A year ago, while working my part-time custodial job at my church, I met a young man who was waiting for a bus to pick him up. He had just been released from jail and was headed back to Caledonia to resume his old job. He told me he owed child support money, and while in jail, he had realized that he needed to get back to the Lord and "do what's right." I've heard that saying often enough: "Do what's right." And there's a lot to be said for doing what's right. Good for that young man, who wants to do the right thing. The world would be a far better place if we all could consistently pull that off. But realistically, we don't. And it's not what the gospel is about. The gospel is not about behavior modification; it is about heart transformation. It is not about our doing well but Christ's doing well for us, in us, and through us. The gospel is about experiencing a change in our source of life, from what the Bible calls the "flesh" to eternal life that resides in the Son of God. Jesus in us and we in him: that is the arrangement God offers us out of his great, great love for us. We are no longer on our own, striving to meet the quota on an endless moral assembly line; instead, those of us who are exhausted by our efforts to get it right, and beaten down by our failures, can rest in Someone who got it right for us; who loves us beyond anything we can imagine; and who doesn't stand outside us as a taskmaster but lives inside us as our very life, producing the fruit of his own character in us as we walk with him. John 1:17 says, "The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." No more doing what's right in order to become righteous; instead, doing what's right because we are righteous, and by nature we want to do those things that please the One who loves us. That is one way of looking at Christianity.
For whatever weird reason, while in the shower a few minutes ago, I found myself reminiscing on an early passage of my journey with Jesus when I attended a classic “holy roller”-style Pentecostal church. The cliches were true: many of the men really did slick back their hair, and the women really did wear their hair in buns and wore long dresses and no makeup. They were not an outwardly attractive group, and I realize in retrospect that a lot of them were just as severe on the inside—and at the time, so was I. Which gets me to thinking about this whole business of appearance. In 1 Samuel 16:6–7, we get the following insight into how God views things: “[Samuel] looked at Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is before Him.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’” (NASB). It’s the heart that God pays attention to. Outer stuff is just that: outer, superficial. What God values is inside us. He’s after the candy bar, not the wrapper. He feels that way about every aspect of our lives, and he wants us to have the same perspective, as Jesus makes clear in one of his statements to the religious critics of his day: “‘Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment’” (John 7:24 NASB). Eugene Peterson renders this verse beautifully in The Message: “‘Don’t be nitpickers; use your head—and heart!—to discern what is right, to test what is authentically right.’” Righteous judgment is judgment that’s informed by the heart and, to a large extent, by—dare I say it?—common sense. Moreover, holiness is about an inner condition that may or may not at all be reflected by how a person dresses. It’s tied not to external rules of deportment but to the law of love—love for God and love for one’s neighbor. Love guides in ways that rules can’t and furnishes nobler reasons than merely “getting it right.” Moreover, it does so in freedom, not bondage. With this in mind, let’s consider what the apostle Peter was getting at when he advised women, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3–4 NIV). What was Peter really saying? The people in that church I attended apparently thought he had issued some kind of anti-fashion dress code. But by zeroing in on the first half of the passage, they completely missed its purpose, namely, to create a backdrop for what follows. Too bad, because that second half is the true heart of the matter—and the part that’s far harder for us to deal with. It’s a whole lot easier to do something about the way we look than the way we are. Many Christians have interpreted Peter’s words in a way that confuses holiness with homeliness. But that wasn’t Peter’s point; his point was to shift his readers’ focus from the outside to the place where true beauty lies: in one’s “inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” Peter could just as easily have told women, “Don’t preoccupy yourselves with looking as plain as possible, avoiding attractive hairstyles, jewelry, and fine clothes. Those things aren't the issue. Concentrate on what’s within.” Ditto for men. Greasing back one’s hair and wearing a suit doesn’t make a guy any more pleasing in God’s sight than wearing jeans and a T-shirt. What counts is the heart. And no, I don’t buy the idea that if our heart belongs to God, we’ll dress in a certain prescribed way “out of respect for the Lord.” The Bible tells us what God cares about, and it has nothing to do with whether we dress up or down. It doesn’t matter whether a woman dresses in a potato sack or a sequined gown if her mouth spews out poison in her relationships. It doesn’t matter whether a man wears a suit or cargo pants if he’s mean as a rattlesnake at home and a crook at work. Now, please understand: I do believe that love will guide us to dress in a way that doesn’t tempt our brothers and sisters sexually. But that issue, while related to this one, is a separate discussion. You’re smart; you can figure it out, right? It’s about love, about seeking the best interests of others, not about rules. It always is. When love reigns, so do color and creativity and freedom, tempered by healthy self-control born out of care for our fellow humans, not religious pressure; and in all of it, life the way God means us to live it.