Saturday, October 27, 2012

Why Be Ethical

“Why would I want to be ‘ethical’?”—Stan

This question arose in a discussion concerning what constitutes “being ethical” in a certain situation. Near the end of the discussion, this fundamental query surfaced as a challenge to the presumption that “an ethical course of action”; i.e., one that adheres to identifiable standards and/or established norms, is indeed discernable, desirable and “do-able”. This question finds its root, I suspect, in the murky environs of cultural relativism, a highly individualized ethical model which basically holds that no one set of shared norms or “absolutes”, if you will, exists within or across cultures.

In brief, the discipline of ethics seeks to define how one “ought” to act. This pursuit involves identifying source(s) of authority, values, ideals, rules, goals, etc. Every individual possesses, whether he admits it or not, a set of norms out of which he makes decisions and defines the way he “ought” to respond. The Christ-follower, of course, looks to Christ Himself and to Scripture for these norms.

So, why be “ethical”? The discussion here could be lengthy and complex. So, I will give four very succinct reasons that will leave room for much more conversation!

First, the Bible teaches that humans innately possess intellectual, volitional, empathetic, relational and spiritual capacity (Gen. 1:26ff). We are, therefore, capable of being moral agents. To deny this capability (and its attendant obligations) is to deny our humanity.

Second, we are social persons whose decisions and actions are inextricably intertwined with one another. Scripture clarifies our responsibility to consider the impact of our actions on others (Rom. 14:13ff). Personal liberty is to be subordinated to consideration of the good of others (I Cor. 10:23-24ff; Phil 2:3-4ff).

Third, impetus toward ethical behavior springs from the conviction that God paid the price of salvation and the believer belongs to Him (I Cor. 6:19-20; 7:23).

Fourth, the eschatological ethical motive: we will one day give an account for how we have lived (Rom. 2:5ff; II Cor. 5:10).

Turn the Other Cheek (Part II)

“OK, so maybe when I turn the other cheek, I am demonstrating redemptive forgiveness. Is there ever a time when I should strike back?”—Katie

Last time, we discussed the reasons for why one would “turn the other cheek.” We acknowledged that the ethic of the New Testament is radical: forgiveness toward, even love for, enemies, is what is prescribed (Mt. 5:43-48). “Be at peace with all men, if at all possible” (Rom. 12:18; 14:19). This is the ideal.

In the ancient Scripture, however, we can see the reality of the situation. The world is a broken, harsh place and bad stuff happens. This situation often demands a response. Evil and idolatrous behavior resulted in punishment (II Kgs. 17:7-23.) David prayed for the destruction of his enemies (Psa. 137:7-9, passim.) The prophets called for justice (see Amos 4; 5:24.)

Jesus understood the reality of a sinful world. He warned of harsh times and persecution (Mt. 24:6-12.) He verbally opposed hypocrisy (Mt. 23:1-36.) Paul did also (Gal. 2:11ff) and instructed Timothy to be ready to “reprove and rebuke” (I Tim. 5:20; II Tim. 4:2.)

We restrict evil where we can, rejecting trouble-makers (Rom. 16:17-19) and caring for the weak and powerless (“orphans and widows”; see James 1:27). We stand against prejudice and bigotry because we understand that all people are valuable before God (Gen. 1:26ff; Mt. 6:9; Acts 10:34).

We live in the tension between the ideal of non-retaliation and the harsh realities of worldly abuses of power and violations of justice. We understand the value of taking no revenge—we also know we cannot allow evil and injustice to go unaddressed. A “good conscience” (I Tim. 1:5ff) constrains us to act against these things, not out of anger or retribution but out of “a pure heart” (right motives), “a sincere faith” (wanting God’s purposes to be achieved) and humility (knowing that our feelings are subjective, our understanding is limited and we are not perfect.)

Turn the Other Cheek (Part I)

“I can’t figure how to ‘turn the other cheek’ without being walked on.”—Katie

“Turning the other cheek” is a radical departure from our “normal” response to insult. Most of us are inclined to want to slap in return!

Why would Jesus say that the “normal” response (even if it is justified!) should not only be resisted, but should be replaced with an offer of the other cheek—and why would He make this one of His important points in the “Sermon on the Mount” (Mt. 5:38-42)?

Consider these truths:

Anger and revenge will get you nowhere. They only incite more anger and retaliation. Better, He said, to stop the anger cycle before it goes any further.

Your response says something about you. Self-discipline that does not repay a base action with a base reaction makes you a stronger person than the one who thinks he must fight to earn respect.

Vengeance is not yours to take. God will balance things out in His way, in His time. That’s what faith is about. With no retaliation, you demonstrate that you are trusting God to take care of you (Rom. 12:19; 13:4; II Thess. 3:2-3).

Humility, meekness (Gal. 5:22-23), forgiveness and graciousness are powerful forces in a world where humans seek to gain power over each other. The opposite of “being walked on,” non-retaliation will show itself to be the more powerful recourse.

Jesus demonstrated this principle at His trial and in His death (Lk. 23:1-9, 34; Mt. 26:63; 27:12; Jn. 19:9-10.) He revealed an inner strength, free from enslavement to hatred and vengefulness.

When God works in you through your faith in Him, He sets you free also. The subsequent acts of grace and forgiveness you extend will possess a redemptive message far more eloquent than retaliation could ever speak.

See Part II for a discussion on how this pertains to injustice.

Praying in Jesus' Name

“I have always been taught to end a prayer with ‘in Jesus’name’. Does the Bible
teach this?”—Charles

The practice arises from Jesus’ teaching found in John’s gospel (14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24). Many Christians take His words literally, routinely beginning or ending prayers with this precise formula. This is not a bad practice.

The problem, of course, arises when the words become rote to the point that they have no real significance to the speaker. For some folks, the phrase is a legalistic requirement for legitimizing the prayer. For others, the words take on a magical quality; i.e., the speaker assumes that if he attaches this phrase to the petition, then God is obligated to respond accordingly.

Praying “in Jesus’ name” is affirming one’s faith in Jesus as the Son of God who, as our “great High Priest” (Heb. 8, 9, 10), hears our heart cry. The one who prays with this understanding is reaching out to Him with unfettered faith.

Furthermore, this prayer is a declaration that the one who is praying desires deeply what Christ Himself desires. In ancient thought, one’s name was a reflection of one’s character and purpose. Thus, to speak in a person’s name was to express agreement with the nature and will of that person. Jesus’ name means “The Lord saves”. To pray in His name is to recall who He is and what He has done for us through His death and resurrection. In this prayer, we recognize our need for grace and forgiveness as well as our desire for His will to be done in our lives and in our world (see Matt. 18:19-20; I Jn.5:13-15).

All our prayers, especially our requests, should be couched in our willingness to accept God’s will, believing that He knows what is best for His children.

Praying Without Ceasing

“What does it mean to ‘pray without ceasing’? I just can’t interrupt my life to stop
and pray all the time.”—Jay

This text appears in a passage where Paul is giving instructions for Christian living (I Thess. 5:13-17ff). “Live in peace with one another,” he says. “Admonish the unruly, encourage the fearful, help the weak, be patient with everyone . . . always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.” Most of the verbs used here are present, active, imperatives; i.e., strong instruction to “keep on doing these things; don’t stop; make them a habit.” Paul continues, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing . . . in everything give thanks.”

The exhortation has more to do with attitude and condition of the heart than it does saying a particular set of words, assuming a certain position (e.g., kneeling) or being in a certain location. Fundamentally, prayer as communion with God is inherent in the believer’s daily life. Praying is beginning the day aware of His presence and gladly speaking to Him. It is submitting your plans for the day to Him, seeking His mind in decision making and bending your will to match His.

Prayer takes place as you marvel at the wonders of the world and perceive every blessing large and small as evidence of His hand in your life. Prayer involves recognizing trials and troubles as opportunities to deepen in your faith, even as you bring heartache and grief to the One who hears and cares and heals.

Continuous prayer flows from the conviction that He guarantees your eternal destiny with resurrection power, freeing you to live fully in the world (I Pet. 1:3-5). Concluding each day with Him, consciously grateful for His grace, provision and guidance—this is prayer without ceasing.

Why should I pray?

“If God knows everything, why should I pray?” —Jay 

There are many texts in the Bible which address prayer. It is a broad topic which has given rise to many different methods and views of communication with God. Since we can’t discuss all of these, let’s focus on a few basic principles of prayer.

Prayer, to a great degree, is a way of life, a continual dialogue with God, speaking and listening (I Thess. 5:17.) It is a rehearsing of God’s promises and provision, a grateful celebration of joy and life. (Many prayers recorded in Scripture reflect this.)

Prayer is the deep cry of the soul when human resources come to an end. We are invited to bring all our petitions to God—and we are promised peace as an answer (Phil 4:6-7.)

In our prayer, we acknowledge our dependence on God. The “Model Prayer” (Matt.6:9-11) affirms that the holy, sovereign, heavenly Father, God, is the One in whom we place our trust and whose purpose we desire to see fulfilled on earth. This same prayer incorporates an ethical dimension: we ask God to teach us how to forgive and to live.

With these things in mind, we more clearly understand that prayer is not simply a recitation of a wish list, focused on “me and what I want.” Prayer is an activity that, in the doing, changes me, making me into the person God wants me to be, transforming my mind and spirit to be more like His.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

When Life Isn't Fair

“Life isn’t fair to me, even if I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. What’s up with that?”—Les

This is the heart-cry of many of us who believe that “being treated fairly” is, well . . . only fair. An objective glance at human history and a survey of on-going, widespread suffering in this broken world, however, confirm the observation that human existence is “naturally” inclined toward unfairness. Perhaps we ought to be glad that we experience anything good at all!

According to Scripture, God had a good plan from the beginning (Gen. 1-2), apparently intending for humans to live in Edenic bliss. We, unfortunately, tend to mess things up (Gen. 3). Even more disappointingly, when we make good choices and strive to make things better, injustice and pain do not disappear. Bad things happen, people suffer and we all face death (Gen. 3:19; Heb. 9:27).

Is there purpose in this? Often there is none we can see clearly—suffering often appears as irrational chance. Jesus knew this . . . “the sun rises on the evil and the good; rains come to the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt. 5:45; see also Lk. 13:1-5).

So, we look for words of hope beyond our present circumstances. Paul came to realize that his pain, which never went away despite his pleading with God, served to remind him that God had not abandoned him and God’s grace was sufficient to carry him through the worst (II Cor. 12:7-10).

When our hearts ache and life seems so unfair, we cling to the promise that God has not abandoned us, that He hears and knows our struggle and that He calls us to press on, trusting Him unfailingly (Phil. 3:7ff). We live in confident assurance that He will one day set all things right (Rom. 5:5; II Cor. 4:16-18; I Pet.1:3-9).