Scripture - Romans 7:15-25
Many of us can identify with little Johnny when he brought home his report card. His mother looked at the report card & noticed he had a terrible grade in conduct. When she
asked him about it, he said, “Mom, conduct is my hardest subject!”
This is true for most of us. We often find it hard to ‘do the right thing.’ This is what the apostle Paul was talking about in Romans 7. He was wrestling with his own soul between doing that which is good & that which is wrong. All of us can identify with Paul when he said: I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing I hate. The desire to do good is inside of me, but I can’t do it. I don’t do the good that I want to do.
How do we tell when something is right or wrong? How do we tell when something is ethical or unethical? Let’s face it. It is not always easy to tell the difference between right & wrong. There are some common guidelines for making moral decisions, but they are not totally reliable. Here are some principles we often use to make moral decisions.
Some say, “Just use plain common sense when making moral decisions.” If you are tempted to fight or to be sexually promiscuous; if you are tempted to cheat or lie or steal or gossip or hate; if you are tempted to indulge in substance abuse, let common sense rise up & say to yourself, “This is not right!” But is it that easy?
An intoxicated man sat in a bus seat next to a priest. The man’s tie was stained, his face was covered in red lipstick, & a half-empty bottle of whiskey was hanging out of a torn coat pocket. He opened his newspaper & began reading. After a few minutes, the disheveled man turned to the priest & asked, “Father, what causes arthritis?” “Well, mister, it’s caused by loose living, being with cheap women, drinking too much alcohol & having contempt for your fellow man.” “Huh, well I’ll be,” the drunk said as he continued to read his paper. The priest, having thought about what he said, nudged the man & apologized. “I’m sorry. I did not mean to criticize you. How long have you had arthritis?” “Oh, I don’t have it, Father. I was just reading here that the Pope does.”
Common sense is a good test for making moral & ethical choices, but the problem with common sense is that it is not too common! Not everyone has good common sense, & because it is of human origin, it can be easily flawed.
Sometimes we rationalize, “Regardless of the moral decision you make, just come out in the open with it.” What if the thing you are thinking about doing were made public? What if everybody knew? Would you still do it? Put the moral decision you are about to make – the behavior you are about to engage in – to the test of being out in the open. Strip it of its secrecy. Jesus often spoke of light & darkness. Imagine it will be in tomorrow’s Dispatch or posted to Facebook.
Would you want your parents to know about it? Or your children? What about your friends? Imagine it is being talked about openly & included in the story of your life in your funeral message. If what you are doing or thinking about can stand the test of publicity, then it is probably all right. If not, it is probably all wrong!
Those things that cannot stand light are unhealthy. This can be one test of its morality. But the problem when we decide based on whether it will be known by others is that it is popular today, even fashionable, to parade our perversions.
Finally, there are those who say, “Just be your best self when you are making a moral choice.” There comes a time when we need to step out on our own. We should stop following the crowd & the path of least resistance. We should seek to discern who God is calling us to be, & then be true to that best self. That is what Paul is doing today. And it is a good test for morality. Can I do this thing & still be my best self?
There was a weekly prayer prayed in the Episcopal Church as I grew up. “Lord, we have erred & strayed from your ways like lost sheep.” I always thought it an odd prayer, until I grew to understand the temptation of ‘herd-mindedness.’ That is, we always browse with our heads down, automatically following the herd, & never look up to follow our own direction. If everyone else is doing it, then it must be okay, we reason.
If you are morally confused, if you are facing an ethical dilemma, if you are thinking about a moral decision, if you are trying to distinguish between right & wrong, ask yourself this question: Can I do this thing & still have a clear conscience? Of course, the problem with trying to be our best self is that often our best is not good enough. A clear conscience does not equal a moral conscience.
The tests of common sense, bringing something out into the open, & having a clear conscience are all flawed. The moral compass of humanity can easily go awry. Thankfully, there are 2 God-given standards that are reliable & accurate in making moral choices. They have stood the test of time & will not lead you astray.
Paul said: I’m a miserable human being. Who will deliver me from this dead corpse? Thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
If you feel confused or perplexed or bewildered, & you are uncertain about what is right & what is wrong, come back home to the world’s one unique person: Jesus of Nazareth. He is our pattern & blueprint for living. He is the measuring stick by whom we see that which is good, wholesome, & holy. He is our living Lord & Savior.
Here is the key question to ask: Can I do this thing & still be Christ-like? Can I say this & still be Christ-like? Can I participate in this & still be Christ-like? If not, then it is obviously wrong.
In our culture, & even in the Church, it has become increasingly difficult to deny anything. It is more fashionable to affirm just about anything. To be sure, we need to avoid negativism & legalism. But truth & morality have boundaries.
Dr. Allen Bloom, a professor at Yale, wrote the book, The Closing of the American Mind. In it he wrote, “Almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” If truth has no boundaries, then the acceptance of anything & everything becomes the norm.
In our world today, it seems the greatest offense one can commit is to differ with the views of another person, no matter how bizarre or outlandish those views are. This relativism has infected the church. Charles Colson has written that “53% of those claiming to be Bible-believing, conservative Christians said there is no such thing as absolute truth.” No wonder we have difficulty determining what is right from what is wrong!
Without question, God’s word sets clear boundaries. The 10 Commandments set moral & ethical boundaries. They tell us about the boundaries between God & us, & between our neighbor & us. Do not steal sets clear boundaries around our neighbor’s possessions. Other commandments set boundaries around our neighbor’s life, spouse, & reputation. When we abandon these boundaries, life begins to spin out of control. When we affirm God’s truth & take a stand for biblical morals, we also stand against the grain of our culture.
Many years ago, Dr Dean Smith – no, not that Dean Smith! – was a professor at Centenary College in NJ. He was distinguished looking, wore a black eye patch, was a brilliant scholar, an outstanding communicator, & befriended many students. He was ‘a legend in his own time.’
In a famous lecture on discerning truth & how to distinguish between morality & immorality, Dr Smith asked his students, “How wide is my desk?” The students began to make guesses. 72 inches wide? Maybe 68 inches? Or 75 inches?
Dr Smith said, “Those are all good guesses, but one of them is more nearly true than the others. How do we determine which one is most accurate? How do we decide which answer is correct?”
At first there was silence in the classroom, but then someone said tentatively, “Use a measuring stick?” “Of course!” Dr Smith said. “To determine the actual size, we have to get a measuring stick & measure it!”
Dr Smith then moved to the whiteboard & took a pen. In silence, he drew the outline of a cross. With the pen, he traced the outline of the cross, over & over, letting it dramatically sink into the hearts & minds of his students. Then he stood back, pointed to the cross, & said, “There is your measuring stick! There is your measure for truth & morality.”
When the world says it is okay to steal, remember what the Bible says about stealing. When the world says it is not so bad to tell a lie, remember what the Bible says about telling the truth. When the world says it is all right to cheat, or hurt others, or gossip, or hate, or hold a grudge, remember what the Bible says about these things. When the world says it is okay to commit sexual immorality – adultery, premarital sex, pornography – remember what the Bible says about sexual immorality.
God’s word is our moral compass. It is a light for our path. It is our authority for all truth & morality. We do have God’s unconditional love, but we do not have God’s unconditional approval of our actions. When you are making moral decisions, deciding between what is right & what is wrong, remember God’s word & remember the example we have in Jesus.