As humans, we have a strong bias toward the practical. It makes sense. Even before the Fall, Adam was given responsibilities that required problem-solving, outcome-oriented, cause-and-effect thinking.
Naming the animals was a puzzle to solve (Gen 2:19-20). How do you name them all without using names twice? How do you name them in a way that is orderly? You don’t have to be Linnaeus to notice that the characteristics of animals follow patterns. Adam would have had some interest in categorizing animals as he named them, and that would have required problem-solving thought.
Then there was the job of tending and keeping the garden of Eden (Gen 2:15). We’re still pre-curse, but the language implies overcoming challenges to improve what was there.
We could speculate about what that involved, but here’s the point: From day one, humans were made to think along the lines of, “If I choose Option A, I’ll get this result; but if I choose Option B, I’ll get a better result; so I should go with Option B.”
There’s nothing wrong with that. God made us that way, and said it was “very good” (Gen 1:31).
American culture takes our innate practical orientation and ups it a notch. Not all that long ago, most Americans were pioneers attempting to settle and establish a new way of life on an unfamiliar continent. Then we expanded westward for a century or so. Solving practical problems like reliable food, water, and shelter for your family were primary concerns for many decades. Americans had to be resourceful and scrappy, and that outcome-oriented drive is still a strong part of our national character.
There’s nothing wrong with that either. That interest in dealing with harsh realities is one of the factors that has slowed the advance of leftist idealism in the U.S. (relative to, say, Europe). It has fueled the American version of conservatism—because part of being practical is asking, “What has worked in the past?” often answering with, “If it ain’t broke…”
Despite all this, our bias toward practicality presents a serious hazard to genuinely Christian thinking and living.
Practical vs. Christian
The old jibe that some people are “so heavenly minded, they’re of no earthly good” resonates with me. In this essay, I’m not advocating a detached, pious-sounding, Christian flavor of idealism.
The apostle Paul was a very practical guy. He sneaks out of Damascus by being lowered over a wall in a basket (Acts 9:22). On trial before the Sanhedrin, he turns them against eachother by raising a controversial theological question (Acts 23:6-7). In the shipwreck sequence (Acts 27) he brims with both faith (Acts 27:23-25) and down-to-earth solutions (Acts 27:26, 34).
Nehemiah also comes to mind.
As for the builders, each wore his sword strapped to his waist as he built, while the trumpeter stood near me. 19 And I said to the nobles, the officials, and the rest of the people, “The work is great and extensive, and we are separated on the wall far from one another. 20 At whatever place you hear the sound of the trumpet, assemble to us there. Our God will fight for us.” 21 So we carried on the work with half of them holding spears from dawn until the stars appeared. (NASB, Neh 4:18–21)
Nehemiah sees no incongruity at all in saying, “Our God will fight for us” and saying, basically, “when the trumpet sounds, come running and ready to fight.”
So, if practical thinking is such a good thing in the Bible, why would I say our bias toward practicality is a threat to looking at life in a genuinely Christian way?
- Because our small minds tend to focus on the visible at the expense of the invisible—walking by sight rather than by faith (cf. 2 Cor 5:7, 4:18).
- Because Christian practicality is always in the context of a greater goal.
- Because Christian thinking prioritizes doing what we do for the right reasons, and in the right way, and only after that values the right outcomes.
Two passages challenge us to transcend mere practicality in how we evaluate our choices (emphasis added).
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (ESV, Eph 4:1–3)
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; (Col 1:9–10)
In the Ephesians passage, the “manner” in which we “walk” must be on our minds long before we consider the destination. “With all …” introduces a series of attitudes that define, at least partially, what that manner is. But underneath and supporting the how of our way of life is the why. “Worthy of the calling” points to our relationship with Jesus Christ, who, in Peter’s language, has “called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).
In the Colossians passage, the how and why are even more prominent and more closely linked to each other. “Walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.”
For Christians, our ethical decisions should always start with, “Will this please my Lord?” not with, “Will this work?” The outcomes question isn’t even second in line, because the why question is not yet exhausted. Returning to Ephesians 4, we have to ask, “What is it that I’m ‘eager’ to do here?” Ephesians 4:3 identifies one of many desires that should drive us: “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Having considered why from a couple of angles, it’s still not time for the “will this work?” question, because there’s a how layer: “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”
As Christians, we’re called to a why-first, how-second ethic. But with those as context, outcomes are properly oriented and we’re ready to look at those: “bearing fruit in every good work” (Col 1:10).
To sum up then, the Christian way of life evaluates choices with why-first, how-second, and with what result-third.
We haven’t lived the life if we’ve only done the effective thing. Even if we’ve done the right thing or arrived at the right belief, we haven’t necessarily walked worthy. We have to get there for the right reasons and in the right way. We can only do that if outcomes have their proper, lower, place in our priorities.
This isn’t idealism. It’s practical realities rightly oriented to eternal realities.
Three brief examples may help make these thoughts less abstract.
- Abortion: Abortion has negative consequences for society in general, families, and individuals. We should emphasize these in our messaging to our culture. In the Christian worldview, though, abortion isn’t wrong because of these negative outcomes. It’s wrong because God has told us human life is sacred and must be honored and protected (Ex 20:13, Gen 9:6). It’s wrong because it displeases our God. Our moral reasoning is personal and principled (why and how) , and only after that, practical (with what outcome).
- Deceit: We grow up hearing about the negative outcomes of deceiving people for our own benefit. We know about the boy who cried wolf and can recite the rhyme: “Oh, what tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” But in the Christian worldview, lying isn’t wrong because it makes messes. It’s wrong because we’re supposed to love our neighbor and treat others as we want to be treated (Matt 22:39, Matt 7:12) and because our God values truth so highly (Prov 6:16, 19; Num 23:19; John 14:6). For us, the Person and the principles are primary.
- Adultery: Studies may show that marital unfaithfulness weakens families and societies, etc. But those with a Christian worldview don’t believe adultery is wrong because of its negative outcomes. For us, it’s wrong because God has told us marriage is honorable (Heb 13:4) and meaningful (Eph 5:25, 32). Adultery is wrong because it displeases our God. Once again, our ethic is personal and principled first, then practical.
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is content manager for a law-enforcement digital library service.