It’s no secret that my diet for much of my young adult life was pretty bad. Subsisting on food high in refined sugar (referred to as “vitamin S”), and other unhealthy content eventually caught up with me. While I do a little bit better today, I’m still not someone whose eating habits should be emulated by others.
One time, when I was jokingly trying to justify my poor choices, I suggested that I was getting fruit from breakfast options like “Froot Loops”, or the orange juice this appears (very late) in the ingredients of Mountain Dew. A nutritionist friend of mine called me out when she said, “You’re just eating food with fruit in the name!”
Calling something by a fancy name doesn’t make it better. While some try to re-label their sinful behavior with nice-sounding descriptions, a new name doesn’t change the inherent properties of a thing, an idea, or a person. (Having said that, when God gives someone a new name, I think that He’s already changed them, or is preparing to do so!)
However, this isn’t a problem reserved for “others”. Whenever we trust labels, rather than content, we risk being deceived or misled.
If I open a box of corn flakes, and it was filled with nuts and bolts, it wouldn’t make sense to eat it. Yet, I am tempted to believe whatever I hear from trusted pastors, teachers, and writers without checking it, first. Even though we know better, we sometimes skip a quick check of the contents before we trust something from a favorite source.
Who hasn’t started to eat or drink something that was later found to have gone bad? Who hasn’t stepped out on something that looked solid, but proved to be unstable, muddy, or full of water? When these things happen, we can usually recover pretty quickly, but when we trust incorrect labels on things that are more important, we may find ourselves in a much worse situation.
Consider Jesus’ statement about those who used the right words, but were not actually following Him:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 7:21 NIV
In this case, the veneer of nice-sounding words was transparent to God, who could observe hearts and actions. Saying the right things (or not saying bad things) isn’t enough to save our souls. Only giving ourselves over to Jesus is enough to achieve that, exchanging His salvation for our sinful choices.
When we apply this errant principle (believing labels without checking the contents), we may find ourselves living according to things that have nice words in their names, but aren’t good for us (or for others).
For instance, when you see someone calling themselves a Christian, that is an honorable description, but it doesn’t guarantee that everything this person says or does is Christlike. The most devout followers of Jesus do pretty well, as they let the Holy Spirit help them. Others though, including myself, have a ways to go. Still others have used this label falsely, claiming divine support for messages that contradict what God has already said.
Similarly, not every movement that claims the moral high ground has it. In fact, Jesus got down to the level of those whose lives were pretty messed up (although He did so without sinning) to make a difference. He didn’t remain in Heaven. So, a group who completely isolates themselves from others, claiming that they are better than everyone else, might have a motto that sounds good, but they aren’t following Jesus’ example. Of course, followers of Jesus need to spend enough time with Him and with others who are trying to do the right thing, in order to build up their resistance to sin, but they can’t stay there in that bubble.
So, how do we tell the difference between something that is spiritually genuine, and something that is actually mis-labeled? I think that we do so in the same way that we evaluate other labels: We check the contents. Before taking a drink, we normally look in the glass to ensure that no bugs fell in. Before pouring a can of food into a recipe, we glance at the contents and ensure that they at least look like what the label says.
In the same way, it’s good to double-check the contents of not only our own hearts (ensuring that Jesus is our Lord, and that our claims of following Him aren’t just superficial), but also the messages that we hear from others. Compare what you are being told against God’s Word, and against the guidance that you receive from the Holy Spirit. If it doesn’t match up, maybe the message has gone bad (through too many iterations of hearsay) or has become contaminated (whether with human opinions, or lies from the forces of evil).
The apostle John warned against this sort of scenario in one of his letters:
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
1 John 4:1-3 NIV
I’m not saying that we have to pick apart every word, or be obnoxious students, but we should at least make sure that what we perceive as God’s truth at least passes the “sniff test”!
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.