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Slippery Slopes

Many of us know what it’s like to find ourselves on a steep roof or on some other slick incline of mud, ice, or loose gravel.

So when someone uses the argument of “the slippery slope” to caution against taking even a small misstep in a dangerous direction, we do more than understand the warning. We feel the emotion of a decision that could suddenly place us in harm’s way.

Many of us also know that the Bible describes the slippery paths we end up on when we willfully turn our backs on God. The prophet Jeremiah speaks of those who deliberately ignore real danger when he writes, “Therefore their way shall be to them like slippery ways; in the darkness they shall be driven on and fall in them; for I [the Lord] will bring disaster on them” (Jeremiah 23:12 NKJV).

So, in no uncertain terms, we need to acknowledge that those who willfully climb over the guard rails and fences of moral and spiritual warnings can place themselves in real danger.

There is, however, another side to slippery-slope warnings. Such arguments are sometimes false alarms. They can be a way of crying, “Wolf!” when there is no wolf.

In the world of logic and debate, the slippery-slope argument has been called a fallacy because it has often been used as a scare tactic to exaggerate the presence of danger. In such instances, the warning is not based in good judgment or real evidence. Instead it prematurely asks, “If we don’t say no to this, then where are we going to draw the line?”

Admittedly, there’s a time for such caution. If there’s no good reason to do anything other than to play it safe, why buy trouble when we have enough already?

But what about those times when concern for others prompts us to risk criticism? For such moments, the Son of God gives us a different way to think about slippery-slope warnings.

On one occasion, Jesus allowed His hungry disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath to satisfy their hunger (Mark 2:23-28). When criticized by religious leaders, He said that the Sabbath was made for man, rather than man being made for the Sabbath (2:27). With just a few words Jesus reminded His critics that the letter of the law must be understood in light of its intent.  

On another occasion, Jesus again emphasized the spirit of the law by deliberately using the seventh day of the week to heal a man of a serious debilitating disease. When criticized for a possible infraction of the “no work” law, Jesus asked His critics which of them would hesitate to help an endangered animal that fell into a ditch on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5). In our day, the question might have been something like, “Which of you, after calling the fire department to report a house fire, would expect the responding fire trucks to drive within the speed limit?”

Using an example a child could understand, Jesus reminded the teachers of Israel that they didn’t have a problem understanding the heart of the law when it was in their own interests to do so.

Yet these weren’t the only times Jesus needed to explain the obvious to the teachers of Israel. On still another occasion, a group of religious leaders dragged a woman to Jesus, claiming to have caught her in the act of adultery (John 8:4). Then they proceeded to remind Jesus that Moses commanded that such a person be stoned and wondered what He thought should happen to her.

The gospel writer tells us that the religious leaders did this in an attempt to trap Jesus into saying something they could use against Him. They wanted to see whether Jesus would dare to show mercy to this woman. If so, where would He draw the line?

In response, Jesus bent down and wrote something in the sand. John doesn’t tell us what Jesus actually wrote. Could it have been “Where is the man?” No matter what He wrote, by what Jesus said next He drew a line in the sand they didn’t expect. He encouraged the one who had never sinned to throw the first stone (John 8:6-7). Then He crouched down and wrote again on the ground as, one by one, the woman’s accusers quietly left. 

But what about the law? How could Jesus ignore Moses and not be leading the way down a slippery slope to moral anarchy?

Maybe the answer is found in the first chapter of the same gospel. There John tells us that the law came by Moses, but that grace and truth came by Jesus Christ (1:17).

Before His time on earth was over, Jesus brought His answer to the slippery slope. On the basis of the death He died for us, He could lead His followers to be motivated more by a concern for others than by a fear of criticism. Instead of the question, “If we start, where will we draw the line?” we ask, “What do truth and love ask of us in this situation?”

Jesus never broke the law of love, even though He repeatedly resisted the misuse of slippery-slope thinking. On the contrary, He ate and drank with sinners. He made a Samaritan the hero of one of His stories. And, on the Sabbath, He healed the sick.

Father in heaven, please give us the discernment we need to see the difference between real danger and false alarms. Deliver us from the fears that are keeping us from courageously loving those for whom Your Son died. Mart De Haan

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