"All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up." -1 Corinthians 10:23
Lately I've been wrestling a bit with the surprising ways that my own selfishness can interact with the freedom that we have in Christ. That might sound like an odd combination, but it's a very real concern that I'm still in the process of wrestling with. Let me explain a bit.
Sometimes I feel like the believer in 1 Corinthians 8 who just doesn't have a problem eating food in an idol's temple. Although there are many so-called gods in heaven and earth (v-5) I know that in actuality there is one God (v-6) and that "food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do" (v-8). What does it matter where I eat this? God made it and I do all things to his glory, so it shouldn't matter, right? In isolation, this is not a bad argument. Paul is agreeing that there's nothing inherently wrong with the actions of the believer who would do something like this (although there's a distinction he draws later with actually participating in idol worship through this food in chapter 10).
The problem with this line of thought comes when other believers who hold different convictions enter the picture. We see this in verse 7 of chapter 8: not everyone has the same attitude towards food sacrificed towards idols and "their conscience, being weak, is defiled." We run the risk, then, of harming our brother and sister by our own actions (v-11). And not only that: "Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ" (v-12).
By wounding another believer's conscience, I sin against Christ. That's a scary thought, folks! By disregarding those surrounding me, I risk destroying the brother for whom Christ died. That is a sobering thought.
For the sake of argument, Paul asks: "Am I not free?" (9:1) Can't I do what I want without thinking of these other brothers? Paul shifts examples from food sacrificed to idols to raising support from local churches and other rights he has as an apostle to show that even he isn't immune from this struggle of thinking of others first instead of being selfish with the grace that God has given him.
Paul's conclusion is that "we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ" (9:12). Think of others before yourself and don't let your choices/behavior, which you can control, influence others negatively. Paul goes on to talk about being "a servant to all" (v-19) and doing this all "for the sake of the gospel" (v-23) and then warning against idolatry (the first portion of ch. 10), before arriving at perhaps the most famous part of this passage and how I began this post: "All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up" (10:23). But what is "helpful"? What "builds up"? Paul's answer is the next verse.
"Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor." (10:24) What ultimately matters is the rest of the body. What ultimately matters is my brothers or my sisters. I must love them as Christ has, i.e. sacrificially. I must honor them and thusly bring glory to God, not myself. It isn't easy, but it's what we're called to do. As we follow Paul's example and Christ's example (11:1), we must deny ourselves for the sake of others and live lives that embrace grace not selfishly but selflessly.
God, help me to think of others first. Thank you for the grace that you've given me and the freedom I have to walk in it, but help me to "pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding" (Rom 14:19) and not my own selfishness. Thank you for your sacrificial love-may my love grow to resemble yours more and more every day.