The subtle dangers of the rounded cliff

Once there was a man was selling fish. His sign read, "Fresh Fish Today." Along came the first customer, who asked him, "Why use the word 'Today'? Isn't it obvious that it is 'today'?" "Good point," he said, and changed his sign to read simply "Fresh Fish."

Along came the second customer, who asked him, "Why say 'Fresh'? Everyone knows your fish is always fresh. Do you really expect people to think you'd sell them them stale fish?" "Good point," he replied, and changed his sign again to read simply "Fish."

Along came the third customer, who asked him, "Why do you need a sign? We all know what you're selling. We can smell the fish from a block away!"1

This story illustrates the danger of the "slippery slope." In our entertainment, if we're not careful, our choices can slide down a slope toward moral decay. Imagine a giant bookshelf stretching for miles in both directions, the left side representing the filthiest entertainment ever created, and the right side representing the purest. If you took all the books, movies, TV shows, music, and magazines and placed them on the bookshelf by how they ranked morally, you could fill almost every slot on that giant shelf. It would form a seemingly even continuum; no matter what slot on that bookshelf you choose, there is something ever so slightly darker and more sinister, with the shade being so similar it can be difficult to tell the difference.

This is dangerous because it allows us to slowly drift in our standards, sometimes without even knowing it. We don't have to take one sudden leap into sin; we can slowly sink into it, as into quicksand. The change occurs so gently that from day to day it is almost imperceptible, but before long the cumulative change becomes shocking. David talks about being delivered from miry clay:

Psalm 40:2 - He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.

Sometimes, people who want to push the line in standards will say, "If we can watch this movie, then what's so wrong with that one?" They're not asking you to take one giant leap off the cliff, just to take one step down a slight slope. Each TV show or movie can become like breadcrumbs, each only slightly lower and farther from the top than the last, until somehow, we realize that somewhere along the way we took the step that ultimately resulted in our ruin. We end up with compromised standards, or worse, no standards at all.

Here are a few practical tips to combat this:

  1. Prefer high to low
  2. Stand your ground
  3. Reference absolute bearings

1: Prefer high to low

First, to avoid "standards creep", when in doubt, choose the higher ground. A lot of people laugh at this sort of thinking, but there is really a great safety in avoiding anything which is doubtful. It is a very biblical concept as well. Some will say you are like the weaker brother mentioned by Paul, and that they are stronger since they can handle more entertainment without offending their consciences. Be careful; I've heard this argument used a lot, but many times it isn't because they have stronger consciences but because they have seared or calloused consciences that don't have nearly the sensitivity that they ought to (I Timothy 4:2). Fools make a mock at sin (Proverbs 14:9), and what you find entertaining says a lot about your heart.

Think about all the people that have fallen off this "cliff" by venturing too far. The numbers are astounding. Now try to think of anyone who has fallen off this particular cliff by remaining at the top. Of course, we need to be aware of Satan's other traps as well; but staying far away from the edge of this one (and others) and remaining close to God will provide a safety like no other.

McGee illustrates the concept of avoiding temptation in his Thru the Bible series:

One of the reasons we yield to temptation is that we are like the little boy in the pantry. His mother heard a noise because he had taken down the cookie jar. She said, "Willie, where are you?" He answered that he was in the pantry. "What are you doing there?" He said, "I'm fighting temptation." My friend, that is not the place to fight temptation! That is the palce to start running.2

Willie did exactly what the very first verse in Psalms warns us against. In the progression of sin, we first walk by it; then, we stop and consider it; and finally, we sit down and partake of it (Psalm 1:1). The first practical tip to avoid falling off the sloping cliff is to prefer high to low ground.

2: Stand your ground

Second, stand your ground. If you choose high standards of godly living, then others in the culture today will try to convince you to take a few more steps down the slope. Some will urge you to "throw caution to the wind" altogether. The world will tell you, "If it feels good, do it." Others may point out slight inconsistencies in your stance--"One foot is standing on higher ground than the other, so go ahead and bring the higher one down so they're at the same level." Rather, usually the best option is to bring the lower foot up to the higher level!

A soldier once "stood his ground":

As we stood in formation at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, our Flight Instructor said, "All right! All you idiots fall out."
As the rest of the squad wandered away, I remained at attention. The instructor walked over, stood eye-to-eye with me and raised a single eyebrow.
I smiled and said, "Sure was a lot of 'em!"

This soldier obviously didn't think the command applied to him--only to "idiots," so he stood right where he was! Similarly, stand your ground when it comes to avoiding sinful entertainment, even if everyone around you is "falling out." There might be a "lot of 'em," but God's opinion outweighs the combined opinions of those in the world. We must be like Shammah, one of David's mighty men, who when everyone else fled, stood his ground, allowing God to perform a great victory (II Samuel 23:11-12). So the second practical tip to avoid falling off the rounded cliff is this: Stand your ground.

3: Reference absolute bearings

The third and most important step in avoiding standards creep is to reference absolute bearings. If, at the top of the slope, was a large and solid rock, you could consistently take measurements from that rock to determine how your position has changed over time. Because it happens so slowly, you may be surprised to see how different the measurements are, and it may help you to get back to where you should be.

How does this principle play out in morals? First, we reference our spiritual absolute bearings by praying to Jesus and asking what He thinks about our standards. Ask Him what He thinks about TV show X or movie Y or song Z. Since He never changes, you will always have a solid Rock to reference, and it will help you notice when you are drifting.

Second, we reference absolute bearings by remembering our past, more as an auxiliary check, assuming we were living for God in the past. "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works" (Revelation 2:5). Ask yourself if there was a previous time in your life when you were more zealous about living for God. Ask yourself if there was a time previously in your life when you had a greater hatred for sin. One quote sums up the way Christian preachers should be, but it really applies to all Christians:

Preachers are to be like needles of compasses, which always point in the same direction regardless of weather conditions or the position of the instrument. Preachers are not like weather vanes, letting the wind of popular opinion and the spirit of the times to turn them about. (W. F. Besser)3

In this world filled with things that are crooked and tilted, unless we have an absolute Bearing, we will lose our way. So constantly check in with Jesus with a clean heart, and you will be solidly grounded. So the final practical tip to avoid falling off the sloping cliff: Frequently reference the bearings of the absolute Rock at the top.


In summary, don't allow yourself to slowly drift down the sloping cliff until you drop off the edge. Prefer high to low ground by avoiding anything doubtful; stand your ground against others who call from below; and most importantly, reference absolute bearings by continually praying to Jesus Christ about specifics. Stay close to Jesus, and you will be just fine. Being aware of the dangers of the sloping cliff will help you to keep your heart.

  1. I first heard the basic gist of the story from a pastor in a sermon many years ago 

  2. Thru the Bible, I Corinthians 10:13; McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee; Volume V, I Corinthians--Revelation; Thru the Bible Radio, Pasadena, California 91109, c1983, p. 46 

  3. Burgess, David F., Encyclopedia of Sermon Illustrations, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO; 1988; ISBN 0-570-04243-7, p. 160, #748 

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