All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. 1 Corinthians 6:1a
Once upon a time, a man climbed to the top of a tall mountain. As he was admiring the view in the cold, thin air, he noticed a rattlesnake shivering at his feet. The snake said, “Please, sir, carry me back down the mountain with you. I am cold-blooded and cannot move to go down myself. I will die if you leave me here.” The man replied, “You are a rattlesnake. If I touch you, you will bite me and I will die.” The rattlesnake responded, “No, I will be grateful to you for saving my life, and I will not bite you. When we get to the bottom, I will go away in peace.” The man thought about it for a time, reached down for the snake, placed it inside his jacket, and started down the mountain. Upon arriving at the bottom, he reached inside his coat for the snake, and the snake bit him. Through his pain the man cried out, “You promised you would not bite me! I saved your life, so now you take mine?” The snake replied as it slithered away, “Well, you knew I was a rattlesnake when you picked me up.”
Snake handling, as a demonstration of faith, dates back for centuries. In February of this year, Pentecostal pastor Jamie Coots, died of – you guessed it – a bite from a rattlesnake he was handling as part of a worship service. It is one thing to believe God will be with us as we go through our lives, but it is an entirely different matter to believe God will protect us from all of our precarious choices. I have no doubt God has my spirit safely in hand; but I am somewhat less assured of God’s protection over my earthly body – particularly when I use my God-given free will to take perilous chances.
Obviously, everyone makes bad decisions at times. We all have different levels of risk tolerance, and most of us engage in a number of activities that may have negative consequences. Heck, getting out of bed in the morning has some risk – as does staying in bed. We weigh our risk-tolerance against our need for a new experience, or a familiar experience, or to attempt to avoid an undesirable experience. In fact, we all have rattlesnakes of some sort we choose to live with – risky hobbies, abusive relationships, substance abuse, driving too fast. Sometimes we believe we have no better options, and that is where our lack of faith plays a key role. We grab whatever our familiar rattlesnake is and hold on for fear of the alternative, knowing the snake we hold can kill us.
The fact is that we always have options. We can exercise our free will in many different ways and with many different levels of risk. The apostle Paul, writing to the church at Corinth, noted that all things were permissible for him – meaning nothing he did would separate him from God – but not all things were beneficial to him. In a similar way, when Jesus was tempted by the devil, as recorded in Matthew 4, he was told to throw himself off a cliff because God would surely save him. Jesus’ response was that we are not to put our God to tests like that. If it was true for Jesus, how much more true is it for us today? We are to live our lives in a joyful balance between adventure and common sense. I do not believe God intends our final words on earth to be, “Watch this!”
Come home to church this Sunday. It may help keep the snakes at bay…