Tuesday, October 16, 2007

What About Right and Wrong?

How then do you determine right and wrong or good and bad? How does one know what to do? The Bible is filled with brilliant moral teaching. It virtually explodes with wisdom and direction for life. This book leaves no stone unturned, no ill motive unexposed, no good deed unpraised, and no important issue unaddressed. If you want insight about relationships, money, career, church, love, sex, life, death, heaven, hell – it is there. Every book in the Old and New Testaments has great lessons to offer.

The issue is how to interpret this moral teaching. There are two distinct approaches, and one represents the way of law and the other of the Spirit:

  1. Read the Bible to assemble a set of absolute rules by which to live and then try to follow them. The thinking goes that if a person follows the rules well enough, he or she will have an abundant, successful, and righteous life. This is why many Christian books have titles like “Ten Steps to a Deeper Walk” or “How to Share Your Faith”. We want a tidy program to follow. However, if a person does not follow the prescribed rules, the result is sin, failure, spiritual decay and unrighteousness. A corollary is that if life is not going well for some reason (e.g. marital, financial, work problems), the likely problem is not having the right set of rules or not following them rigorously enough. This creates a temptation to judge others, if things are going well, or to feel like a spiritual loser if they are not.

    It is difficult even for sincere truth seekers to sort out which rules are best or right. Each church has a slightly different rule set. In fact, many denominations and church splits have their origins in these differences. The Bible is a large and multi-faceted book. Good-hearted, intelligent people have studied it thoroughly and still disagree on interpretations. Culture and church traditions also influence the rules. While mainstream Christianity agrees that we no longer live under the law of Moses (e.g. we are not obligated to sacrifice animals, we can eat pork), many comb the New Testament to decipher a new set of moral laws. Churchgoers are encouraged to study the Bible and/or church doctrine to learn their particular rules. These are many and varied:

    Be kind to others. Be generous. Share your faith with unbelievers. Communion is for church members only. Communion is for everyone. Everyone should seek to speak in tongues. No one should speak in tongues. Tithe ten percent of your income. Give how you feel led. Do not go into debt. Debt is only okay for a durable asset, like a house. Divorce is always wrong. Divorce is wrong except in the case of adultery. Divorce is regrettable. Pastors can marry and have children. Priests cannot marry nor have children. Elders must be men, not women. Christians should vote Republican. Christians should vote Democrat. Saturday is the Sabbath day. Sunday is the Sabbath day. It is good to take a day off sometimes. And so on.

  2. Read the Bible to understand God’s ways and moral principles, and then trust his Spirit to direct when and how to apply them. This way acknowledges that religion is first a matter of the heart. We live from the inside out, not by merely following an external framework or program. The heart of a man or woman is the core of their being, seat of the Holy Spirit and wellspring of life. It is where we discern truth and wisdom. The heart of a Christian, a person who has been “born again”, is good and can be trusted, even though the “flesh” or sinful nature still vies for influence. (See Romans 7:21-25 and Ezekiel 36:26-27. These verses refute the teaching that a reborn Christian’s heart is still evil, implying that we cannot trust our hearts and therefore need an external laws to follow. )

    Moreover, this way acknowledges that the moral teachings of the Bible are principles that shape our values, not absolute laws to be applied in all situations all of the time. There is a big difference in practical terms. Love is the only absolute, and there are more ways to love than grains of sand in the ocean. We trust the Holy Spirit to show us how to apply these teachings and principals in all the complexity of life. The Spirit actively speaks and, as Jesus said, is the one who illuminates truth and wisdom (see John 16:13). We can trust him to lead us in the moment.

    Life is not simple. Navigating it cannot be reduced to a set of magic formulas and cookie-cutter sound bites. The world is complex, multi-faceted and usually colored in shades of gray. Cartoon caricatures of good and evil are found only in the realm of fantasy and fairy tales. The real world contains striations of good and evil that blend and mix through people and events. Life is full of mystery, paradox and contradiction. Pain, suffering and loss share the stage with joy, triumph and gain. Clear-cut black and white is a welcome exception, but not the rule! Every situation is different; every person is unique; every life has a special purpose. We have to exercise judgment and discernment. We need God’s infinite and wise Spirit to see through it all. Living by a simplified set of laws short-circuits his participation and essential influence in our faith.

The second approach describes living by the Spirit. It is quite different from legalism. It is quite different from how mainstream Christianity tends to operate. It assumes a deep, personal, intimate, powerful connection with our Creator. And that we have because of Christ! Today is Easter, as I write. I am reminded that he rose from the dead and established this connection to God. He made it all possible. We must lean on this connection and trust the Spirit. Such an act of faith feels like stepping onto a tightrope strung taught between two skyscrapers. Don’t look down! Look at him. He is there and will keep us balanced and upright.

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