A Religion of Hope (Romans 15.13)

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Christianity appeals to both our hopes and fears. 

Every two years, Americans endure the “silly season” of a national election. Candidates for political office appeal first to the hopes and then to the fears of their prospective voters. They try to paint a picture of what could be if voters elected them, and what would be their opponents were elected. 

Politicians may be stupid, but they’re not dumb. Hope and fear are two of the most basic motivators in the human psyche. Hope pulls us toward the future we want. It is fundamentally optimistic. Fear pushes us away from the future we want to avoid. It is fundamentally pessimistic. Bad politicians peddle false hopes and unwarranted fears. Good politicians deal with reality. They inspire “the better angels of our nature,” in Abraham Lincoln’s immortal words, even as they warn us about the world’s lurking evils. 

The other day, I corresponded with one of my students about Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Here’s Edwards: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.” Hell is a fear motivator. My student wanted to know, among other things, whether people still preached like Edwards, or whether his was an outmoded style of preaching. My answer was that Edwards message was biblical, even if his hellfire-and-brimstone preaching method was a bit old school. 

In this regard, think of how the Apostle Paul begins Romans. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven” (Romans 1.18). That is a fear-motivating statement. But as we draw near to the end of Romans, we see that fear of divine judgment serves the purposes of hope. Consider Paul’s prayer in Romans 15.13: 

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Notice how Paul describes God as “the God of hope.” God is white-hot mad at sin and its consequences, but he loves us sinners. His great desire is to mend his relationship with us that we are responsible for rending. And he works proactively to fulfill his desire. In the words of Romans 5.8, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

When we respond to his love with trust (or faith), God pours the blessings of his joy and peace into our lives. Isn’t that the future we all want? Interestingly, God gives us joy and peace “so that” we may “overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Through Christ, in the Spirit, God makes believers super-optimists. 

Is there fear in Christianity? Yes, of sin and its consequences. But in the end, Christianity is a religion of hope. At Christmas, we sing the carol which says to Jesus, “The hopes and fears of all the years / are met in Thee tonight.” And when they meet, hope puts fear to flight.

No Exceptions to Acceptance (Romans 15.7-12)

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In the Christian worldview, there are no exceptions to acceptance. 

This was a novel principle in the first-century intellectual milieu in which Jesus Christ was born. Jews distinguished between themselves and the Gentiles. Romans distinguished between citizens and non-citizens, between the freeborn and slaves. Greeks distinguished between themselves and barbarians. These various groups might interact, but they did not think of themselves as equals in any way. They did not accept one another. 

Jesus Christ broke down the racial, religious, and cultural barriers people erected against one another. He accepted all people in order to give them all God’s gift of salvation. He did this by means of the cross. Consider what Paul wrote in Ephesians 2.14-16: 

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 

In Romans 15.7-12, Paul refers to Christ as the model accepter, whose example we should follow: 

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God's truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written:  

“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles;
I will sing hymns to your name” [2 Samuel 22.50, Psalm 18.49]. 

Again, it says,  

“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people” [Deuteronomy 32.43]. 

And again,  

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and sing praises to him, all you peoples” [Psalm 117.1]. 

And again, Isaiah says,  

“The Root of Jesse will spring up,
one who will arise to rule over the nations;
the Gentiles will hope in him” [Isaiah 11.10]. 

Because of the social situation of the early church, Paul focuses on the need for Jewish and Gentile Christians to accept one another. In the Roman church, which was a mixed church, numerous opportunities to erect barriers existed. Should Christians eat kosher or not? Should they observe the Sabbath or not? Most of these potential barriers existed because of the religious and cultural differences between Jews and Gentiles. 

But as far as Paul was concerned, none of those barriers should be erected in the church. Rather, we should accept one another. And if Christ crossed over the barrier of sin that divides us from God, destroyed it, gave us the grace of our Heavenly Father and the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit to reform our spiritual and moral lives, how could we do otherwise? If Christ is a barrier-destroying accepter of people, shouldn’t we be too? 

Obviously, we should never accept sinful behavior. But when it comes to sinful people, there truly are no exceptions to acceptance.

A Prayer for Christian Unity (Romans 15.5-6)

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How about a joke to start your day? 

Comedian Emo Philips tells this joke about Baptists: 

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said “Stop! Don't do it!” 

“Why shouldn't I?” he said.  

“Well, there's so much to live for!” 

“Like what?” 

“Well…are you religious?” He said yes. I said, "Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?” 


“Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?” 

“Protestant.”  “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?” 


“Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?” 

“Baptist Church of God!” 

“Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?” 

“Reformed Baptist Church of God!” 

“Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?” 

He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!” 

I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off. 

Church history is—from one perspective—the sad story of Christians pushing each other off the bridge. On July 16, 1054, representatives of the Pope excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, inaugurating the Great Schism between the western Roman Catholic Church and the eastern Greek Orthodox Church. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, inaugurating the Protestant Reformation and further dividing the western church. Today, according to the World Christian Database, there are over 9000 denominations at work in the world, at least 635 in the United States alone. 

Some of these divisions were necessary. When an essential doctrine or moral principle is on the line, Christians have to choose for orthodoxy over heresy. But most of the splits between Protestant denominations have nothing to do with essential doctrines or moral principles. They are, rather, splits over doctrines and practices that are nonessential. They are, in other words, divisions over personal preferences. And such divisions are unfortunate.  

In John 17.20-21, Jesus prayed: 

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 

Christian disunity—when caused by disputes over personal preferences—is tragic because it hinders our evangelistic witness to the world. 

In Romans 15.5-6, Paul prayed this prayer: 

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

This is a prayer we too ought to pray and put into practice. Following Jesus should unite all Christians—regardless of denominational stripe—and enable them to present a unified front to a world desperately in need of grace.

Let’s stop pushing each other off the bridge to heaven and instead work together to help others across.

Christian Self-giving-ness (Romans 15.1-4)

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When I was a bachelor, I was selfish. When I married, I realized that selfishness is no way to build a home. My motto for marriage is, “Happy wife, happy life.” Something similar could be said of all good relationships.

Paul writes about the relationship of “strong” and “weak” Christians in Romans 15.1-4:

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Strong Christians are people with a robust understanding of Christian freedom. They know that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14.17). They exercise their personal preferences in good faith and with a clear conscience. Weak Christians, on the other hand, have a feeble understanding of Christian freedom. They often confuse personal preferences with moral principles. They are bound by scruples about eating and drinking, thinking that such things do in fact matter in God’s kingdom.

Now, it’s always very easy for strong Christians to ride roughshod over the feelings of weak Christians. Strong Christians are tempted to act selfishly, like bachelors, when they should act selflessly, like happily married men. They are tempted, in other words, to please themselves when they should really aim to please others. But as Paul argues, strong Christians should use their strength to benefit others. They should “bear with the failings of the weak” and “please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”

Such selflessness is not rooted in low self-esteem. Strong Christians have strong, healthy egos. They know that they can leverage their strengths to help others. Come to think of it, selflessness is not really the word I should be using. Self-giving-ness hits closer to the mark. Strong Christians give themselves in service to others precisely because they know that they have something to offer them.

Jesus Christ is the best example of a strong, self-giving person. As Paul points out, “Christ did not please himself.” Rather, he let the insults intended for us fall on his strong, broad shoulders. No doubt this experience was unpleasant for him, but it resulted in pleasant consequences for us.

Obviously, we’re talking about the cross here. As the TNIV translation of Philippians 2.6-7 reminds us, Jesus, who was “in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” Christ’s self-giving-ness for us flowed from a robust understanding of his divine equality. 

Anyone who claims to be spiritually strong should follow his example.

Sinful Personal Preferences (Romans 14.22-23)

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Can personal preferences be sinful? Maybe.

Throughout Romans 14.1-15.13, Paul is teaching Christians how to live with their differences over personal preferences. His teaching assumes a distinction between moral principles (which are absolute and require Christian unity) and personal preferences (which are relative and allow for Christian diversity). When it comes to things like adultery, lying, and murder, for example, there is only one Christian principle: Don’t! But when it comes to things like eating meat or vegetables, drinking alcohol or abstaining, Christians are free to do as they wish. So, it would seem that personal preferences cannot be sinful.

But in Romans 14.22-23, Paul argues that in fact personal preferences can be sinful under two conditions. Here’s what he writes:

So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

The first condition under which personal preferences can be sinful is if they harm someone else. As Paul makes abundantly clear throughout this passage, eating and drinking are matters of Christian freedom. But given their cultural and religious backgrounds, some Christians—in Paul’s day and ours—have scruples about eating meat and drinking alcohol. Although Christians are free to eat and drink whatever they want, they are not free to ride roughshod over the feelings of “weaker,” more scrupulous Christians. It would be wrong, for example, to exercise your Christian freedom by drinking alcohol in front of an alcoholic Christian who is currently in recovery. When Paul writes, “Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves,” he is thinking of this first condition. A Christian who prizes personal freedom over loving fellowship has not yet learned the way of Jesus. His actions are totally un-Christlike.

The second condition under which personal preferences can be sinful is if they proceed from doubt rather than faith. If the first condition pertains to “stronger” Christians and their exercise of freedom, the second condition pertains to “weaker” Christians and their exercise of freedom. “The man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” Let’s say a vegetarian Christian decides to go ahead and eat a steak because all her Christian friends are doing it, but she still has scruples about meat. She is acting out of peer pressure, not faith. Her action is therefore sinful because she is violating her conscience. Christian freedom is a blessed thing, but sometimes, we have to work our way slowly into it. Our beliefs must develop alongside our emotions and our actions in order for us to be truly, Christianly free. 

So, can personal preferences be sinful? Only if exercised without love or faith. Other than that, no, they can’t.

Peace through Mutual Edification (Romans 14.19-21)

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We all want to live in peace, but are we willing to do what peace requires? 

Several years ago, as a Christmas gift, my mother gave me a copy of a famous etching by William Strutt. It hangs in my office, behind my desk. The focus of the picture is a young child holding an olive branch. A variety of animals—both domestic and predatory—surround him. Titled “Peace,” the etching draws its inspiration from Isaiah 11.6: 

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.  

For many people, peace is the absence of conflict. This can be achieved through appeasement or strength. If you lock up your domestic animals in pens and hunt down and kill their predators, you will experience the absence of conflict. Governments—which, according to Romans 13.4, have the power of the sword—produce this kind of peace. 

But in the biblical worldview, peace is more than the absence of conflict. It is the presence of harmony. It is not keeping enemies apart but bringing them together as friends. It is the wolf living with the lamb without hunger, and the goat lying down with the leopard without fear. Such peace is not natural. It is supernatural. It is the gracious gift of God. 

And it is also the responsibility of the church, which consists of people who have been graced by God. Paul writes about the church’s responsibility for peace in Romans 14.19-21:  

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall. 

In the overall context of Romans 14.1-15.13, Paul is teaching Roman Christians how to live with their differences over personal preferences. Some of the Roman Christians were Jews who had scruples about kosher food and Sabbath-keeping. Other Roman Christians were Gentiles who had no such scruples. These differences in religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds no doubt led to numerous conflicts, hard feelings, and wounded egos. Rome was a graced, but not necessarily peaceful church. 

Paul saw the way to peace through neither appeasement nor strength but through “mutual edification.” Edification means “building up.” I build you up when I keep your best interests uppermost in my mind and act accordingly. Mutual edification means that you do the same for me. If all of us would develop an edification mentality, peace—the presence of harmony—would be the result. 

That same Christmas, my mother also gave me a framed copy of a famous prayer by St. Francis of Assisi. “Lord,” it begins, “make me an instrument of thy peace.” Amen.

Pleasing to God, Approved by Men (Romans 14.13-18)

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How can we live in a way that honors God and earns the respect of our neighbors? Romans 14.13-18 shows the way.

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.

First, be nonjudgmental. Everyone makes judgments about spiritual and moral principles, what’s true and false, what’s right and wrong. But judging principles is not the same thing as judging people. And anyway, we should never judge anyone for his or her choices in matters of personal preferences.

But the Christian way goes beyond nonjudgmentalism, which can degenerate into indifference to the needs of our neighbors. No, we must be actively loving. That’s the second step in the Christian way. Paul describes active love in the negative terms of not putting “any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” Stated more positively, love removes obstacles. It smoothes the spiritual and moral path for others.

Third, be sensitive in matters of conscience. Paul has a very robust understanding of Christian freedom. There are many things—eating, drinking, etc.—that Christians are free to engage in or abstain from. They are matters of personal preference. But because of his commitment to nonjudgmental love, Paul urges us never to exercise our freedom if that would offend the conscience of another person. If you’re eating with a vegetarian, don’t order a rare steak. (Or if you’re eating with a carnivore, don’t be offended if he does.) Be sensitive to the scruples of others, even if you don’t share them.

Fourth, be mindful of others’ perceptions. Paul says, “Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.” We all know Christians who have the right message but the wrong methods. I once saw a Christian woman standing on a street corner yelling the gospel at passersby. I was offended, and I agreed with her. I can’t imagine how many people that day disregarded the message because of the offensiveness of the messenger. Don’t be that person!

Paul concludes his description of the Christian way of doing things by saying, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Wherever righteousness, peace, and joy are present, God will be honored and we will earn our neighbors’ respect. 

The Final Judgment (Romans 14.9-12)

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Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards may very well be the scariest sermon ever preached in America. “There is nothing,” Edwards argued, “that keeps wicked Men, at any one Moment, out of Hell, but the mere Pleasure of GOD.” If that doesn’t scare the hell out of you, nothing will.

I mention Edwards because we don’t often hear sermons about hell anymore, or heaven for that matter. Perhaps in reaction to older preachers who talked about the hereafter too much, contemporary preachers instead focus on the here and now. And they’re right to do so. After all, that’s what the Bible itself does. It’s a misreading of the Bible to become so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good.

And yet, open the Bible to just about any page, and you’ll a reference to the final judgment. Consider, for example, Romans 14.9-12:

For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat. It is written: 

“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.’”

So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.

Paul brings together four issues here: First, the intention of God to judge the world, which Paul proves by quoting Isaiah 45.23. At the final judgment, “every knee” will bow to God in recognition of his right to judge us, and “every tongue” will offer an explanation of its life.

Second, Paul talks about the role of Christ in the final judgment. Christ died and rose again to offer salvation to all humanity. All who respond to him in faith will be given salvation as a gift. All who continue to resist him with sin will be given judgment as repayment. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul writes in Romans 6.23, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In eternity, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, there are only two kinds of people. Those who say to God, “Thy will be done.” And those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.”

That’s the third point: the necessity of decision. Knowing that “we will all stand before God's judgment seat” and “give an account of [ourselves] to God,” what decision have we made about Jesus Christ: To submit to his will or persist in our own?

And that brings us to the final point: the impropriety of judging one another. “You, then, why do you judge your brother?” Paul asks. “Or why do you look down on your brother?” God is the Judge, not you or me. So, let’s leave eternity in his hands and concentrate on getting more people into heaven (and more heaven into people) right here and now.

We Belong to the Lord (Romans 14.5-8)

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The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” Answer: “That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” The idea that we belong to Jesus comes directly out of the Bible, and if you put that idea into practice, it will change the way you live.

Romans 14.5-8 clearly states the idea of belonging to Jesus: 

One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 

In these verses, Paul is continuing the argument he began at 14.1: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” As I demonstrated yesterday, Christian nonjudgmentalism is rooted in a distinction between moral principles and personal preferences. All of us must make judgments about the application of moral principles. But we should not make judgments about personal preferences. How we use our freedom is between us and God, not between you and me. 

But our freedom of choice in matters of personal preference is constrained by two factors: First, as Paul puts it, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” Just because you are free to do something doesn’t mean that you should. Take drinking alcohol, for example. The Bible explicitly prohibits drunkenness, not drinking (Ephesians 5.18). In other words, sobriety is a moral principle applicable to all Christians, but drinking is a personal preference available to some Christians. Just because you can drink doesn’t mean you should, however. If your conscience tells you not to drink, and you drink anyway, you have violated your conscience. You have acted without being “fully convinced in [your] own mind.” 

The second factor constraining our freedom of choice is our relationship to God. Notice how often Paul repeats the phrase, “to the Lord,” in verses 5-8. Whatever we do, we should always ask what God thinks is best for us to do and what would bring him the most glory. To use the example of drinking alcohol again, remember that at the wedding in Cana, Jesus brought God the most glory when he turned water into wine (John 2.1-12). But John the Baptist brought God the most glory when he took a lifelong vow of abstaining from alcohol (Luke 1.13-17). 

Christian freedom, then, does not mean doing whatsoever we want to do. We belong to the Lord. No, freedom means doing whatever God thinks is best in a given situation.

Who are you to judge? (Romans 14.2-4)

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As a pastor, I am often asked what the Bible teaches about some controversial moral issue. Occasionally, if I give an answer my questioners don’t like, they follow up with another question: Who are you to judge? It’s a good question, and I think I’ve got a pretty good answer. 

The who-are-you-to-judge question is usually rhetorical. My questioners aren’t inquiring into my spiritual, moral, or intellectual credentials to state an opinion on the matter. Instead, they’re hurling an accusation. “Who are you to judge?” really means “You are in no position to judge!” 

Regardless of my questioners’ rhetorical intent, I answer the question straight. Who am I to judge? A reasonably intelligent human being who knows the difference between principles and preferences. 

When it comes to moral principles, all of us should exercise proper judgment, discerning between right and wrong and choosing to do right. Morally principled people don’t dishonor their parents, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t offer perjured testimony, and don’t covet other people’s stuff, as we learn in the second half of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20.12-17). 

When it comes to personal preferences, however, all of us should exercise restraint, recognizing that on any number of issues, people can make different but equally valid choices. Romans 12.2-4 offers an example of the Christian’s freedom in matters of personal preference. 

One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 

For Paul, and for the Bible generally, it is a moral principle that we not judge people who disagree with us on personal preferences. Such judgmentalism is out of place. People are accountable to God for their personal preferences, not you or me. If you’re a vegetarian, don’t hassle me because I eat meat. (Jonah Goldberg once quipped, “If God didn’t want us to eat cows, he wouldn’t have made them out of steak.”) And by the same token, I won’t think you’re weird because you eat tofu. As Paul points out, whether we eat meat or veggies is between God and us, not you and me. So don’t judge! 

Unfortunately, our culture tends to conflate moral principles and personal preferences, especially when it comes to sex. When Woody Allen left his longtime girlfriend Mia Farrow in order to take up with her adopted daughter Soon-yi Previn, he justified his quasi-incestuous choice by saying, “The heart wants what it wants.” If he had murdered Mia Farrow, do you think anyone would’ve taken that as a reasonable explanation? 

When it comes to moral principles, use good judgment. But when it comes to personal preferences, the best judgment is not to judge at all.

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