Monday, August 17, 2015
Abusing the Root of All Prohibition
For this week's newspapers, I answered a follow-up question to last week's answer about whether physical things can be inherently sinful:
Q: If it is not certain substances or objects which are the source of sinfulness, then what about alcohol, drugs, tobacco, gambling, and other things which play a role in so many problems in society? Does the same method apply to examining the morality of actions?
This question has made frequent appearance in English-speaking Christianity, particularly here in the United States. Since so many societal ills involve abuse of alcohol, drugs, or other substances, people sometimes conclude that if you could rid society of the substance, you could eliminate the problem.
Likewise, with actions, they often conclude that since an action has caused problems for some people in some circumstances, that the action itself must be evil—or at least in decrying the abuse of the action, they give the appearance that the action itself is a sin.
However, such an approach is not in step with the worldview of Scripture or of the historic way the Church has approached such question. Instead, honest analysis reveals that the problem is not with objects, or in some cases actions, but rather with the impure desires and motivations which drive people to misuse them. The problem is not in the use or possession of the things, or the performance of many actions, but in their abuse.
So, for example, the Old Testament frequently used wine as an illustration of joy and celebration and made other positive references to alcohol consumption, and St. Paul even instructed Timothy to use wine to aid with digestion. Meanwhile, in the very same books of the Bible, the authors warned against drunkenness—the misuse of alcohol.
Similarly, there are many prescription medications that are beneficial when used as prescribed, but harmful if misused. Even in the case of illicit drugs, it is not as if sin was written into the chemical compound, but because the person is harming their own body by their use (5th Commandment), disobeying lawful authority (4th commandment), and treating God’s blessing of the body in a wasteful manner (7th Commandment).
Sexual intimacy provides an excellent example where this idea can be applied to an action. When it occurs between a husband and a wife in the context of marriage, it is a blessed thing which results in numerous benefits to the relationship of the couple, the foremost of which is the potential of conceiving a child.
In contrast, when it is used in any other context, it results in spiritual harm, as well as increased risk of several kinds of physical and emotional consequences. Similar to the way it is with things above, it is not the action which is sin, but the wrong use of the action.
Consider also the popular saying that “Money is the root of all evil.” This thought by many to be a saying from the Bible, but in reality it is a misquotation of a Biblical statement, which really says, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” The misquoted statement attributes the sin to the object of money, but the genuine statement rightly blames its wrong use, by loving it, as the real problem.
The Prohibition era in our country provides an excellent case study in this principle. The Temperance movement advanced the idea that ridding the country of alcohol would result in a utopian society that was free of the problems people felt were most pressing at the time. In reality, people obtained alcohol in other ways, discovered other substances to abuse in its place, and violent organized crime began to flourish as a direct result of what was intended to be a beneficial reform.
Ultimately, it is this way with all sins. Scholars of the commandments have rightly observed that every other commandment really points back to the First, “You shall have no other gods.” Whenever a person misuses an object or an action, they are treating it as a god—no different than someone who bows down before a carved idol.
The 2nd through 8th Commandments describe particular ways in which this occurs, and the final commandments about coveting bring the idea full circle by revealing that even the desire to have or do those things which one does not have the right to have or do is itself a sin even though the thing has not been obtained or the action accomplished.