The Back Page – Thermometers and Thermostats


What wonderful Greek words are “thermometer” and “thermostat”! Thermē is “heat.” Psalm 19:6 —“[The sun’s] rising is from one end of the heavens, and its circuit to the other end; and there is nothing hidden from its thermē.” Metron is “an instrument for measuring.” So a “thermo-meter” is “an instrument for measuring heat.” Histēmi means “to cause to be in a place or position, to set” and can bear the nuance “to specify, to set or fix.” A “thermo-stat,” then, is a device that “specifies or sets the heat.”

Whether or not we appreciate the Greek, we all eye our thermometers to know when it is warm
enough to go kayaking, and set our thermostats to specify the amount of thermē we will tolerate at home
as summer comes on.

Are Christians thermometers or thermostats?

The indicator on a thermometer goes up and down as the air around it warms and cools. A thermometer does not challenge or influence anything. A thermometer is a mechanical chameleon, changing its own color to blend with its neighborhood.

The indicator on a thermostat, by contrast, tells the equipment to which it is attached to change the surrounding air. It says not, “This is what the temperature is” but “this is what I want it to be.” Turn on the heat if the air is too cold; switch on the AC if too warm. A thermostat is an instrument of change, not of conformity.

As Christians we live among people holding values and practices often other than ours. They tell different jokes, employ a foreign vocabulary, watch grosser movies. Do we tend to conform to their standards, so we can fit in and not appear different? Or by our character do we challenge the crudeness we encounter? We need not do so belligerently or self-righteously or acrimoniously. But if we walk with the Lord humbly yet resolutely, we may find ourselves inducing change. Serving as thermostats rather than thermometers.

Daniel’s three friends provide an example. When Nebuchadnezzar issued an order to grovel before his god, they demurred. No noisy protests or self-pity, simply a stalwart, “O king, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. We are not going to serve your gods.” Three thermostats who cooled not only the king’s fiery furnace, but also his pride and his error.

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