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There is a shocking proverb that says something like, "Do not be over much righteous." And it is followed by one that says something like, "Do not be over much wicked either." (Ecclesiastes 7:16-17) Such thoughts sound strange to most of us. We assume that Christian faith is all about being as righteous as we possibly can be, and that anything short of perfection is sin.

However, there really are areas of our lives where God himself lets us set the standards, and he does not condemn us if we do not measure up to his highest standards for us. And there are times when setting too high a standard for ourselves can actually backfire, making us proud, self-righteous, hypocritical and/or miserable people. (See The Martha Syndrome.)

We have, for example, observed that unrealistic rules about things like masturbation have screwed up a lot of people, making them dishonest, unnecessarily guilt-ridden, and unable to fully function as Christians. It is a great relief to know that God is not against all pleasure, that his yoke is easy and that his burden is light. (See Heavy Burdens and Difficult Yokes.) There can also be unrealistic rules about diet, about poverty, about recreational activities, about dress, etc.

However, having recognised that there is a grey area where God allows us to choose how far we want to be disciplined, I would like to say a few things in favour of at least attempting to live at the high edge of that area rather than at the bottom edge. I do not want to campaign for voluntary Christian disciplines that will make us miserable or unreal; but I do believe that there are great spiritual and personal benefits that can come from careful attempts at moving a bit closer to perfection in some areas.

We have more or less done that with the 144K vision, for example. We are saying that most people do not have to remain single for the rest of their lives, but we have noted that Jesus was clear about celibacy being a higher calling if one could do it. We believe that the reason Jesus taught the superiority of celibacy is because you can become much more effective leaders in God's kingdom if you do not have a husband or wife to tie you down. So there are definite benefits from being able to discipline yourself at a level above the bare minimum.

Those verses in the Bible about controlling the lusts of the flesh could be used to make people feel guilty about enjoying an ice cream cone or a ride on a roller coaster. We don't want to do that. But after you have come to understand that God is not against you enjoying yourself, there is a place for seeing through the lies of so much of society's "pleasures".

I am very much aware that I am writing this article in the latter part of middle-age. It is easy for older people to become sour on life, and to condemn young people for their many vanities. We can see the follies of so much that captured our attention when we were younger, and we can try to warn others against them. But it seems to me that God has this great wide expanse of "allowables" that he has permitted for the purpose of us experimenting. They really are, in themselves, a waste of time in the face of eternity. But they are there for us to experiment with until we come to that realisation ourselves, and until we develop a genuine hankering for something better... for God's best.

God's best involves moving away from all of the pleasures of the world, and into a closer relationship with him. It means "mortifying the works of the flesh". (Romans 8:13) But this is something that God wants us to choose freely, based on a deep conviction that he really has something better for us. The older I get, the more convinced I am becoming that he does have something better for each of us. I hinted at that in Two Witnesses, Part 2, where I said that having God's supernatural power in our lives and ministry is worth much more than all of the popularity, wealth, and comforts that can come from doing things the world's way. I personally have not found that the first time I have missed a meal for God he has rewarded me with power to raise the dead. No, it's much more subtle than that. But I do have the confidence that there is a touch of his divine power on the lives of each of us who have freely chosen to discipline ourselves for his glory. And I feel that the power increases each time we take one step closer to him and away from the false attractions of the world.

We just need to have the wisdom to know how far we can push ourselves without becoming "over much righteous". If we overdo it, we could end up deluding ourselves and trying to delude those around us about how righteous we really are. But if we never try, we may miss out on something eternal that could make our lives much more worthwhile. Please pray daily for wisdom in knowing how much closer you can move to God's best in your life.

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