Yoga: a biblical response (Part 4 of 4)

In Part 1 of this series, I explained why I’d decided to write about the proper response a Christian should have to yoga. Then, in Part 2, we examined 1 Corinthians 8–10 to find three principles that govern how a Christian should respond to practices that have roots in false religions. These principles are (1) give up your rights, (2) flee from idolatry, and (3) embrace what is good. In Part 3, we considered how to apply this to yoga. I concluded that Western forms of “yoga” in which the goal is physical fitness may be okay, but that we should exercise great caution before participating in them. We should also consider the effect our actions may have on other Christians—we don’t want to encourage them to go against their consciences.

Tonight, I’ll be concluding the series by taking what we’ve learned and applying it to my own life situation. Not everything here will be appropriate for all believers, since we are all different people with different strengths and weaknesses whom God has placed in different communities and churches. I encourage you to use this not as a law to adhere to but as a model to emulate.

Here’s how I plan to apply this three principles in practical, concrete ways. I plan on continuing the P90X yoga program, but I’m not going to mindlessly embrace yoga, even in its Western form.

Principle #1: Give up your rights

I will be cautious about communicating to others that I practice “yoga.” This could be easy to misunderstand. Perhaps someone has in mind meditation and liberation from karma. Perhaps others may think that I approve of yoga in any form. Unless it’s the sort of conversation where I have time to briefly explain my concerns about yoga, it would be better not to bring it up at all.

If, while discussing the issue, I find that the other believer thinks that I am wrong to practice yoga, the first thing I will do is listen to his or her reasons. Perhaps I am in the wrong and need to be corrected. If I believe the other person’s arguments are unbiblical and unconvincing, I will explain why my conscience doesn’t bother me as I continue to participate in yoga exercises. I will also explain that I don’t want to force the other believer to go against his or her conscience in this matter.

Principle #2: Flee from idolatry

If I’m given the opportunity to follow another yoga video, I will be extremely cautious about proceeding. I will watch the video entirely first to make sure that it doesn’t ask me to do anything against my conscience (or whether I can skip those sections of the video if they do come up).

I would be even more careful about yoga classes because of the greater peer pressure; I could feel pressured into doing something that violates my conscience. If I were considering joining a class, I would first speak to the instructor to learn his or her perspective on yoga. If possible, I would observe a session first before signing up. I would communicate to the instructor my viewpoint on yoga and make sure that we come to an understanding before beginning.

If a brother or sister in Christ mentions that he or she is participating in a yoga video or class, I will ask a few questions (without badgering) to find out whether this video or class is appropriate or not. Many believers accept yoga uncritically, but it’s our responsibility to care for one another to ensure that we don’t fall into temptation.

Principle #3: Embrace what is good

As I said, I plan to continue following the P90X yoga video. I will make an effort to be more thankful to God for the opportunity this gives me to improve my strength and flexibility (including the fact that I can now touch my toes for the first time in…well, ever, I think!). If a fellow Christian believes that yoga in all forms are bad, I will attempt to convince him or her otherwise, since I believe that our consciences should be properly trained to rejoice in what is good as well as reject what is evil.

So how do you plan on putting these principles into practice in your life situation? How will you respond to opportunities to practice yoga? How will you respond if fellow Christians either seem too eager to accept it or too eager to condemn it? Where will you turn in God’s Word to develop your viewpoint? No matter what your conclusions are, I’d be excited to hear that you’re thinking through these issues so that you may glorify God to the utmost.

Yoga: a biblical response (Part 3 of 4)

In Part 1 of this series, I explained that I would be writing about a Christian’s response to yoga because of a recent article by Al Mohler in which he condemned yoga in any form. Yesterday, in Part 2, my goal was to construct a biblical framework on which we can build a wise response to the practice of yoga in Western culture. We turned to 1 Corinthians 8–10 and drew three principles from this passage: (1) give up your rights, (2) flee from idolatry, and (3) embrace what is good.

Now, let’s take these three principles and see how they help us understand how to engage with the cultural phenomenon of yoga.

First, we need to understand what yoga is and where it comes from. We don’t have the time or space (or in my case, the expertise) to delve into the intricacies of Hindu worldviews and the enormous chasm between them and a Christian worldview. Suffice it to say that in a Hindu worldview, the self is considered a manifestation of the brahman, the life force which underlies everything that exists. Yoga is a broad term for a system of spiritual disciplines which allow the self to recognize that it is brahman—that it is one with all of nature and that in a sense it is God. One branch of yoga, known as hatha yoga, involves using a variety of breathing techniques and physically strenuous postures to prepare one’s body for intense meditation which will reveal one’s identity with brahman.

What we call yoga in the West is in fact a bastardized form of hatha yoga. Instead of using these postures to prepare oneself for meditation, a Western “yoga” class will use them to aid in physical fitness. This “yoga” is usually touted as a means to gain strength, flexibility, and relaxation. Depending on the class (or video), breathing techniques may play a more or less prominent role. What’s important to note is that the goal has changed from seeking “liberation” to seeking physical fitness. For this reason, it’s a misnomer to refer to this as “yoga” at all, yet the label has stuck.

Now, I believe that there are several parallels to controversy over meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8–10. Remember that the Corinthian Christians weren’t sacrificing meat to an idol themselves, just as a Christian should never seek the sort of “liberation” that is the goal of Eastern yoga. But the Corinthians faced the question of whether it was possible to divorce the eating of sacrificed meat from the practice of idolatry itself. In the same way, the question for us in the West is whether it’s possible to divorce the postures and perhaps some of the breathing techniques from their Hindu origins. Let’s consider the three principles taught in 1 Corinthians through the apostle Paul by the Holy Spirit.

Principle #1: Give up your rights

Regardless of whether Western “yoga” is okay or not, we must keep in mind the rights of fellow believers. You may be able to perform “yoga” postures in good conscience, with no intentions beyond your own physical health. But not everyone is able to dissociate these postures from Hinduism like you can, especially if they have a background in Hinduism. If they see you performing these postures, perhaps they will be emboldened to do the same, even if their consciences are bothering them (peer pressure tends to work that way!). If they go against their conscience in this area, they’re sinning, and God will hold you responsible. So be careful about publicizing your participation in yoga. It’s not worth causing your brother or sister in Christ to stumble. It’s better never to place yourself in another yoga posture again than to tempt a fellow Christian for whom our Savior died.

Also, be careful not to look down on those whose consciences are still “weak” in this area. Just because you can perform these postures with a clear conscience doesn’t mean you can pat yourself on the back for your superior knowledge. The principle here is love—show love for your fellow believers by being willing to give up your rights.

Principle #2: Flee from idolatry

Be very careful about Western yoga. Sure, it’s been heavily secularized, and most of the Hindu theology has been drained from it. But watch out! That yoga class you want to join or that yoga video that you want to watch may encourage you to engage in Hindu “meditation” or invite you to accept a wrong worldview. Don’t ever believe that you are too smart and too godly to be seduced by false teaching. It’s ridiculously easy to drift away from Jesus Christ. I would encourage an attitude of suspicion toward yoga classes and videos, particularly those which emphasize breathing techniques. It would be a good idea not to participate unless you have had a chance to observe first—especially in the case of yoga classes. If in doubt, don’t do it! “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

As an aside, Hinduism is not the only danger you should watch out for. Physical fitness can be an idol in Western culture. It’s one I struggle with, too. Watch out that you are not finding your identity in your physical appearance or your health.

Principle #3: Embrace what is good

God created your body to be strong, flexible, and fit. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with placing it in a posture that will help it develop strength and flexibility. It’s only when we load such postures with the false worldview of Hinduism that it becomes sinful. Health is a good thing, and Western “yoga” may be one way to pursue it. Just make sure that you carry it out with an attitude of thankfulness toward God. If you can’t do it “to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), don’t do it at all. There are plenty of other exercise techniques that you can enjoy (or suffer through!).

Perhaps you may object that it’s not possible to divorce these postures from their Hindu origins. But I would submit to you that there’s a lot of precedent for this sort of thing in Christianity. Have you ever put up a Christmas tree? Have you ever celebrated Easter? These are traditions that have been successfully uprooted from their pagan origins. It’s only according to the Hindu worldview that “yoga” postures cannot be separated from the practice of “liberation.” From a Christian perspective, we can redirect them and glorify God by using them in a way that honors him.

Tomorrow, I’ll close out this series by explaining how I plan to put these principles into practice in my own life situation. Everyone is in a little different situation, so what is best for me may not always be best for you. My goal is simply to give an example of how this might play out in real life to help you think through your own response.

Yoga: a biblical response (Part 2 of 4)

(Read Part 1 to see why I’m writing about yoga.)

If we’re going to understand how a Christian should respond to yoga, we’re going to have to turn to the Bible. Of course, yoga isn’t mentioned in the Bible; there’s no command that says “thou shalt not practice yoga.” So we need to construct a biblical framework on which we can build a wise response to the practice of yoga in Western culture.

When we’re dealing with how Christians should interact with popular practices derived from another religion, an appropriate place to go would be 1 Corinthians 8–10. These three chapters teach us three principles that will help us respond to yoga.

The church at Corinth has written the apostle Paul a letter, in which they’ve asked him to settle a number of disputes within the church. One of these disputes is about whether or not a Christian can eat food that has been sacrificed to idols. Now, here in the West, we never have to face this issue, but it was a real problem for the Corinthians (and for many present-day believers in other cultures!). Corinth was a diverse and pluralistic city, filled with people from a smorgasbord of religions. Their social life often revolved around the worship of idols stationed in the temples of the city. A pagan Corinthian would bring an animal to be sacrificed at the altar of an idol. After being roasted on the altar, the meat would be eaten by the man and his friends and family at a party which he would throw in the temple. Any leftovers would be sold in the marketplace. If a Christian were to join the Jews of the city in avoiding any kind of idol meat, they would be cut off from the social life of their friends and family, and they could only buy meat from a Jewish kosher butcher. And beyond Corinth, any Christians living in a small town without a kosher butcher would be out of luck.

Principle #1: Give up your rights

Now, in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul responds to the theological arguments of the Christians in Corinth who believed it was okay to eat idol meat. They basically argued that since “there is no God but one” (v 4), idols were nothing more than empty statues. And there’s no danger in eating food offered to beings that don’t even exist. So they just roll their eyes at all the spiritual mumbo-jumbo spoken at the idol feasts, and with a clear conscience they eat the meat which their friends offer to them.

Paul agrees with their logic—or more accurately, he saves his major caveat for chapter 10. Right now, he wants to address the attitude of these self-styled theologians. Even though their theology is sound, not all of their fellow Christians are buying into it just yet. God has saved many of them out of idol-worshiping backgrounds; they can’t help but attach great spiritual significance to stone and metal images. When they watch these “stronger” Christians going to idol temples and eating meat at idol feasts, they are tempted to join in themselves. And so they are tempted to worship idols by eating sacrificial meat. Paul declares that in this way, the “stronger” Christians are sinning against their brothers by introducing this temptation; and in so doing, they’re sinning against Christ himself. So Paul concludes, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (v 13). He’s willing to give up his right to eat meat if it will tempt other Christians to sin.

In chapter 9, Paul expands on this teaching, explaining how he has given up his rights as an apostle to be supported financially and to bring a wife along with him on his journeys. He even adapts himself to the culture of the people to whom he is preaching the gospel. Paul is willing to give up his rights for the sake of the gospel, so that unbelievers will see Christ and believers will remain in Christ.

Principle #2: Flee from idolatry

As we reach chapter 10, Paul turns back to the “stronger” Christians and begins to warn them about the road they’re walking down. They’re very willing to associate with idol worship—and they’re playing with fire. Paul reminds them that the Israelites made the same mistake. They succumbed to idol worship, and the Corinthians are no better than they were. So Paul warns them, “Flee from idolatry” (v 14).

Here’s where he turns the tables on the Corinthian theologians. They aren’t totally correct in saying that an idol is an empty statue. It’s true that gods like Zeus and Apollos don’t exist, but the fact is that demons are lurking behind the images of these false gods. The pagans at these temples don’t realize it, but they are worshiping evil spirits. So when these Corinthians sit down at the idol feasts, they are participating in a sort of “communion service” with demons. “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy?” Paul asks them (v 22).

All the Corinthian believers agreed that offering sacrifices to idols is sin. Paul is telling them that participating in these idol feasts is sin as well. Christians should not connect themselves to idolatry but rather flee from it. They must not join unbelievers in the improper worship of anyone or anything other than God.

Principle #3: Embrace what is good

Now Paul turns to the issue of meat found in the marketplace. Usually, a buyer would have no way of knowing whether the meat had been sacrificed. Based on Principle #2, we might expect Paul to say that Christians should avoid buying any meat. But he doesn’t! Instead, he reminds us that “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (v 26). God made these animals to serve as food, and no pagan perversions will be able to change the goodness of this food. Outside of the context of idol feasts, this meat is perfectly good to eat. Only if it bothers another Christian’s conscience should a believer abstain from eating (Principle #1). Otherwise, Paul urges Christians not only to eat the meat, but to enjoy it and give thanks to God for it! He doesn’t want the “weaker” Christians to remain weak forever. He wants them to embrace what God has created as good.

So, those are the three principles that we will use to construct a Christian’s response to yoga. Tune in tomorrow when we apply them to this issue!

Jesus is not impressed with your rules (Mark 7:1–13)

Ah, legalism.

We’ve faced this issue before as we’ve worked our way through Mark. We’re facing it today, as we reach chapter 7. And we’ll face it again if we keep going as we have. It’s the sinister old enemy of Jesus; it’s the brainchild of the devil. Oddly enough, it’s perpetuated by the most well-meaning people.

Jesus has been working miracles left and right, proving that he is more than a man. Mark has been threading subtle hints of deity into his account of Jesus’ life. Now, Jesus is about to remind the religious leaders who oppose him that they have no right to claim divine authority, as he has done.

The Pharisees of Galilee have once again called up some teachers of the law from Jerusalem. They’re calling in the big guns to take down Jesus. They soon find a reason to criticize him—he doesn’t seem to care that his disciples never wash their hands before they eat! Now, the religious leaders aren’t concerned about their hygiene, bad as it is. Ceremonial washing is very important to the Pharisees because it’s one of the ways in which the Jews can set themselves apart from the corrupt and godless Gentiles. In the law of Moses, given by God at Sinai, washing was commanded for the priests to ceremonially cleanse themselves from defilement. The Pharisees, zealous to preserve the identity of God’s people, have decided to beef up God’s law a little by adding a few safeguards to it. If everybody washes their hands all the time, then there’s no danger of being defiled. The Pharisees’ motives seem to be pretty good—they want to keep God’s people from being corrupted by the immoral influences of the surrounding culture.

Jesus, however, isn’t a fan. He calls them “hypocrites.” He says that there are two things wrong with people inventing their own moral laws which they expect others to follow. First, when people invent their own rules, they replace God’s law with their own. Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13 to make his point:

This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

The Pharisees think they’re worshiping God. They think they’re protecting his law by buttressing it with their own. But what they’re really doing is replacing his law with “the commandments of men.” They’re trying to worship God in a way which he has not authorized. In fact, their respect for tradition has mutated into idolatry. By insisting on following man-made moral rules, they have set up man in God’s place.

And that leads Jesus to the second reason why it’s wrong for people to invent their own moral laws. He offers this caustic remark: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” He’s telling the Pharisees that not only are they replacing God’s law with their own, they’re also rejecting God’s law outright! Not only are they exalting human tradition, but they’re also trying to dethrone or “de-God” God. Jesus backs his statement with this evidence: the Pharisees allow grown children to ignore their parents’ needs by declaring their own possessions to be Corban, devoted to God. So then they can refuse to provide for their parents, which violates the commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12). The man-made law nullifies God’s law. Nor is this an isolated incident; Jesus says to them, “Many such things you do.” He could rattle off a whole list of other examples if they’d ask him. Somehow, I have the feeling that they aren’t in the mood to hear more.

As I’ve considered what Jesus said, I’m shocked at how hard he comes down on the Pharisees. He absolutely rips into them. He calls them hypocrites; he beats them over the head with scripture; he pierces them with sarcasm; he accuses them of rejecting God. Jesus loathes what they are teaching—how they are undermining the moral authority of God himself. He spares them no mercy.

So be very afraid. Inside of you and me there is a little legalist, always scheming, always inventing new laws to make us look more righteous and usurp God’s authority. And these laws always seem to be invented for good reasons. The inner legalist might provoke a fundamentalist Christian to declare that drinking alcohol is a sin, or to castigate young women because hemlines of their skirts are above the knee. The inner legalist might provoke a progressive young believer to declare that anyone who doesn’t recycle is immoral or (ironically) to ridicule Christians who won’t drink alcohol. Legalism and the worship of human tradition is a problem for young and old, men and women, believer and unbeliever, across all human traditions and cultures. Deep down, all of us possess a sinful impulse to dethrone God and take his place.

Because Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom, he will not stand idly by as people try to destroy it. He is not impressed with your kingdom. He is not impressed with your rules. And he has the authority to put an end to your insurrection. So let’s abandon our attempt to be lawmakers and instead submit with joy to the only one who can save our rebel hearts.

Jesus changes everyone (Mark 4:1–20)

As every preacher knows, there isn’t a person alive who doesn’t like a good story. Being able to tell an anecdote or a personal experience is a great way to illustrate God’s truth in a way that everyone can understand. Of course, you’ll have the occasional speaker who will get so caught up in telling a story that he becomes lost in the wilderness of his own imagination. But any preacher worth his salt will do his best to avoid that mistake; he wants his stories to reveal truth, not hinder it.

Once again, Jesus isn’t just any preacher. We typically think that he tells parables so that people will understand truth. That’s not the reason that he gives, though.

We saw a “sandwich story” the last time we looked at Mark, and now we’re seeing one again. We find Jesus beside the sea again, and this time he hops in a boat right away so the crowds don’t crush him. Then he tells them a bunch of parables, which are short fictional stories that illustrate a truth about God and his kingdom. One parable in particular stands out: a farmer sows seed on four different kinds of soil—a footpath, rocky ground, a thorn patch, and rich soil. The seed only produces grain in the rich soil, but this soil is so good that it yields an absurd amount of grain. So all of that is the upper slice of bread in the “sandwich.”

Then comes the meat between the bread. Jesus’ followers approach him, asking him to explain why he’s teaching in parables, and he gives a rather surprising reason. “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God,” he says, “but for those outside everything is in parables.” In other words, Jesus knows something very important about the kingdom which God is going to set up, but he won’t tell it to just anyone. It’s only for his disciples to know. The reason Jesus speaks in parables isn’t to reveal the truth about the kingdom to “those outside”—it’s to hide the truth about the kingdom from them. Jesus’ disciples are the insiders, and he will explain the truth to them, but he won’t tell it to anyone else.

Why not? What reason could Jesus possibly have for keeping God’s kingdom a secret? He reaches back to the Old Testament and adapts a famous stanza from Isaiah 6:9–10. He is hiding this knowledge from outsiders so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

Does that bother you? It bothers me. But I suppose I should ask a more important question: is this the Jesus you think you know? Does he have the right to say, “There is a certain group of people whom I will hide the truth from so that they won’t repent and be forgiven”? That’s the Jesus whom you and I are facing in this story. That’s what Jesus is like in real life.

So now we are left to ask, “Who are these ‘outsiders’? Why is Jesus holding back the truth that would cause them to repent?” So far in Mark’s gospel, we’ve seen Jesus reject the religious leaders because they have hardened their hearts against him. We’ve seen him reject his own family because they refuse to be with him and imitate him, which is what his disciples do. And now, he’s going to add new groups to the ever-expanding circle of “outsiders.”

The meat of Mark’s “sandwich” has given us the clue we need to understand what comes next. And what comes next (the lower slice of bread) is Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the four soils. Jesus says to his followers, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” In other words, this is a special parable because it’s actually a parable about parables—a metaparable, if you will. The seed represents “the word”—Jesus’ good news about the coming kingdom, which he tells in the form of parables. The first soil, the hardened footpath, represents those who are hard-hearted, like the religious leaders. The word doesn’t get in at all but lies dead on the surface, where Satan plucks it away. These outsiders won’t even consider what Jesus has to say. The second soil, the rocky ground, represents those who respond to the word with joy, but have only a shallow commitment. When tough times come, these outsiders fall away, because deep down they don’t really get it. The third soil, the thorn patch, represents those who have other dreams and desires besides the kingdom. These outsiders are distracted by a love of money or possessions or entertainment or anything else the world can offer. All these desires choke out their supposed love for God because they don’t really understand Jesus’ message, either.

Finally, Jesus tells us about the good, rich soil. When the seed falls here, it produces  a ridiculous bumper crop. A hundredfold yield was unheard of in Jesus’ day; this soil is unbelievably rich. This soil represents the insiders, Jesus’ true disciples. You can tell them apart from the outsiders because they “bear fruit.” This is because they have been given “the secret of the kingdom of God.”

What we’ve just read is a sobering message with so many implications that you and I couldn’t possibly sort through them all in the space of a single blog post. We know now that many people in the church will look like insiders but are actually outsiders who don’t understand the gospel. We know now that it’s an enduring faith, not a flash-in-the-pan spiritual experience, that marks a true disciple. We know now that many professing Christians are under the judgment of God, who blinds idol worshipers who turn to something or someone other than God for ultimate security (see Psalm 115:8).

Above all, we see that Jesus’ message changes everyone, because Jesus is a polarizing figure. Some people he transforms into his disciples. Other people he hardens into his opponents. His message has already changed you. Are you an insider or an outsider?