Friday, March 20, 2015

Do we "act" like Christians? A discussion of Christian ethics

What makes something "right" or "wrong?" Who decides? If it's wrong for you but right for me, is it right or wrong?

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For the past couple of days, I've been researching "Christian Ethics." By definition:
Christian ethics is a branch of Christian theology that defines concepts of right (virtuous) and wrong (sinful) behavior from a Christian perspective.
In the video, most of the college students interviewed believed that all people have a sense of right and wrong. Most believed we are born with a knowledge of right and wrong and others believed that society has determined what is good or bad. When asked where that "innate" sense of right and wrong came from, they thought it evolved. 

You could write a book on that idea - but let me just very quickly declare that you can't biologically evolve a moral code as they are suggesting in the video. Nearly all the students said that murder is universally wrong. One of them added that rape is wrong. We'd all agree, I'm sure. Yet, if evolution came about by the survival of the fittest, then murder and rape would be means to that end. The strongest male fights, maybe kills his competition and mates with the best females, whether they want it or not. No - if a moral code evolved as a species progressed by survival of the fittest, then most of the things that most people consider wrong - murder, rape, stealing, lying - would be considered "good" because they were means to an end.

That inner sense of right and wrong, our conscience, is considered "natural law." In fact, unless it's been rendered void by something, it is universal. It is something we're born with. In fact, most people would agree that we are born with a sense that if we do good, we'll be rewarded, and if we do evil, we'll be punished. Society reinforces that idea with laws and regulations meant to keep order. 

Much of what we call "Christian ethics" is based on that natural law. Our conscience tells us there are things that are wrong - murder, rape, stealing, lying, unfaithfulness. So, what makes "Christian ethics" different from the ethics that everyone is born with? 

That innate sense of right and wrong can be turned off by family or society expectations, the way we are trained and educated and by repeatedly ignoring it. We might all be born with a sense that it is wrong to kill and eat people, but if you are born into a society of cannibals, you will grow up considering it normal and right. We can let man dictate what is right or wrong. 

For the Christian, the reason there is a universal sense of right and wrong built into us is because  God created us that way. With Christian ethics, we let God have the final say in what is right or wrong, based on what He has said in the Bible, regardless of what society says or even what our inner man says. Is it right if I don't feel guilty? What makes an ethical choice "Christian" or not? It is if it agrees with the teachings of the Bible. Christian ethics depends on an outside source - the Bible - to determine whether something is right or wrong. God declares His word unchanging. Therefore, if something was wrong in the past, according to the Bible, it should still be wrong today. Right? Well. . . (more on that in Part 2)

While it may seem fairly simple on the surface, a Google search on "Christian ethics" will bring up literally millions of hits, ranging from biblical to downright bizarre. Even among those who call themselves Christians, there is little agreement, and in fact, even disagreement among considered "born again" and Bible-believing. The center of the path may be dry and clean, but the edges get very muddy.

Before we go down that path - is any of this even important? Christian ethics - Christian behavior - "acting" like a Christian. Why even care?

Well, first of all, God commands it. As Leviticus says in 20:26, "You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own." And Peter repeats it in the New Testament, "But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16)

Secondly, because people are watching: Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (2 Peter 2:12). 

In about 112 AD, Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontos (part of Turkey) wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan and asked him what to do about the Christians. He was afraid of their spread and that their meetings would breed sedition. However, "Pliny told Trajan that he had been unable to prove anything criminal or vicious on the part of Christians during all his examination of them, and that, on the contrary, the purpose of their gatherings was to confirm themselves in conscientious and virtuous living." From here

Those Christians were living out exactly what Peter said in his letter. And people are watching. Bertrand Russell, the famous atheist philosopher, in his book, "Why I am not a Christian," (he also had a paper and lectures on the same subject), had many reasons for not believing in God, but one thing he kept coming back to was the behavior of Christians.  He didn't believe there could be any validity in a religion with so many hypocrites who didn't behave the way he thought they should.

The biggest reason, however, is not law at all, but thankfulness. We love Jesus, are thankful for what He's done for us, and want to do what He says. 
John 14:15 “If you love me, keep my commands."
John 14:21 "Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
I would add one more thing - and that is the thought I have that every time I sin, I'm adding to what Jesus suffered. I remember when that really hit home the first time. I was in my car, listening to the radio as I pulled into a parking lot. The speaker was saying, "If you were the only one Jesus could save by dying on the cross - the only one who would believe - He would have done it anyway, just for you. He loves you that much." I just sat there in my parking space, feeling like I had been stabbed in the heart. I knew I was hearing truth.

So, I want to obey God and keep His commands - not because I have to, but because, for lots of reasons, I want to. So, what does that even mean? Where do I start? I could look to my parents, my pastors, the teachings of various denominations to tell me what that means. Or, as a Bible-believing Christian, I could go straight to the source. 

Yet, Bible is full of commands. Jesus fulfilled the mosaic law - those 600+ commands in the Old Testament, and I know from Galatians that they don't apply to me. (more on that in Part 2) The Ten Commandments pretty much sum up what does apply to me, but Jesus summed it up even further when He said:
Matthew 22:34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
This is where Christian ethics begins to diverge from society's ethics. If I love God with all my heart, soul and mind, then I'm not going to put anything ahead of Him. I'm not going to give anything greater value than Him. Of course, I won't worship false gods - but it also means I won't make anything into a god in my life. Sports, money, fame, and power are easy to make into a god. Those don't trip me up so much as food, gardening, crafts, my house and maybe especially, my children. Do I spend more time with any of those than with God? Or at least, more time thinking about? Greed can come in many forms and all of them are idolatry.

So, as a follower of true Christian ethics, there may be times when I have to say "no" to things that society and most people would think were fine. Jobs, opportunities, hobbies and even people need to pass through that filter. Does it take my mind off God? Have I put it (or them) ahead of God in my life?

On the positive side, if I love God with all my heart, soul and mind, I'm going to spend time worshiping Him. I'm going to value highly His word and spend enough time with it, regularly and often, so that it becomes a part of who I am. I'm going to value time with others who are also worshiping Him and studying His word.

If I love God with all my heart, soul and mind, then I'm going to be a good steward of the things He made. He put man in charge of His creation - but to treat with kindness and care - and not to use in a way that hurts others.So, as a follower of true Christian ethics, I don't want to be cruel or careless with any of God's creation, including myself.

To really love my neighbor as myself covers just about everything else. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not covet. Do not commit adultery. Most of those are part of every culture and are built into our laws. As I mentioned before, the Bible says that God wrote them on our hearts so that we instinctively know they are wrong.
Romans 2:14 Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.
Ah, but here's the rub. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained those commands more fully. About murder He said,
Matthew 5:21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
 Or adultery:
Matthew 5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
 He went on to say:
Matthew 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
In John 13:34, he says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another." If you've studied that verse, then you know that word "love" in the new command is agapaƍ. Jesus explains what kind of love that is when He says, As I have loved you, so you must love one another. How did Jesus love? He never gave in to His own desires, but only did as His father wanted. He lived without sin so that He could be the perfect sacrifice, and then He took all of our sins to the cross where He suffered in a way that we will never fully understand when His father forsook Him. His love for us was all consuming, completely unselfish. 

That's how He says we are to love each other. OK, but again, here's the rub. That doesn't mean just love fellow Christians that way. That verse in Matthew? Love your enemies? Same word. It gets even harder, because we're not just talking outward actions here, but all of our unspoken thoughts and desires.In fact, 2 Corinthians 10:5 says we need to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ."

It should quickly become evident that anyone wanting to practice true Christian ethics in his own power and strength is going to fail miserably. 

Do you remember the "Purpose Driven Life" book? It had many good points, but it was kind of like, "OK, you're a Christian. Here's what God expects of you; now get to it."

If a Christian is not living as a Christian should, not "acting" like a Christian (or practicing true Christian ethics, in terms of this post) what is the answer? To tell him how he ought to be living, as the "Purpose 

Driven Life" did? Even if he could manage it, that only cures the outward problem. Or is the answer to help the person draw closer to God? To have a Bible study with him - to encourage him to get to know the Lord better through His Word? To pray for him and let him know that you are?

This is very, very hard for lots of people to grasp, especially new or immature believers. There is definitely a place for law (all those "do this, don't do that" things) in the life of all Christians. It shows us our sin when we fail to live up to it, as we always will! It keeps us from going even more wrong - and it guides us as we seek to live as God wants us to.

I want to live as God wants me to. For example, I really want to be that Proverbs 31 woman. I can read it and take note of how I should be, and then go out and do my best to live that way. And, I will fail, because I'm trying to do it in my own strength. However, as I live each day, trusting God to lead me and teach me - I will gradually (oh, so gradually!!) move toward becoming more and more Christ-like. God will use His Word to change me, shape me and use me to do HIS work. In His time. And, someday, when I look back, I'll realize that I'm more of that Proverbs 31 woman than I used to be - but that it was all God's doing, not mine.

You can never - repeat never - become Christ-like by deciding to be that way. It's a process that only God can do in you, as you stay in His Word and stay connected to Him. When you seek Him with all your heart - every day - He will direct your paths and give you work to do. Work that you will succeed at, because it came when HE wanted it to, when HE had fully prepared you for it.

In my opinion, that's the problem with the Purpose Driven Life and any of those "how to act like a Christian" books - and one that most Christians will not pick up on. Why are they reading them in the first place? They want to be closer to God - to please Him. Yet, in the end, those kind of books set them up for failure, as they race ahead of God's timing, GOD'S PURPOSE. In the end, I'm so sad to say, I believe it will lead many a young Christian AWAY from the God they were only trying to please, like a child who feels he can never please his parent.

So, what's the answer? More in Part 2.  

P.S. If you want to read more about the Purpose Driven Life, I have a paper on it: Purpose Driven?

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