Sunday, January 15, 2012
The Nature of Morality
For many the word "morality" has an intimidating ring to it. It conjures up the image of a frowning Deity. It implies a compete loss of human freedom. It suggests a "holier than thou" attitude. These are some of the stereotypes common in our culture today. But are they accurate?
The problem with the stereotypes is that they presuppose a cold, uncaring God – a God Who imposes demands but has no heart of compassion. And yet nothing could be farther from the truth. It is a complete misreading of the character of God. "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him" (I John 4:16; NKJV).
This is why the examples of religious perfidy brought forward by Christopher Hitchens and other New Atheists are largely irrelevant. The Bible does not say that there is not evil in the world. It does not even say that there are not hypocrites in the church who bring reproach on the gospel through their ungodly behavior. What the Bible says is that it is impossible to know God Himself truly and genuinely without loving others. "He who does not love does not know God, for God is love" (v. 8). If love is an essential part of God's character, then if we have been born of God that same character will be reflected in us. And if we truly know Him, then we will conform our character to His. To know Him is to become like Him. This, then, is the first element in morality. It is not a natter of becoming a self-righteous, hyper-critical, spiritual snob. It is a matter of reflecting God's own compassionate and caring nature.
One of the best summary statements of morality in the Bible is found in the book of Micah. The prophet Micah wrote from about 740 to 690 B.C. during the period when the northern Kingdom of Israel (Samaria) was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. It was a time when both the northern and southern kingdoms (Israel and Judah) were marked by corruption, injustice, and economic oppression. In this context Micah asked a pointed question: "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,/ Ten thousand rivers of oil?/ Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,/ The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" (Mic. 6:7). In other words, was God impressed with a multitude of sacrifices, with religious ceremony and ritual, in the face of oppression and injustice? The answer is a resounding "no"! "He has shown you, O man, what is good;/ And what does the Lord require of you/ But to do justly,/ To love mercy,/ And to walk humbly with your God?" (v. 8). "To do justly," in this context, means giving each person his due according to God's law. But merely giving people what they deserve is not enough. We are also "to love mercy." The Hebrew word translated "mercy" (chesed) means caring enough for our fellow human beings that we show them favor, especially when they are in need. And what should drive our relationships with others is our relationship with God Himself. We need to submit humbly to His authority and live in accordance with His will. That is the essence of morality.
Is morality, therefore, harsh and inhumane? Not at all. It is God's plan for us, and His plan is always best. Morality is what enables us to reach our full human potential. We can never find true happiness until we are in conformity with our Creator's will, and are functioning the way He intended us to. He is wise, and His purposes are good.