“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matt 6:24; NIV)
I grew up playing board games with my family. We always had fun, but it was competitive; everyone did their best to win. As I graduated to strategic games like Diplomacy, I was exposed to situations which required me to break my promises in order to win. In Diplomacy, it's a necessary strategy. The double-cross, or backstab, is something that does happen from time to time. It's not my style, but I've been on both ends of it, and I don't take it personally. It's just a game, and a little sly deception can clinch it for you.
Sometimes life is a game, we think. Business, relationships -- you can characterize almost anything this way. We grow accustomed to the gray area between honesty and outright deception. As long as no one is hurt, we reason, we can bend the rules a little to make things go our way.
Viewing things as black and white in connection with God's holiness seems extreme, even to many Christians. We reason that God's perfection allows for casual moral compromise, as long as we don't cross any big lines.
It's easy to reach this point, but it's completely false. The little things matter to God. The little things turn into big things, because there are no clear lines once you start down the slippery slope of justifying sin.
The Bible has remarkably little to say on this point. Ancient near eastern cultures do not share the mentality of consumerism. Moral compromise on any level could discredit you before your family and community, or at least carve out a reputation with repurcussions. There are passages in the Bible which stress God's holiness, and passages which emphasize the need for moral character. There isn't much discussion of operating in the gray zone because the Bible doesn't allow for one. God sees moral issues as black and white.
I think the root of compromise comes from elevating something above God in your life. It's often a person -- a romantic interest, or even your spouse. It could be a career, it could be ambition or the pursuit of personal happiness, or even the necessity of providing for a dependent. Once you put anything before God, you will find yourself justifying all manner of behavior in its support.
As I was reading Matthew, I stumbled over Matthew 6:24. It's a difficult verse to process in a culture of consumerism, because it seems so extreme. Jesus' words make it sound like you cannot serve God if money is your highest priority. There have probably been many attempts to soften this verse, but Jesus means what he says. It's not a denunciation of wealth or even the pursuit of wealth; it's a denunciation of making the pursuit of wealth a higher priority than your love for God. The pursuit of wealth is just an example, in fact. The first part of the verse is the key point. You cannot serve two masters. One thing must be first, and if it's not God, then you're not serving him. You are serving the thing that is your priority instead of him. You will eventually reach situations where you have to pick one or the other. The one you pick is the one you serve. Paul says almost the same thing in Ephesians 5:5, where he refers to immorality as idolatry.
I once lived with some degree of denial over this principle. I had elevated something above God, and I had what I believed to be moral and spiritual justifications for doing so. My priorities allowed me to operate in a pretty large gray zone. Somewhere down the list of my priorities, buried underneath the rubbish of pursuits that required bending the rules, was God.
I had to spiral down and crash to understand how far off course I'd gone. I was like Ephesus in Revelation 2 -- I had left my first love. In reorienting our priorities, we are able to identify the path back from the gray zone to the place we need to be. In reaching that point, you will find the power and strength to draw the line for yourself. He gives it to you. When you do, you will experience the freedom that comes from limiting your choices and staying out of the gray zone. It's a bit of a paradox, but God's yoke gives rest to the weary. His commandments bring joy and fulfillment. His word is life.