Monday, October 25, 2010

Why Should We Behave?

For many people, “morality” (the idea that there are standards of right and wrong behavior) stands for everything that gets in the way of freedom.  It represents all that interferes and keeps us from having fun. In truth, morality (at least from the Christian perspective) is not what prevents us from playing and having fun, it’s what makes it possible to play at all -- much as a football game is not much fun if players have no teams, no field goals or boundary lines, and no referees to call the game. To be more precise, Christ reveals three essential reasons why behavior matters….There is a need for harmony between us, harmony within us, and harmony with the One who made us.

My oldest daughter plays in the orchestra at her middle school. Now before she could start playing in the orchestra or even receive an instrument, she needed to be willing and ready to play with others, secondly, she needed to practice and have her own instrument in tune, and thirdly, she and her other classmates needed to all be playing the same sheet of music as they followed the teacher’s lead.  As C. S. Lewis points out in "The Three Parts of Morality (Mere Christianity, Book III, ch. 1) when it comes to morality, most everyone agrees on the need to get along with others (harmony between people), they begin to disagree on what it means to have your own instrument in tune (harmony within), and disagree even more on the need to follow a director (have harmony with the Power who made us) – which is why I’m going to begin with what most everyone agrees on….

(i) The need for harmony between us (to be ready & willing to play w/ others). The first thing to get clear when Christians talk about the need for harmony between people and nations is that Jesus did not come to preach a brand new morality. Consider the Golden Rule: “In everything do unto others as you would have them do unto you;” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 7:12; Mark 12:33; Lev. 19:18).  Jesus’ Golden Rule has been echoed by many wise teachers over the centuries. Jesus himself says he is simply summing up the law and the prophets. Confucius says, “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you." Babylonian text reads: “Speak kindness…show good will.” The Roman philosopher Cicero wrote: “Men were brought into existence for the sake of men that they might do one another good” (see the Appendix in C. S. Lewis' classic, The Abolition of Man). This is important…because if good behavior is what it claims to be, good…then it should be good in every time and place: e.g., acting wisely, with self-control, justly, courageously and sacrificially.

The second thing to understand when Christians talk of a harmonious moral society is that Jesus did not come to establish a political party or movement. On this eve of the November elections, it’s important to remember that no party or political agenda can fully express Christ’s message and ministry.  Gov’t uses law and the power of the sword to restrain evil, but it is powerless to transform the human heart; and that is Jesus’ main interest. “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” wrote John Adams. “It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other” (1978). When Christians are at their best, their recognition of human fallibility will not allow them to place any human institution or ruler above God in their hearts. “Render to Caesar what is Caesars” Jesus said, “And to God what is God’s.”

A Christian society is described in the New Testament, however…and so we have a pretty good idea what it would look like….•It warns us not to be lazy, but to work hard (in every level of society) as though for God, not people. •It calls us to show respect to authority (from the home, to the workplace, to the gov’t); and to be worthy of respect: to treat others as we would want to be treated. •It calls us to practice compassion toward those in need. •It urges us to keep the sacred commitments we have made; •It warns us not to make final judgments …but only because each of us will stand before the final Judge. •to speak the truth in love, •and to pray for and love our enemies. •It challenges greed and acquisition, while calling us to actively invest our resources, our time, and our abilities so that God’s kingdom is advanced.

I want to say that before we Christians talk too much about a “Christian society” we need to model a Christian society. It’s been said that “the church is the only army that shoots its wounded.” Lewis was actually wounded by friendly fire in WWI and lapsed into a depression: he experienced that pain…but like the English medics who came to his aid, I think we are also learning how to bandage up the ones that we’ve hurt. Recently, I was part of three mediations in which some members of  my own church laid down their arms and tried to do some bandaging instead. Ultimately, though, we need more than a bandage for there to be harmony between us…we need to be healed deeply; we need harmony within us…

(ii) The need for harmony within us (to have our own instrument in tune). It is one thing to have harmony between us…but what does that mean when there is disharmony within our own souls? You cannot create good people by laws alone; and without good people you can’t have a good society. This harmony within us begins with the knowledge of our own inner disharmony, our own capacity to do evil given the right circumstances.

David finally gained this knowledge in one of the most stunning confrontations in Scripture; when the prophet Nathan accused him of committing adultery with Bathsheba, and then arranging for her husband’s murder to hide the fact that she had become pregnant. As Nathan recounts how God raised David up to be king; and lavished him with countless blessings…he asks David a question: “Why? Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight?” Then David, in one of the great understatements in Scripture, says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Later, he confesses in Psalm 51, “I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). I get it now. I understand now my frightening capacity to do evil, given the right conditions. Nathan shined the light of God’s holiness on the blackness of David’s heart; because real transformation, real change can’t happen until we see the truth.

Three years ago, I did something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time; I rowed in an eight man rowing shell again in Marina Del Rey. I was a little nervous. I hadn’t done this in quite a while; but when I got into the boat…I was amazed that I was able to row as well as I did. I was catching and releasing well, and I was feeling fit, and pretty good about myself. But as we paused in the water after one piece…the coach drove up in her boat and was giving pointers to different rowers; and then she asked a question, “Steve, how long has it been since you’ve rowed?” “Oh, about 20 years!” A collective roar went up in the boat! She actually was very nice. “I remember rowing with wooden oars too, she said…the oars have gotten a lot lighter, and you’re pulling a little too deep in the water.” Now in the sport of rowing, it is literally impossible to pull together, to have harmony between your fellow rowers if your own technique is not right on. I recall a guy in college who was literally ejected from our boat when he failed to release quickly enough…the oar was sucked under the water as it accelerated toward his chest…catapulting all 190 lbs of him out of the boat.

There is a need for harmony between us, but it is useless if we are not addressing the disharmony inside us. “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want” (Gal. 5: 17). Now rest assured you will never experience a complete end to this inner conflict this side of heaven. Uncle Screwtape once said of human beings that “Their nearest approach to constancy… is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks…. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be….He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles” (The Screwtape Letters, ch. VIII). The law of undulation is real…but we can begin to reign in our spirits and walk with him…remembering that he is pleased even with our stumbles!

(iii) The need for harmony with the Power that made us. There is a popular idea today that says, “As long as I don’t hurt anyone else, I should be able to do what I want.” Lewis uses the illustration of a ship in a convoy to illustrate the problem with this point of view.  Why should it matter what I do on my ship, as long as I’m not running into the other ships around me? The answer is: It shouldn’t matter one bit…unless the ship is not my property. On the other hand, if the ship belongs to another owner or landlord, what I do with that ship now takes on a whole new meaning.  Why should it matter what I do with my body, my mouth, my hands, or my eyes as long as I’m not hurting anyone else? It shouldn’t matter…unless Paul is right when he says, “You are not your own, you were bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20). It should make no difference what you do with your mind and body unless it is true that you were designed to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12: 29-30).

Let’s face it, sometimes, it is more convenient not to believe in a God who cares about right & wrong than to believe in One who does. In his book Ends and Means, Aldous Huxley admits, “For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was…an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality…I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently I assumed that it had none" (cited in Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God).  In an odd coincidence, Lewis and Huxley died on the same day (Nov. 22, 1963)…but how differently they viewed death and their destination. Because we believe that there is One with whom we are accountable, One who wants us to love him and each other as he has loved us (1 John 4:16ff.).

 Why should we behave? We’ve talked about the need for harmony between us, harmony within us, and  harmony with the Power who made us; but this third reason…the need for harmony with the One who made us is the most important of all, because it means our existence is not meaningless and neither are our choices. As Lewis says in The Weight of Glory, there are no ordinary people:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption….Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden!” (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

In the end…morality is not about living a bland, uninteresting, and ordinary life…it’s about living an extra-ordinary life…It’s about wanting to add your instrument to the symphony of God’s people, it’s about being in tune, ready to play, and it’s about following the Conductor, by grace alone, wherever he leads ...to Him be the kingdom, the power and the glory -- through Jesus Christ our Lord!

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