Back on the farm in Louisiana, I remember my dad showing me a cotton plant that was just beginning to break through the soil. He said the plant was strong, yet tender. It was lifting a piece of earth ten times its own weight, yet would break if we touched it. “This,” my dad said, “shows the mighty power of God.”
The reality of God and his truth was demonstrated to me daily back then, and I think that’s why I have difficulty now accepting anything plastic—especially when a plastic product tries to represent something alive and growing. Only God can produce reality and truth. Any misrepresentation is a lie.
But a “plastic” mentality seems to have permeated our society. There are people who actually prefer a plastic copy to the real thing. And, unfortunately, many Christians are settled for a “plastic” representation of spiritual reality.
Plastic Christianity is one in which the boundaries (ethics) have been set by man, not God. We establish our own false rules and work at keeping them, and deceive ourselves into believing we are obeying God’s truth. We call this fabrication “Christianity.” We’re soon unable to distinguish the real thing from the false.
As an architect, I find analogies between my profession and the Christian life. I can’t allow the world’s plastic ethics to permeate my thinking as an architect, nor can I allow it as a Christian.
To illustrate, let’s consider some areas in which I’ve observed the dangers of plastic ethics creeping into both my architecture and my Christian life.
Our focus: the product or the process?
As an architect I am committed to produce what is functional as well as pleasing to the sense. But this commitment creates a dilemma. The temptation is to always focus on the end product, but it is actually the process which brings about a true understanding of the client’s needs.
Imagine two architects whom you’ve asked separately to produce your dream home. One starts with his preconceived design, while the other first learns all he can about your needs and desires and also studies in detail the site conditions. Let’s assume that despite their different approaches, each architect produces the same house. But—which architect would you hire to do your next project? I would prefer the one who did the comprehensive study, because a proper design process consistently ensures the best product.
The world’s view is that the end justifies the means. The biblical view, however, is that the process is just as important as the end product.
The Christian, like the architect, cannot afford to take shortcuts by making up rules to live by. You’ve heard these made-up rules, such as “God helps those who help themselves”; “Whatever I do is all right if I’m sincere”; “It’s wrong only if you’re caught”; “God will protect me no matter what I do, because I’m a Christian”; “God’s system is no different from any other—you have to pay your dues.” These are all plastic—not truthful.
We’ve all seen buildings which are a hodgepodge of various styles and materials. Our lives can be like that too, a jumble of plastic rules and ideas that force us to miss God’s reality.
The Christian must instead allow the truth of God’s word to be the interpreter of his every circumstance. This means being committed to the truth, to the authority of the truth, and to the discipline necessary to put truth into practice.
The right process includes having the right motives. “Man looks at the outward appearance,” God told Samuel, “but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). God is interested in our motives. In 2 Chronicles 25:2, he indicates that doing the right thing is not enough; our motive must be pure as well. According to this passage Amaziah “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, but not wholeheartedly.”
Truth vs. style
Any building’s design should be based on truth. This presents yet another struggle for the architect: choosing either what is “true”—what will always be attractive and functional—or choosing what is in style.
We live in a world preoccupied with cosmetics, with surface issues. The emphasis too often is on the icing, not the cake. Many people prefer false beams glued to the ceiling of their den rather than having the real thing—beams which would actually hold up the ceiling!
The same is true among Christians. Some wear a small cross on a necklace. Or a hot-rodder puts a sticker on his bumper reading, “God Is My Copilot.” Or someone becomes a Christian because it’s the “in” thing to do: He is “into” Christianity, which he tells you as glibly as if he were “into” health food. Even the serious-minded Christian gets so excited about the “ministry” for Christ that this very ministry becomes more important than Jesus himself.
These tendencies represent a form of self-deception that none of us can afford.
One day while buying a suit I was standing in front of one of those three-sided mirrors, in which you see yourself from every angle. It suddenly occurred to me why I hate to buy new clothes. I didn’t like to face the reality of what I saw in the mirror—a short, stubby creature! I had been deceiving myself by a preconceived idea, imagining I was not short and stubby. But the mirror told the truth.
We learn from James 1:22-25 not to come with preconceived ideas to God’s word, the true mirror. We must look intently into God’s reality and not ignore what we discover there.
But it costs something to live within a framework of truth. We have to change! The mirror does not lie, and once we realize the truth we are compelled to do something about it.
At first, change makes us seem hypocritical. We are changing into something God wants us to become, which is something other than what we presently are and have been. This is painful to our ego, because it means giving up one’s self to become a new person.
Peter wrote, “Prepare your minds for action” (1 Peter 1:13). Though his initial readers were facing great physical persecution, yet he exhorted them to begin their endurance in their thinking. Endurance is rooted in the understanding of truth. True design will endure, but stylish cliches pass with time.
Freedom and responsibility
In recent years I’ve designed several buildings utilizing the “open-office landscape” concept. They are built with only a few interior walls, allowing for greater flexibility and usability inside. But sometimes the occupants of these buildings abuse the freedom which the design affords, and the result is chaos.
The same thing occurs in the Christian life when we don’t accept the responsibility that goes with our freedom in Christ. When I was younger I felt I could say anything that came to my mind because no one listened to me anyway. But now there are those who listen, and though I still have the freedom to say what I want, I choose my words more carefully because of my responsibility.
Many Christians prefer to live under the law rather than under the freedom of God’s grace because living under grace involves much more personal responsibility. It is far easier to obey ready-made rules than to follow biblical principles, which are more difficult to pin down. Externals are easier to see than internals.
True Christian ethics will always be under attack because of the nature of the world we live in. From the world we’re enticed by profit, power, and prestige. But the pattern in God’s kingdom is life, service, and humility. Society’s tempting offer must be given up and nailed to the cross that Jesus tells the Christian to carry daily.
As we allow God’s word to transform our thinking, we will see every issue from his point of view. The boundaries we set in our lives will become God’s boundaries—ethics determined by God, not man!