Archives for July 2015

Is There a Moral Law?

ten commandmentsTed Turner, founder of CNN, famously suggested that the Ten Commandments be renamed the Ten Suggestions. Our society today is taking him up on the “suggestion.” The trend today is for each person to define his/her own “truth” and formulate his/her own “rules for living.” And of course those “rules” are subject to change according to changing circumstances in one’s life or in the culture. Those who previously opposed same-sex marriage but now support it say they have “evolved” on the issue. They have changed their moral code in response to personal circumstances (often, a loved one who is same-sex attracted) or because of the shifting opinions of people around them.

But what if there really is a moral law? What if the moral law is not just an arbitrary set of rules and expectations formulated by religious leaders or ancient gurus, but is an unchanging guide to human flourishing? What if the moral law is “written” into reality, such that living by that law leads to fulfillment, while breaking that law leads to pain and frustration?

That was the view of E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973), renowned Methodist missionary and evangelist.

We choose, but the moral universe decides the results of our choosing, and those results are inexorable. We must come to terms with the moral universe or get hurt. We do not break the laws of God written into the nature of things. We break ourselves on them. Those laws are color-blind, class-blind, and religion-blind. Break them, and you’ll get broken. If you leap from a tenth-story window, you will not break the law of gravitation, you will only illustrate it.

These laws are God’s preventive grace. They are barriers put up at the edge of precipices to keep us from going over. They are not put there to bind our freedom; they are put there to save us from using our freedom to destroy ourselves.

Humanity is finding out how to live by the hard way. God offers us the Way in Christ. We think we know better, take other ways of our own choosing, and are constantly getting shocks.*

Many people have begun jettisoning the moral code that is taught in Scripture and embodied in church tradition. They substitute instead their own personal judgment about what is “right” and “wrong.” But choices that go contrary to God’s moral law end up bringing pain—pain to the person and pain to the society in which he/she lives.

When some Wall Street financiers dream up fancy get-rich-quick schemes that make them boatloads of money, but jeopardize the financial system that sustains the whole country, they run afoul of God’s moral law. They may not feel the pain personally (other than in a troubled conscience), but they have caused pain in the form of lost jobs, lost homes, people impoverished by the recession, and a loss of trust in the free-market “system” to bring about economic flourishing.

When some people decide that divorce is an easy answer to marital conflict, with some going through the revolving door of marriage three or four or more times, they bump into the reality that God’s moral code was meant to protect us from. They go through immense pain themselves and cause their spouse and children to experience the devastating fallout.

When some people decide that “monogamy isn’t working anymore,” as one man was quoted in a recent news story on polyamory, the idea that we can invent new forms of family and find fulfillment in multiple relationships carried on at the same time hits the wall of what God created love, sex, and marriage for in the first place. The resulting confusion of boundaries and impermanence of relationships will not only lead to personal emptiness, but will affect generations to come in the family systems involved. Even the most dedicated believers in God in the Bible learned the hard way about the problems caused by polygamous relationships.

When we decide to lie or shade the truth instead of being honest with ourselves and others, we violate the moral law that emanates from the God who is truth. We end up destroying relationships, forfeiting trust, and losing harmony with ourselves.

God’s “judgment” is often just the natural consequences of our violating the moral code that he baked into the reality of the world in which we live. That is what I believe Paul means when he says that “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts” (Romans 1:24, repeated in vs. 26 and 28). God surrenders us to the consequences of our own sinful choices (at times), so that we experience the natural consequences of our actions. God’s purpose is redemptive, however, in that he wants the negative consequences we experience to turn us back to him. Just as the lost son “came to his senses” (Luke 15:17) when he had lost it all, we too can learn from the consequences and tragedies that befall us and others when we violate God’s will.

Rather than formulating our own broken moral codes and taking upon ourselves the role of god, by surrendering ourselves to the one true God, we can discover “God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2) that is designed to lead to our well-being. To do otherwise only leads to heartache and misery, whether for ourselves or for others.

*The Way: 364 Adventures in Daily Living by E. Stanley Jones; Abingdon Press, 2015; page 10.

Results or Consequences?

Is there a certain way that God wants us to live? Does our freedom mean that we can do whatever we want, whenever we want, with whomever we want?

I picked up a new devotional book at this year’s annual conference called The Way by the renowned Methodist evangelist and missionary of the last century, E. Stanley Jones. Today’s devotion so perfectly describes how I think about these questions that I want to quote it at length.

Some people get results, others get consequences. We can see that at work around us. Some people know how to live; they seem to work with the grain of the universe; reality works with them. They get results in harmonious, happy, effective living. Others are not harmonious, not happy, not effective; they are up against it. The nature of reality is not with them; they are working against the grain of the universe. They get consequences.

Is there something here that always has the last word, no matter who has the intermediate word? A great many people don’t believe that anything here has the last word. A woman said to me, “It’s all right to do these things [meaning sexual promiscuity] provided you can get away with it.”

My reply, “That is a big ‘provided,’ for nobody gets away with it. The results register in you. You have to live with yourself, and the hell of being bad is a bad hell.”

I used to think that the passage, “Be sure your sin will find you out,” meant, “Be sure your sin will be found out.” It doesn’t say so; rather it says, “Your sin will find you out”—will register in you, cause deterioration, decay; you will get consequences, in yourself.

An attempt to manipulate the universe and make it do what you want ends in consequences. A young man wrote to the Duke University paper a letter to the older generation in which he said, “I’d like this older generation to get acquainted with this guy called ‘Kick.’ He is a wonderful guy—gives you thrills.”

I felt like replying, “Young man, may I suggest that you get acquainted with another guy called ‘Kick-Back.’ He is always a little behind the first guy and always has the last kick. You had better get acquainted with him, for everybody does, sooner or later.”

He overlooked the fact that when you strip off the first three letters of thrills (the beginning) you have ills (the end). It’s not the beginning but the end result that counts.

Apparently, we are free to choose, but we are not free to choose the results of our choosing. Those results seem to be in hands not our own. There is something here, something we must come to terms with, or get hurt.*

We have this hubristic idea that we can redefine sexuality, we can redefine race, we can redefine marriage, we can redefine gender, we can redefine salvation, we can redefine God. But in the end, we come face to face with the reality that God designed. Defying that reality will be just as effective as jumping off a cliff and hoping the law of gravity no longer applies.

darkedinburgh_old copy“The LORD spoke to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people” (Isaiah 8:11).

“The path of the righteous is level; O upright One, you make the way of the righteous smooth” (Isaiah 26:7).

“O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. … Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Isaiah 30:19, 21).

There is a way that God has designed for us to live. He has told us and shown us that way. If we live that way, we will have results. If we depart from that way, we will experience consequences.

*The Way: 364 Adventures in Daily Living by E. Stanley Jones. Abingdon Press, 1946, 1974, 2015.