Stopping or starting?
Where do you start the process of filtering out the filth that is so prevalent in the media of our age (not that it was lacking in the media of any age, although the methods of delivery are certainly growing in sophistication and accessibility)?
Perhaps you extol the virtue of ‘the stop button.’ This is more of a mental promise or function than a physical reality. You read the description on the back of the DVD, and you undertake to fast forward through the nudity or vulgarity or violence. The warning flashes up on the screen, “Some viewers may find the following scenes disturbing.” The guidance informs you that a film or programme “Contains strong language and sexual content.” The blurb on the back of a book hints at passages that will contain descriptions of physical brutality or sexual activity, or the author has a certain reputation. The magazine will have a section dedicated to celebrities in various stages of recreational undress. The link from that image suggests more of the same. The video still offers so much more than that single image. But you will stop or skip those bits. If it is music, you won’t listen to ‘that track/those tracks’ off the album you downloaded, or you will fast forward through the most offensive verse of the song, or will just switch off from those particular lyrics.
Whatever the medium in question, you undertake to resort to the stop button when the content crosses the line.
Is that really the best approach?
At your best (and what a sad reality that is), you might draw the line in a healthy place. At your best, you might just follow through with your determination, and press the stop button, or fast forward through the offensive section. But we are rarely at our best, and our best is often not good enough. Especially once the imagination is engaged, you get set up. Words and images are employed to draw you in. The hook is baited, tantalising and titivating, raising your expectations and lowering your resistance. By the time ‘that scene’ comes in, your appetite is whetted, your passions are aroused, your sensitivity has diminished, your conscience is seared, and your determination not to sin is fatally compromised.
That fact is that you may well have compromised your determination not to sin when you first laid hands on the stuff. The process may have begun when you read the warning, which acted more as a promise, and lured out remaining sin. As James said, “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (1.14-15).
Even if you stop short of the worst excesses, the imagination can carry you places where the media itself would not have taken you. Your sinful heart will fill in the gaps for you. Even if you think you can handle it, there will be times and places when those words, images, and stirred-up reactions and desires will flood back in with a vividness and intensity that – apart from the power of God in Christ – will leave you utterly helpless. Temptation will come calling, and you will have armed him with a bazooka to blow away all your good intentions. You will find that you were not merely observing, you were learning, you were being trained to sin.
If we are believers, should be sailing so close to the wind? We might claim that we have liberty in these areas, but surely that is the freedom to pursue godliness and not the freedom to flirt with unrighteousness? Are you free to get as close to the edge as possible or free to keep away from it? Those who consistently play on the edge of the cliff are the ones who tend to fall off. The promises of God’s sustaining grace are not given to those who test him by dancing on cliff edges, but to those who – in the way of duty or providence – find themselves walking a dangerous path that they could not avoid. You might say that we must not cut ourselves off from our society and culture, that we need to understand and appreciate the way that people live and think. Fine, but does the need to recognise poison require that you drink it?
Consider, then, that the best thing may be not to rely on the stop button, but not to touch the start button. Do not take the first step on the road, and you will be in no danger of reaching its end, and remember that the path of wickedness is increasingly slippery and steep. You start treading slowly and carefully, and soon find yourself careering and careening without any hope of stopping. Let us learn to flee from sin, and not even to pass the time of day with it. Sin presents itself as a smiling friend; an arm around your shoulder is the best facade for the moment when the assassin plunges the stiletto between your ribs.
Learn the signs, and take them as warnings to your soul and not as promises to your sinful appetites and desires. When the danger is real, forget the stop button. Don’t press start.