Do you know anyone who takes a “scorched earth” approach to life? If they can’t have something, they don’t want anyone else to enjoy it, either. Once in a while, we hear of an I.T. employee leaving a malicious program in a company’s systems, set to create digital destruction if he or she is fired (at least, that’s how it happens on TV). Other times, this is a tactical decision, like retreating Soviet forces in World War II, destroying a place as they left so that pursuing forces wouldn’t have access to supplies.
Today, I think that the principle of scorched earth often takes the form of slander. If we have a single bad experience at a restaurant, we might tell of our friends (both actual friends, and whoever reads online reviews) that the place is terrible. If we get into a fight with a relative, we might gossip about them to other family members, and attempt to recruit more people to our “side” (as if we all shouldn’t be on the same side – God’s side – in the first place).
However, whether out of a sense of malice or necessary strategy in war, someone who adopts this scorched earth approach is rarely looking out for the good of others who need to use a given resource. Take a look at this rebuke from the book of Ezekiel (contained within what appears to be a messianic prophecy in Ezekiel 34), addressed to the people of Israel who were not looking out for their fellow citizens:
Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?
Ezekiel 34:18-19 NIV
This situation seems easy to judge. After all, who has the right to destroy the food and water of another human being?
Let me offer another passage, though, in light of Ezekiel 34 (in fact, I think that the following is even more applicable to the whole of that chapter, which also calls out leaders of God’s people for their selfish behavior):
One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.
Romans 14:2-3 NIV
Passages like this (including all of Romans 14, and 1 Corinthians 10:23-33) have been important in my understanding of how to handle certain topics that different Christians struggle with. They are a critical reminder that just because something is OK for me, I don’t get the right to force it on someone else who may have a spiritual weakness.
In light of the two passages above, though, I think that the converse is also important. For the many areas of my life where I am weak to temptation (which I don’t need to enumerate here, because forces of evil already know them and use them against me), I do not have the right to tell a fellow believer that he or she must also avoid them, too. If I know that I can’t do something – visit a certain location, open a certain website, watch a certain TV show, or play a certain video game – without being unduly tempted to sin, I should avoid it. That might mean that I suggest alternatives when hanging out with friends, or I might occasionally decline an invitation to join them. However, unless these activities are innately sinful, it is not my privilege to constrain the freedom of another follower of Jesus with my own weaknesses.
In a more general sense, just because we avoid a particular activity (whether because of sensitivity to a particular temptation, a bad memory, or just personal preference), that doesn’t mean that we should keep it from everyone. Similarly, if someone is worshiping and serving Jesus in a different tradition than us (while still doing their best to remain faithful to the truth of God’s Word), we don’t get to condemn them for being different.
So, the next time we are tempted to fire up our “scorched earth” attitude, let’s pause and look around where God has placed us (and blessed us). Rather than stomping in someone else’s dinner or spitting in their drink, let us greet and welcome others as we graze in the same pasture, even after we have had our fill. May we let them enjoy the unique blessings that God provided, even if these aren’t the same as what He gave to you and to me.
Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.