The Plumbline

I’ve been thinking about the way people tend to cherry-pick teachings, commandments, and moral ideals from the Bible (and other religious/philosophical texts for that matter). I confess, I am often guilty of this. I ignore the parts of scripture I don’t like, or cannot obey, spouting rhetoric only about those I find palatable. Or worse, only those I think others will find palatable. Sometimes I worry that in an effort to offend nobody, we will reach them. Pay careful attention to what I’m not saying, before I go about trying to explain what I am saying; I’m not saying “offending people doesn’t matter!” Not at all. What I am saying though, is that there is something inherently offensive about the gospel to the natural man. No one desires to be wrong. No one sets out with the goal of going against the truth. The gospel is offensive on a deep and intrinsic level because it tells us “You are wrong. You are broken. You are desperate. You cannot help yourself.” The Words of God are offensive to human ears because they tell us that we cannot simply pursue whatever base impulses or perversions of the truth we may desire.

But God has preserved in us an innate understanding that there IS right and wrong, even though we, apart from Him, cannot keep the two straight in our minds. How do we know this innate understanding is from God? Well, let’s look at the alternatives, and seek out their logical conclusions.

If our morality comes from ourselves only, then we will not share a standard of morality, and are each justified in doing what pleases us at the time, and there ought not to be consequences to actions, as any behavior can be moral to any person at any time. That, I hope, does not sit well with you. Additionally, we don’t see this in human society. So we cannot, as individuals, be deciding our own moral standards. Perhaps then, moral standards are a construct of society?

If our morality comes from the society in which we were raised, from a mere general consensus of what is right and wrong, it would certainly explain the shifts in cultural behaviors over time. Unfortunately, if this is the case, we must admit that there are behaviors and acts in history, and currently happening in other cultures, that we may view as heinous, but that, for a given time or place, are good and moral to do. If society sets the standard of morality, then the majority rules, and in their ruling, may choose which, if any, rights should be maintained for the minority. This may sound right (though I hope it does not), but the position that society dictates morality loses tenability upon deeper analysis. Consider a man who views morality as a general societal construct, and nothing more. What if the general society in which he lives were to dictate that he no longer had rights? By his own view that society is able to dictate morality, he would be obligated to consent to any abuses targeting him, acknowledging  them as moral to commit. Again, we do not see this. Rather, we see oppressed minorities rising up, seeking justice, seeking reparations, seeking equal treatment.

So if morality cannot be decided by the individual, nor can it be contingent on the mere whims of society, it must come from something outside both ourselves and our culture. It must be sourced from somewhere both deeper than the heart of an individual and yet more universal than the collected ideologies of a people. And if it is set by an outside source, which it must be, a person or people’s specific opinions about the standard of morality will not affect it. The implications of this are huge.

If morality is set by an outside standard, our belief about that standard affects only whether or not we conform to it, not whether or not it exists. The common analogy is that even should I claim no belief in gravity, I will still plummet when I step off a ledge. If something is real, believing in it or not cannot alter its realness. I may attempt to shield myself from criticisms by claiming everything is “just an opinion,” but boiling water will scald me even should I hold the opinion that it is not so hot.

Interestingly, our innate moral compass serves the paradoxical purposes of both demanding that there be a good and loving and just God, and condemning us for our inability (or unwillingness) to conform to His standards. We look at His statutes and  balk at the ones which require us to give up debauchery or scoff at those that insist we adopt attitudes of humility. Yet, we will cry out for justice and an end of evil just as easily. We want the world to be without evil, and yet we want a place for ourselves in that world, with all our evil desires intact. We long for a God who will punish the wicked, so long as we are not counted among them.

Sadly, this has led many to worship or scorn different, custom designed “gods.” They look for a pacifist Jesus in the gospels, ignoring the righteous anger He displayed when clearing the temple, hoping it will allow them to avoid confrontation. Or perhaps they seek to defame God as violent and spiteful through passages in the Old Testament, ignoring the mercy He showed to Nineveh, hoping to excuse themselves from obedience. Each of us has constructed our own little god, built around our own opinions of right and wrong, and as a result, our faith is idolatry.

So here is my challenge to each of you: As I continually tear down my ideas of who God “should” be and attempt to replace them with the truth of who He is, I challenge each of you to scour scripture and seek the ways you may have misunderstood God.

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