Leading Question: If I am saved by grace, can I lose salvation by not taking good care of my body?
Our Sabbath School lessons for this quarter focus on health, and thus highlight a subtle but significant tension in the life of the believer: How does human responsibility relate to God’s gracious gift of salvation?
Theologically and experientially, the world has long been divided between those who place greater emphasis on the divine initiative (divine sovereignty) and those who place greater emphasis on human responsibility (human free will). Each side of the equation faces a potentially dangerous pitfall, though not the same one.
For some, the emphasis on the divine initiative and grace can result in a freedom marked by careless disregard for human responsibility. For others, the emphasis on human responsibility can lead to arrogance or discouragement or both. In the life of the believing community, heated arguments often erupt between those who worry more about carelessness and those who worry more about discouragement. Ironically, both evils are often present in the church at the same time.
The introduction to the standard study guide opens with the quotation of Exodus 15:26, God’s promise to Israel that obedience would mean that God would put “none of these disease” upon them that had afflicted the Egyptians. The study guide suggests that lurking behind God’s commands to Israel were health principles which contributed to healthy living. The Bible nowhere makes the health connection explicit, but in the light of the modern knowledge of health and hygiene today, one can surmise that a connection was indeed intended.
In a little book that is still in print, S. I. McMillen’s None of These Diseases (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, revised edition, 2000 [1963, 1984]), contrasts the sober instructions given to Israel with the health-related instructions found in Egyptian sources. Citing the Ebers Papyrus, Dr. McMillen lists a notable array of “natural” prescriptions: “statue dust, beetle shells, mouse tails, cat hair, pig eyes, dog toes, breast milk, human semen, eel eyes, and goose guts” (p. 10). Contrasted with such a list, God’s laws to Israel look very modern indeed.
But McMillen overstates his case when he declares, “Moses recorded hundreds of health regulations but not a single current medical misconception” (p. 11). One thinks of the test for an unfaithful wife in Numbers 5, for example, where dust from the sanctuary floor is mixed with holy water and the curses for unfaithfulness are written out, then washed off into the water which is then given to the accused woman to drink. If she is guilty, the result will be a miscarriage.
But overlooking a passage like Numbers 5 is perhaps not so troublesome as the suggestion that God’s laws are to be applied universally and unflinchingly without any reference to what might be happening in the contemporary “scientific” world. In the first edition of his book, McMillen makes this comment about the laws given to Moses: “Because these divinely given medical directions were altogether different from those in the Papyrus Ebers, God surely was not copying from the medical authorities of the day. Would Moses, trained in the royal postgraduate universities, have enough faith to accept the divine innovations without adding some of the things he had been taught?” (p. 10) McMillen then notes the potential implications if “Moses had yielded to a natural inclination to add even a little of his modern university training.”
The question that we must face again and again during this quarter is the role that human reason plays in dealing with matters of health. Does everything God has ever said apply to all people everywhere? What role does human reason play in applying “inspired” counsel to our lives?
The introduction to the standard quarterly also cites Paul’s well-known words about our bodies being the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19-20). So for all kinds of good reasons, we are to take care of our bodies. But can be healthy out of gratitude? Or must there be some element of threat to make us be healthy? Those are issues we must address this quarter.
1. To what extent can God’s greatness and goodness motivate us to healthy living? The standard study guide gives a line from a psalm of praise as the memory verse for the week: “Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” (Psalms 103.1, NKJV). Is it possible to be so overwhelmed with a sense of God’s goodness that we will want to take care of our bodies?
2. Are we saved by grace, but lost by works? Ephesians 2:8-9 states without qualification that we are saved by faith, not by works so that boasting is excluded. But when we turn Galatians 5 and read the list of the “works of the flesh,” Paul adds these sobering words: “I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21, NRSV). Put bluntly, then, it would appear that God’s “unconditional love” does have its limits.
3. Which is the greatest command: Love God, or love your neighbor? In Matthew 22:35-40 Jesus summarizes God’s requirements under the heading of two great commandments, and in that list, love to God is first. But it is revealing that both Matthew 7:12 and Gal 5:14 summarize the law in terms of the “second” command: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12, NRSV). “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Gal 5:14, NRSV).
4. In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), judgment is declared not on the basis of what we have done for God directly, but indirectly through his children. Does that reinforce the position that the second command is really the crucial test of our relationship with God?