right while breaking the rules.

CHRISTIANS AND THEIR LOOPHOLES

When Christians look for loopholes, they change Scripture to fit their circumstances. A believer with this mindset is not concerned with what Scripture dictates; rather, they are concerned about making Scripture say what they need it to say. Individuals who are Christian “in name only” look for loopholes. True followers of Christ don’t look for an out. Unfortunately, many believers today claim certain doctrines, proscriptions, or edicts in Scripture for “back in ancient times” rather than the modern church. This is basically a form of “progressive” Christianity, which flies in the face of God’s unchanging Word. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Second Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (NIV). Ecclesiastes 3:14 says, “I know that whatever God does, It shall be forever. Nothing can be added to it, And nothing taken from it. God does it, that men should fear before Him” (NKJV).

PAUL

The Apostle Paul 001

Romans 7:19-21 says, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (NIV). It is important to note that Paul was not speaking about a non-believer, nor was he describing a carnal Christian. He was talking about a victorious disciple still at risk for sinful behavior. Admittedly, Paul is not speaking of the practice of sin by a believer—willfully sinning despite knowing the consequences.

Paul was leading a crucified life, putting on the righteousness of Christ (see verse 25). He delighted in the Law of God in the inward man (see verse 22). That means he was gratified by love, goodness, righteousness, and mercy. The part of his mind that was focused on serving God no longer practiced sin. His thoughts were on Jesus. He told the Christians at Corinth, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

There were several aspects of Paul’s life where he had not yet received light. In such instances, he was taken captive by the law of sin in his flesh, causing him to do things he hated (see verse 23). Someone who is willfully committing sin is not doing what he hates. His mind approves of it. When desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin. We actually consent to the desire in our mind and sin is born. James 1:14-15 says, “But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (NIV). Such Christians are serving the law of sin with his or her mind.

THE LOOPHOLES OF ADDICTIVE BEHAVIOR

Addicts frequently use denial, rationalization, and loopholes to hide or downplay their abuse of drugs or alcohol. Heavy or chronic alcohol use leads to psychological and physical dependence and possible addiction. The Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Psychiatric Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) says substance abuse related disorders encompass separate classes of drugs: alcohol; caffeine; cannabis; hallucinogens; inhalants; opioids; sedatives; hypnotics; and stimulants. 

Here are four common loopholes used by alcoholics and addicts:

  1. I’ve already ruined everything. Addicts try to avoid or not acknowledge the consequences of their actions—at least until these consequences are severely compounded. Whether it’s losing a job, legal trouble, homelessness, dysfunction in the household, or all of the above, addiction progressively destroys lives. Although hitting “rock bottom” causes some to seek treatment, others justify continued addiction because they focus on the perceived irreparable damage they’ve caused. 
  2. I don’t deserve a happy, healthy life. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, roughly half of all individuals diagnosed with a mental health disorder are also affected by substance abuse. Although this is a co-occurring diagnosis (often referred to in 12-step parlance as “double trouble”), it is not a loophole for addiction. Admittedly, feeling undeserving of a happy, healthy life due to mental health symptoms can be a trap. This often leads to drinking or drugging to self-medicate for chronic anxiety or depression. Accordingly, a loophole is created for continued use. 
  3. Now I can finally handle it. This justification is a loophole for relapse, as well as active addiction. When someone feels that their life is now more manageable—perhaps, due to a period of sobriety or fixing certain problems while in active addiction—they may justify drinking or taking drugs again or continuing to use. Unfortunately, the progressive nature of addiction quickly disproves this rationale. This loophole often rears its ugly head following inpatient treatment at a rehab. The individual feels he or she is “armed with” enough information to finally use safely.
  4. For me, it’s just normal life. For some, addiction is a solitary issue. For others, however, addiction may be shared with friends, family members, or partners. These individuals tend to justify their actions because they feel their behavior is part of the fabric of a relationship or social agenda. Even if someone believes their own addiction may be a problem, they can justify their dependency by referring to getting drunk or high as part of the “norms” of social life. 

MY FAVORITE LOOPHOLE

Unfortunately, I have often looked at certain habitual sins in the light of Paul’s own struggle, saying to myself, If the apostle Paul failed to resist the flesh and do what’s right, then how can I ever hope to do so? I am sure you see the hypocrisy of this conclusion. Basically, I have allowed this part of Paul’s teaching to serve as an excuse for what amounts to the “practice” of sin. Worse, the type of habitual sin that has been prevalent in my life involved deception, lying, and stealing narcotic painkillers from family members.

THE ADDICTED CHRISTIAN

Morgan Lee edited and published a provocative article in Christianity Today, called “Why a Drug Addict Wrote a Christianity Today Cover Story.” The article was written by Timothy King, a Christian who contracted very painful acute necrotizing pancreatitis. He was discharged on IV medication and given opiates for pain. Eventually, King’s doctor realized King’s reliance on narcotic painkillers was impeding his ability to eat and to recover from pancreatitis. Despite being a believer, King had become addicted to opiates.

Here is an excerpt from King’s article:

I use the term addicted. There are some medical professionals who use the word dependent because I didn’t go out and engage in behaviors typically associated with addiction. I chose to use the word addicted because it accurately describes my situation. It is a term I hope other people feel less stigma about in the future to describe their own situation. When we give the right name to something that is going on in our life, it kills its power over us. Naming something is incredibly important. Opioid addict is now tied to my name. I’ve had to think through that, but once again I have had a great community of support to encourage me about this story.

Whether deserved or not, believers struggling with an addiction are often shamed by the church rather than being provided an atmosphere for healing. Believers and non-believers alike are dying every day because of drug overdose. This should be cause for concern and a great opportunity for the church to be the church (the Body of Christ). After all, Christians are called to be a loving community of grace and healing. The church should not choose to see active addiction as a moral issue, ignoring the physical and psychological elements of the disorder. This only serves to ignore or sidestep this crisis, evidenced by believers (and some church leaders) who choose to sit on the sidelines, judging and ostracizing those who are suffering.

THE MINDSET OF A DISCIPLE

Paul answers his own question regarding his—indeed, our—struggle with sin that dwells within us. In Romans 7:25, Paul writes, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (NASB). Before Jesus overcame the power of sin and darkness, leaving us with an example to follow, it was impossible to completely overcome all sin in the flesh. But Jesus sent the Holy Spirit Who can show us our sin (convict us) and teach us the way through it. Like Paul, when we repent and begin to serve God, we have a new mindset—it is no longer our conscious, daily choice to serve sin. What comes from our flesh is not necessarily done willfully.

When we are in Christ Jesus and choose to serve God with our mind and our spirit, there is no condemnation if we absentmindedly do the things we hate (see Romans 8:1). We aren’t condemned for being tempted (thoughts or feelings that entice us to sin), nor for actions we do which haven’t passed our conscious mind first, allowing us to make a conscious choice. But in order to accomplish this, we need to walk in the Spirit, which means acting according to the light that we receive. This comes only from allowing that light to illuminate our habitual sins. We will then be able to recognize the desires of the flesh—the body of sin that is to be crucified daily through Christ. How do we accomplish this? We count ourselves dead to sin. We can then be disciples of Jesus, denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily (see Luke 9:23-24).

Disciple is another word for a follower of Christ; one who is learning to be like his Master. originally meant pupil or apprentice. Too many Christians believe they became disciples of Jesus when they accepted His death, burial, and resurrection for forgiveness of their sins. We were certainly dead in our trespasses. Thankfully, we are forgiven through Christ. He made us alive together with Him (see Colossians 2:13). However, forgiveness of sin is not discipleship. Once we have received atonement for our sins and are reconciled with God through the crucifixion of Christ, we come to the beginning of a new us. We are now instructed to start following Jesus. Emulating the examples He provided to us during His life and ministry.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, closing the loopholes of active addiction may be imperative before seeking treatment. In reality, we can rebuild our lives. But this involves realizing that addiction is progressively destructive. Further, it is important to believe we deserved to be happy and healthy, and that active addiction is not a normal, fulfilling human existence. Jesus said, “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10, NKJV). Eugene Peterson translates this verse as follows: “A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (MSG). Living life in bondage to addiction is certainly not an abundant life.  

Second Corinthians 5:17 talks about new life in Christ: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here” (NIV). When we recognize that old things have passed away, we stand a better chance of living life without resorting to loopholes. Frankly, making decisions based upon loopholes is the hallmark of an unrepentant carnal Christian. When we are truly “in Christ,” we are a new creation. Old things have passed away. This is the “abundant” life we read about in John 10:10. We cannot hope to have an abundant and glorious new life in Christ if we excuse our occasion to sin as something not even the apostle Paul could avoid.

 

 

 

Henri Nouwen and The Spiritual Life

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer, and theologian. He focused on integrating Christian theology, philosophy, and psychology. He unfortunately died of a massive heart attack while traveling to Russia to participate in a documentary about his book The Return of the Prodigal Son. He authored a total of thirty-nine books and hundreds of articles during his ministry. He struggled with loneliness, but had an uncanny ability to describe his personal struggles in a way that resonated with his many readers.

“I wanted to know how we could integrate the life of Christ in our daily concerns. I was always trying to articulate what I was dealing with. I thought that if it was very deep, it might also be something other people were struggling with. It was based on the idea that what is most personal might be the more universal.

In his seminal book The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles, Nouwen described a persistent urge to enter more deeply into the spiritual life, but said he was confused about the direction in which to go. He desperately wanted to be among the believers who have a deep desire to “know” and experience the “story of Christ.” He noted that heart-knowledge was necessary over head-knowledge in order to accomplish this. He intimated that the method for accomplishing this was to “…set your hearts on [H]is kingdom first.”

I hope to expound on his journey and the results of his search in a way that incites you to do the same.

All These Other Things

I think it is natural for the layperson (indeed, even the young minister) to determine that “the spiritual life” can only be realized through monk-like study and contemplation. Many believe we must sell our earthly possessions, quit our jobs, leave our family and our paramour, and walk into the dessert to confront our flesh and yield to the Spirit. First of all, if this were indeed the only way we can live a truly spiritual life then there would not be many among us who could achieve it.

Nouwen taught that the spiritual life is not a life “…before, after, or beyond our everyday existence.” Instead, the spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains, joys, difficulties, and successes of the here and now. We simply must begin our search for a Spirit-filled life by taking a careful and thorough look at the way we think, speak, feel, and act from hour to hour, day to day, week to week, and year to year. It is only through this exercise that we can become more fully aware of our need for the Spirit in our lives. While earning my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I learned about a rather unique concept called metacognition. Essentially, this is an awareness and understanding of one’s thought processes. I like to call it thinking about what I’m thinking about.

When we are not content with the way our lives are going, we are not really very happy. There is no joy and no peace. Indeed, Christ said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27, NASB). We must understand that any mood of resignation to our “lot in life” will prevent us from actively searching (and ultimately finding) the life of the Spirit. To get there, we need instead to be honest, show courage, and trust in a positive outcome from our journey. We must honestly unmask and courageously confront our many self-deceptive games.

From a psychological standpoint, we tend to bury (repress) our true feelings. We “stuff them,” hoping that ignoring them will work. That somehow this “baggage” will take itself out to the trash container. In addition, we are prone to project unwanted feelings and attributes within ourselves onto others. In other words, we “displace” our emotions. We also tend to use denial to cope with uncomfortable emotions and, sometimes, actions that have been perpetrated on us. Because many of our so-called defense mechanisms are subconscious and (accordingly) automatic, finding them and bringing them to the light of day requires us performing a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. I first heard of this concept while attending 12-step meetings in Alcoholics Anonymous. Believe me, this is a lot harder than it sounds.

The Essence of Spirituality

Spirituality is described by J.M. Houston as “the state of deep relationship to God.” It is noted that prior terms like “holiness” or “discipleship” tended to turn believers away from seeking a spiritual life, liking it to intense dedication at the expense of the day to day life. In addition, “spirituality” is somewhat abstract. It seems Catholic devotion was a spin-off of spirituality. Interestingly, the influence of secularism, atheism, pluralism, and moral relativism into virtually every avenue of Western life caused enough alarm among ministers and believers that many began to take devotion to Christ more seriously.

Christian heresies within the early church all won popularity because of the ascetic and mystical properties they featured more than the “doctrine” they espoused. Some heresies responsible for this reaction included Gnosticism, Greek mystical thought (especially during the period of Diaspora when the Jews were forced out of Israel), Trinitarian and Christological belief, Arianism, Docetism, and others. In fact, Islam is considered by some biblical scholars as a heresy of Judaism. You may remember the story of Abraham and God’s promise to him to bless him with a vast land and countless heirs through his otherwise barren wife Sarah. God said Abraham would be blessed and he would bless many. It was through Abraham that God instilled his plan for the redemption of mankind. Unfortunately, Abraham grew impatient and his faith waned. He and Sarah agreed that he would have sexual relations with Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar. As a result, Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, through whom the Muslim faith was established.

The Nature of Christian Spirituality

According to J.M. Houston, there are six aspects that characterize Christian spirituality:

  1. Asceticism as such does not define Christian spirituality because much of asceticism involves contempt for the material world. The biblical doctrine of creation recognizes that God created all things, and they were “good” (see Genesis 1). God does not ask the believer to detach from this good life.
  2. Biblical revelation of God as “personal” leaves no place for relying on human wisdom. Moses spoke with God face-to-face, the temple was filled with the Glory of God (Gr. shekinah), and the prophets all manifested God’s will and developed a degree of Christian spirituality never seen before.
  3.  Christian spirituality must be Christ-centered. Paul frequently talked about being “in Christ” to emphasize the union Christians can have with Jesus. The synoptic gospel writers describe following Jesus to mean being in union with love. God’s original purpose was to create man in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-28). Moreover, redemption is interpreted as being “conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29).
  4. Christian spirituality by definition is life in the Trinity: believers accept God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as one triune God. It is through the Holy Spirit that Christians can cry, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).
  5. Christian spirituality is the outworking of God’s grace in the human soul, beginning with conversion and concluding with having been killed, buried, and resurrected (to new life) with Christ.
  6. Christian  spirituality engenders fellowship, and the communion of saints. This aids in deepening the believer’s character. After all, iron sharpens iron. Spirituality can be tested by measurement of a believer’s public behavior and worship (Acts 2:42-47). Frankly, godliness and spiritual fellowship compliment each other. Christian worship is primarily a matter not of special practices or performances, but of lifestyle (Romans 12:1; 14:6; 1 Corinthians 10:31).

Nouwen speaks of being “filled” or “unfilled” relative to the spiritual life:

Filled

It seems that today’s believers are always busy. This is true for all of Western society. It is practically a badge of honor to be “too busy” to get everything done in a day. The fallout is a nagging sense that there are unfinished tasks, unfulfilled promises, unrealized potential. As if that were not enough to distract us, Nouwen says “more enslaving that our occupations, however, are our preoccupations. To be pre-occupied means to fill our time and place long before we are there.” I’ve been there many times. All those “ifs” running through my brain. What if that persistent left lower abdomen pain is cancer? What if I get killed in an automobile accident? What if my mother dies suddenly? What if I can never own a home? What if I can’t find a job in my chosen vocation? This habitual negative prognostication makes us wonder constantly what to do and what to say in case something happens in the future. We ruminate, making us anxious, fearful, suspicious, greedy, nervous, and morose.

What would our lives be like if we were to stop worrying? If we could ignore the urge to be entertained, to travel the world “in search of ourselves,” to buy so much, and to arm ourselves, perhaps our society as it exists today would fall apart. Unfortunately, we all seem to get caught up in materialism, wanderlust, competition, contrived needs, self-sufficiency, and workaholic behavior. We become so filled with the world and our selves that there is no room for God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. When this happens to a follower of Christianity, his or her walk with Christ is sorely compromised. This pervasive materialism can quench the Spirit and lead to a continual walk in the flesh.

Unfilled

Beneath our worrying lives, however, something else is going on. Our minds and hearts are filled with many things, and we wonder how we can ever hope to measure up to the hype. While busy with “this and that,” we seldom feel truly fulfilled. How can we? The material world is experienced solely through the flesh. The result is a gnawing sense of being unfulfilled. Nouwen says, “Boredom is a sentiment of disconnectedness.” He believes to be bored doesn’t really mean we have nothing to do. On the contrary, we question the value of the things we are so busy doing. He writes, “The great paradox of our time is that many of us are busy and bored at the same time” [italics mine]. The most debilitating expression of our unfulfillment is depression. Perhaps we can call this the spirituality of boredom.

This pervasive depression raises it’s ugly head in thought: “Is my life worth living?”

Boredom, resentment, and depression are sentiments of disconnectedness. There it is, plain as the nose on our faces. Man was created to be in fellowship with God and with each other. When we feel unfulfilled, our life is perceived as nothing more than a series of broken connections. Loneliness is one of the most widespread social diseases of our time. It affects not only retired life (although my father was never bored during his retirement), but also family life, neighborhood life, school life, and business life. Frankly, it is because of this sense of separation that many among us are suffering. This is true because when we feel cut off from the human family, we quickly lose heart.

We cannot, however, think of ourselves as passive participants in life who have no contribution to make. I’ve been there way too many times. Not unlike others, I have a need to feel relevant. Without that, we start to believe our pains are no longer growing pains and our struggles no longer offer the potential of a new or changed life. Our past is pointless, dead to us; our future seems to be leading us nowhere. It simply leaves us worried, preoccupied, and without promise.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

One of the most notable characteristics of worrying is that it fragments our very existence, cutting us off from everyone and everything, troubled by events that may never happen. But in our minds, we’ve come to believe we’re no longer destined for success or happiness. We’ve essentially “gone fleshly,” forgetting how to walk in the Spirit. The minutiae of our daily empirical world takes us in a million directions. We struggle to make sense of it all. Nouwen puts it this way: “…most of us have an address but cannot be found there. We know where we belong, but we keep being pulled away in many directions, as if we were still homeless.”

The proper way to address this inescapable spiritual malaise is through Jesus Christ. He responds to this condition of being filled yet unfufilled, very busy yet disconnected, running and looking, yet never leaving home. He wants to bring us to the place where we belong. But His call to live a spiritual life can only be heard when we are willing to honestly admit our own “homelessness” and fretful existence, and instead recognize that we are all from God, and He loves us much more than we could ever comprehend. He gave His one and only son to die a gruesome, painful death on the cross in order for us to live a life for salvation. A spiritual life. Not a life in the flesh, competing, compiling, coveting, stealing, worrying, or amassing material possessions just so we can “become fulfilled” in the flesh.

Instead of feeding our flesh, essentially our ego, with money and fame and “things,” we need to work at feeding our souls with the Spirit of Christ. When our treasure is with God, we will have no reason to worry—economic recession, falling stock prices, government shutdowns, pollution, extinction of various species, failing health. It would be more productive to realize nothing in this world, indeed in the entire universe, is as God intended. Man’s fall has impacted virtually every realm of physical existence, and it has shut us off from communion with God.

Christ did not die to fuel our material desires. He is not pleased with televangelists who speak only of “having it all,” indicating God seeks to bless us with wealth and success (which He does so long as it doesn’t own us, and we use it to bless others) but forgetting to talk about the wages of sin, the essential need for living in the Spirit denying the lusts of the flesh, and moving toward becoming Christ-like. He died an excruciating death on the cross to provide the means by which we can become redeemed and have the power to crucify the flesh. There is no other way to lead a true spiritual life.

References

Houston, J.M. (2017). Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Nouwen, H. (1985). The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles. New York, NY: Harper One.