ReVision

Pragmatism

The ends don't always justify the means.

Fleshly Winds (5)

Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
1 Corinthians 10.31

Whatever you do
Life is about doing. There’s no avoiding that. Everyone who has ever lived does certain things, often many of the same things over and over again.

All people eat and drink, for example. Most people have some work to do. We all have to get dressed, deal with other people, try to make ends meet, and enjoy some leisure activities. People do stuff, and most people do what they do for a reason. Their reason may or may not be clear, even to them. Or their reasons for doing the things they do may be merely selfish. But ask anyone why they do what they do, and they’ll give you some reasons.

People whose lives are defined by narcissism, presentism solipsism, and/or hedonism are driven by whatever works to satisfy their egos and self-interest. They don’t bother wondering about what others might think or feel, or how others might respond to something they do. Their concern is solely with themselves in the present moment, and they will choose what they do to maximize each moment for their own selfish interests.

Christian life is also about doing. We have been redeemed by Jesus Christ and saved by grace through faith that we might do good works (Eph. 2.8-10). The works we do, whatever they may be, must not be defined solely by self-interest. We must not look only on our own things, but on the things of others (Phil. 2.4). Our purpose and calling is to do good works. We must be equipped for these by the Word and Spirit of God (2 Tim. 3.15-17; Gal 5.22, 23). We must train our hearts to be zealous for doing good works (Tit. 2.14). And we must be prepared in every situation to be ready for and to maintain good works, for this is how we seek and advance the Kingdom of God on earth (Tit. 3.1, 8, 14).

Whatever we do, we must do it within the parameters of goodness defined by God and His Word, and to bring glory to God so that others may glimpse Him through our actions. Christians will study, pray, prepare, anticipate, plan for, and do whatever they can to show the goodness of God to others by their works. In this respect, we must be diligent and pragmatic to do whatever it takes to glorify God in any situation.

But being pragmatic for the goodness and glory of God is not the same as pragmatism.

Pragmatism defined
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, pragmatism “is an approach that evaluates theories or beliefs in terms of the successof their practical application.” The operative words here are “success” and “application.” The Christian defines success as God being glorified when His goodness is displayed through our works. But pragmatism, as a philosophy of life, leaves the definition of “success” to the doer of works.

An excellent example of pragmatistic thinking comes in the song, “Soliloquy” from the musical Carousel. In this song, Billy Bigelow, a carnival operator, ponders the forthcoming birth of his child. At first, he’s convinced that the child will be a son: “My boy, Bill; I will see that he’s named after me!” He waxes eloquent about how he’ll teach his son to be tough, like him, and not to let anyone “boss him or toss him around.” His son will be able to do whatever he wants in life, just as long as it’s what he wants, and not what someone forces on him.

But halfway through the song it occurs to Billy that this child might not be a boy at all. And if it’s a girl, he hasn’t a clue what he’ll do with or for her. The mood of the song changes from boastful and brash to gentle, dream-like, and wistful. Toward the end of the song, Billy, convinced now that he’s going to have a daughter, resolves to do whatever it takes to make sure she has food on the table and the best clothes on her body:
“I never knew how to get money,/but I’ll try! I’ll try! I’ll try!/ I’ll go out and make it,/or steal it, or take it – /or die!”

More important than teaching his daughter how best to live is that she be materially provided for. And whatever it takes for Billy to do that, he would do. Success is understood as material comfort; practical application turns out to be theft, which ultimately costs Billy his life.

Pragmatism does not define either what success might be, or which applications are proper. Happily, knowing people’s penchant for self-interest, societies promulgate laws which define the limits of what are socially acceptable practices. But those laws are too often mere human guidelines, and can be altered as the winds of doctrine change. Prior to 1973 in this country, the practice of abortion was not legal as a way to success in life. Now that has changed, and scores of millions of unborn infants have been sacrificed so that an abortionist can succeed in making money and his patient can succeed in not being inconvenienced by having to raise a child.

Whoever defines the meaning of success will call the terms of practical application, looking to pragmatism to justify every step in the process.

Problems with pragmatism
Christians should be pragmatic about doing good works. That is, we should carefully consider everything we do to make sure we’re doing it for the right reason – “success” defined as God being glorified – and according to the proper applications – “good” in terms of Scripture and our Lord Jesus Christ. As long as we are always focused on these ends and means, we will do whatever we do by the goodness and for the glory of God.

It’s when we begin to allow lesser ends to creep into our thinking, even unrecognized, that we end up making applications that are not necessarily good.

For example, we may believe that “success” is defined by having a big church where everyone is happy. Or maybe just a church where no one leaves to go to the big happy church across town. Now, what do we have to do to realize that definition of “success”? Perhaps we might change the focus of worship from God, exalted in glory, to us, languishing in our needs and wants, so that everything we do in worship is directed toward our feeling good about being there. We sing songs that make us feel good, and that are easy to learn and fun to sing. We listen to sermons that scratch some itch in our soul, without demanding too much of us either intellectually or practically. We do what we think people will enjoy doing, rather than what they perhaps ought to do to ascribe glory and majesty and honor to God and Jesus Christ, and to devote themselves unreservedly to following Him. We don’t want to have to work at worship; we want to enjoy worship. Thus making sure that worship is an enjoyable experience becomes the measure of a successful worship service. And a successful worship service is integral to having a successful church.

Pragmatistic thinking blows into the sails of our soul in many ways, encouraging us to think above all about our own comfort or convenience, or our interests and needs, and leading us to do only those things which we feel comfortable doing – rather than, say, those things that require laying down our lives, taking up our cross, and going the extra mile to serve others.

The winds of pragmatism swirl continually around the hearts, minds, and consciences of believers and their churches. And unless we are convinced that God’s glory is the only proper end of everything we do, and God’s Word and Spirit are the true definers of good works, we can easily be blown off course in our journey with the Lord.

For reflection
1. What does it mean to do whatever you do to the glory of God?

2. Why must Scripture and the Lord Jesus Christ be the standard for good works?

3. How can we tell if we’re doing something for merely pragmatic reasons? 

Next steps – Preparation: In prayer, look ahead to your day, and all that you’ll be doing. Let Psalm 90.12, 16, 17 guide you as you commit this day to glorifying God.

T. M. Moore

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
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