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High-Contrast Morality


Recently a friend (who, like me, grew up in an extremely Seventh-day Adventist family) and I were talking about the legalization of marijuana in Washington State, where both of us have lived. Something that was presented to us as instantly life-destroying can now be purchased in a store! The way our parents and teachers had taught us, marijuana wasn’t just something to avoid, but something that if used once would destroy you forever.

Many of us who were raised Seventh-day Adventist were taught like this, that everything on the forbidden list was almost infinitely bad. I don’t know if my parents and teachers ever said it in so many words, but the way they talked to us let us believe that one sip of beer made you an alcoholic, your first drag on a cigarette was only a short step away from being a whiskey-sodden barfly, anything beyond a kiss before marriage was equivalent to prostitution, and God forbid you should ever touch marijuana, between which and heroin the only difference was method of ingestion. Even a failure to inquire what sort of meat was in your hot dog or what kind of fat in your frozen pie crust put you but millimeters away from the outer darkness.

I was allowed to believe it because my parents believed it themselves, or at least didn’t analyze it very thoughtfully. Seventh-day Adventist magazines drew the lines in a similar way. I remember a story in The Youth’s Instructor by a young woman who’d been tempted by friends to attend an innocent movie in a theater, but believed that God had abandoned her at the threshold of the building; once more, and she’d be lost forever. Listen magazine assembled warnings and cautionary anecdotes in a way that made every forbidden substance seem equally harmful: the dangers of caffeine were across the page from the dangers of cocaine. Ironically, the most popular speakers for young people were ex-sinners who told grim stories of their lives of sin, terrifying us and titillating us at the same time.[1]

Those of you who had larger lives, who grew up with a bit more exposure, might be chuckling at this. But you must understand that this was the way conservative, denomination-focused Seventh-day Adventist people protected their faith and values (and some still do). They felt the best way to keep their children pure was to let them believe that at the edge of their religion was a drop-off. Step over that line, and you skidded down the slope into hell.

It worked pretty well for some of us. At least for a while. Even though I attended public school for some years, I wasn’t tempted by the things my friends told me they did on the weekends while I was involved in church activities. Or, to speak truthfully, I was terrified of what they told me. Terrified—and fascinated.

Others, less timid than I, figured out right away that those who’d taught us in this way had exaggerated. They wondered what else wasn’t true, and sometimes did their own research, to their detriment.

When an Adventist classmate suggested on Saturday night when I was 17 that we attend a movie, I went along. We chose a historical picture based on Robert Massie’s historical novel about the last Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra. For days afterward I felt guilty, befouled, and wondered where this misstep would lead me. And, indeed, a couple of months later we went to another movie, this one slightly racier.

But I didn’t slide down the slope into hell. In fact, realizing that it wasn’t as simple as they’d told me let me define and own a more nuanced set of life rules.

So teach your children what you believe is right and what’s wrong. But tell it honestly, so they’re not confused when they test what you’ve told them (which they probably will) and mix in enough mercy so they’re not discouraged should they do things they wish they hadn’t. I’m not suggesting rumspringa, but merely some sense of proportion. The mistake often made by the extreme Ellen Whitists is to overprotect their children, keep them at home without television or contact with the real world, which is why very few emerge into adult life with a good sense of moral proportion. The stricter the family, the more likely the offspring will be either shallow hypocrites, or reject it all when they find out adult temptations and decisions are much more complicated than they were led to believe.

When you flatten all the forbidden things down to the same level in hell, it makes it hard to come back from even one trespass. A woman who’d grown up with this high-contrast moral education told me that when as a teen she finally gave in to having sex with her boyfriend, she felt guilt, but a sort of relief, too. Now that she’d stepped over the line she was on her way to hell anyway, so why even try to hold on to all the many (poorly explained) rules she’d labored under for years? Years of various kinds of misbehavior followed, until she learned that sin wasn’t a one-way street. You could leave, but by God’s grace you could also come back. God was forgiving, and didn’t abandon you even when you turned your back on Him.

Indeed, to hold this black-and-white, never-a-single-misstep moral code, you have to ignore a lot in Scripture about forgiveness and second chances. You have to forget about the shameful actions of some of the best-loved of our Bible heroes, the ones on the picture rolls, who in spite of some considerable spiritual debilities played great roles in salvation history.

Forgiveness in Scripture is not sentiment or spiritual magic, but a workhorse for practical living. You’re forgiven by God and others in order to make another try at life. You needn’t be forever tainted in God’s eyes by past sins—though you may have done damage in the process that you’ll have to live with. I read Paul’s saying that, “everything is permissible for me—but not everything is beneficial” to mean that what makes it sin is not just that God has a rule against it, but that it hurts and destroys us, whom He loves. Sin is not just God’s marking down demerits on heaven’s blackboard, but present, sometimes permanent injury to ourselves and others.

That’s why it’s so important to be honest. If you tell your children marijuana is as bad as meth, and they try marijuana and find out it isn’t, they’re going to wonder what else you’re lying to them about, even though you’re certainly not lying to them about how destructive meth is.

I’ve never used marijuana, and haven’t strong opinions about its legalization. But I know that things are rarely black and white. There are many shades of gray. Most important is that young people know that even should they make some foolish choices, God never closes the door on them, and we don’t, either.

[1] The intention was that we’d stay “scared straight,” though an equally plausible lesson might be, “Go out and be wild, because then you can come back and get lots of attention with your exciting testimony.”

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