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Defining Morality

What exactly is morality? Can you be moral without God? And what does morality have to do with righteousness, values, ethics and principles – and being good? How do all those things fit together? Or do they?

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Today’s presentation is called Defining Morality. It’s the first in a series. I’ve been wanting to talk about this topic for a long time. And something struck me on Facebook the other day. One of my friends posted something. It seems that in Halifax, Nova Scotia, very recently a humanist group approached the Transit Authority wanting to place an advertisement on the side of city buses. It said simply, “You can be good without God.” The city denied the ad saying that it was too controversial. So now, I suppose, all the people in the community that don’t believe in God think that all the people that do think that they are bad, and it goes on from there.

What do you think? Is it possible to be good without God? Well, the first question I seem to want to ask in response to that is, “What do you mean when you say, ‘Good’?” What is that? What are we talking about here? There’s a term that I’ve been noticing for some time now that teenagers use. It’s quality person. What is a quality person? Is that what it means to be good? The Bible talks about the righteous? What is that? Is that the same thing as a quality person? Righteous and quality person together? The same?

We use the term morality in the title for this series. What exactly is morality? Can you be moral without God? And what does morality have to do with righteousness, values, ethics and principles – and being good? How do all those things fit together? Or do they?

There is a sharp difference of opinion over this issue in our nation right now. And the contention is growing stronger all the time. The outcome in each mind determines the need for God in one’s life or not. If you can be good without God, why bother? That’s what some people think. I heard a former church teen say once, “I stopped coming to church and just concentrated on being a good person, because that’s the important thing.” Is it? Or isn’t it?

If we don’t understand the difference between good without God and good with God, how are we going to teach the difference to our children? Or am I leading you somewhere that I shouldn’t? Can you be good without God? Or does He have to figure in? If we can’t figure that out, how can we teach our children what is correct? So we’re compelled to present this material based on a guiding moral principle out of the Word of God. That’s how we teach it.

I want to cut into a thought to highlight a value in the mind of God – and I mean, cut into one of God’s thoughts. I’m going to take a scripture out of its context for a minute. You can read it to make sure that I’m not distorting anything, if you want to. It is in Malachi 2:15. He says:

Mal. 2:15 – Has He not made them one? In flesh and spirit, they are His. And why one? He’s talking about divorce here – and what it does. Why did He make people one? Why did He give them institution of marriage? Because He was seeking Godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.

In Western society – even in Christian Western society – we think the point of marriage is to be happy. That’s why people get married – because they want to be connected to somebody, and that’s going to make them happy. God created marriage so that He could have Godly offspring. Being happy is the by-product of what God was doing. But He tells us that His main purpose was so that there could be lots of people that could enter into His family.

I had a real interesting example happen sometime ago. A woman and her daughter came to my counseling office. The little girl was seven. And the mother explained that she and her husband were going through a divorce, and she thought her daughter might need somebody to talk to – because of all that was going on. So I began assessing this little girl’s state. I asked her about her appetite. That was okay. She was sleeping. She wasn’t having nightmares. But her grades were falling. I said, “When you are in school, is it hard to concentrate because you keep thinking about your family?” “Well, yes, that is a problem.” “You try to concentrate on your work, but the thoughts just keep coming in and you can’t stop thinking about it?” “Yeah.” “You love both your mother and your father, and you wish they could love each other the way you love them?” “Right. Yes. I just want us all to live in the same place,” she said. “So, when you’re with your dad, you miss your mom, and, when you’re with your mom, you miss your dad. So you just wish everybody could live in the same place.” “Yes.” “Are you sad a lot?” “Yes, I’m sad all the time now.” “Are you finding it hard to control your temper? Lots of things make you angry?” When kids get depressed, they do that. They get really irritable. So she’s probably depressed a little bit.

So then I explained to her mother that children know that they can’t take care of themselves. And they know that they need adults to provide food, housing, shelter, love – all of that – clothing. And when kids see their support base destabilizing, they become very anxious about that. You know, when people get a divorce, they know that they are still going to eat, and they are still going to have a place to stay. But kids don’t know that. “Who is going to take care of me?” That’s what they think about. So, to an adult, divorce means upheaval and change, but to a child, it implies a loss of love and security – and, if they’re really obsessed about it, maybe even a loss of life.

So, after the session, the mother went home and blamed all this on her husband, because he is the one that is filing the divorce papers. I’ve never learned enough about them to assess who has most of the blame there, but I know that at least one of them is putting self ahead of their child. She wants it to stay the way it was, and she’s going to have a lot of stuff to work through for quite a long time. Every developmental milestone she hits, she is going to have to rework that all of her life. It’s not that she cannot go on from it, but it is going to leave a scar on her.

So, when we think about that and we think about what God says – why He creates marriage – to create Godly offspring – if we want to be Godly people, then we have to align our values – that’s the word I used earlier, right? – with His. As we read Malachi, we see that God equates divorce with damage to the godliness of children. So that’s what this series is all about. We’re going to explain more about why that is true, too. Raising Godly offspring – something really important to God. So that’s the underlying goal that I have in creating this series – to explain why we need to teach our children to be moral and how to teach them to be moral.

Today, we’re going to take a look at some of the terms that we talked about earlier – morals, principles, ethics, values, sin, righteousness, goodness. We’re going to try to sort that out a little bit. And we’re going to lay out both the secular stance and the Christian position. Then we’re going to talk about how children develop moral values – faith, belief in God. (That won’t happen today, but later.) Then we’re going to define the differences between a Christian and a quality person. And we’re going to talk about how to teach children about God, about being a good person, how to pass our faith on to them, as God commands. And we also want to addresss the issue of how we interact with and view those who want to be good without God, because that, also, is a part of godliness.

So, today we’re going to start with some of the definitions. I’d like to start with the term morals first. Most people think of sexual standards when we hear the word morals – you know, “he doesn’t have any morals. He’s like an alley cat.” That is sort of the image people come up with. But actually, sexual standards is really only one part of morality. From Webster, it says: moral practices or teaching; modes of conduct – it’s not just about sex; it’s about how you conduct yourself in every area of your life – guiding principles for living – that’s another definition for the term morals. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is a moral principle, isn’t it? It’s a guiding principle that people try to live by – some people, anyway.

I think of another, more offbeat, moral principle. I saw a movie once – in the movie Jerry McGuire – where this guy was going with a single mother, who had a little son. And he was really more interested in and attached to the little boy than he was to the woman. He began to love the kid – as he was around him. And the little guy, who didn’t have a father, was rapidly attaching himself to this guy. So he asked a friend – who was, in the movie, played by Cuba Gooding, who is supposed to be a football player – who was also raised by a single mother, how he should proceed. He was telling his friend that he really didn’t want the relationship…he told him about the son. And he said, “You didn’t shoplift the pooty, did you?” He said, “No, I didn’t shoplift the pooty…yeah, I did.” So to the Cuba Gooding football character, “don’t shoplift the pooty” was something that you absolutely had to adhere to in your life. You don’t connect to the child and then leave out the woman. They go together. That’s what he was telling him. So not all of our moral principles can be put in biblical terminology always. And that, certainly, is an example of one of them.

I was talking to a fellow therapist the other day. He doesn’t go to church. We were talking about our private practices and where our clients come from. I was explaining that I get some of my referrals from agencies around town. I told him that sometimes I wondered if these clients weren’t the ones that the agencies didn’t want to take on. He said, in response, “I don’t believe in that. If I make a referral, it’s not because I don’t want to deal with those people. It’s because I’m too busy, or I don’t know enough.” That’s really what I was trying to get at when I said that – some agencies don’t have the personnel to handle this or that type problem. But I kind of struck a cord with him, and he kind of went the way he understood it. And he said, after that, “If I don’t treat people the way I want to be treated, it always comes back to me in a way that I don’t want. See, that’s a moral principle that he lives by – tries to live by. He knows that is how it works in the world.

I had a friend once, who was in trouble with his boss – worked for a large company. His boss didn’t like him because he always tried to do things his way, especially when it came to taking care of the clients. And his boss really didn’t like that. To his boss, it was more important that he did things his way than it was to do things in a way that really helped the people they were trying to take care of. So he was just stubborn enough that he continued on with that, and finally, he boss told him that he was going to transfer him to South America. Now, there is nothing wrong with South America, right? But his boss would have thought it was punishment – that he got sent there. So that was the worst thing he could think of to do to this guy. So it didn’t matter that his wife had a career of her own in their town and all that. But, in a case like that, you have an administrator who is less moral than the unchurched therapist.

Sometime ago – just to give you some more examples and use some more terminology – in a working class neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut, a seventy-eight-year-old man was crossing the street when he was struck by a car. The driver was driving wrecklessly. The whole thing was caught on a camera at the intersection. This elderly man was thrown up in the air, crashed to the pavement, bleeding and paralyzed from the neck down. Nine cars drove by him with the drivers looking over at him as they went by before somebody stopped to help. On the blog that I was reading about this, several people commented that most of the people in our country no longer have a moral compass – that’s the term they used.

Now, what is a moral compass? Let’s put words to it. It is a set of principles that guide our behavior. I have a friend in the community – has never gone to church – and he has a company. And he named his company, True North Family Services. So that’s related to the compass idea, right? This man values principles very highly. He believes that there are guiding principles that are based on a true north, even though he is not religious. It is interesting, too – when you go back to the guy with the car accident – that Jesus told a parable about this very same kind of thing! Didn’t He? The parable of the good Samaritan. There was this guy, beaten by robbers, and left on the side of the road – just like this man – and all kinds of upstanding people walked by him and never made any effort to help him. Then, along comes a Samaritan, who takes good care of him.

Now some people listening to this presentation have probably already become deeply suspicious of me, because all the examples of morality that I have sited so far have come from people who are not spiritual. Did you notice that? Whereas all the examples of unlived moral principles have come – with the exception of one – from religious people. So, if you want to be suspicious, you have to be suspicious of Jesus, too. He did the same thing. And I’m just trying to teach the way He taught. A person either lives up to their principles, or they don’t.

Here’s a question for you. In God’s eyes, is it better to be an unchurched person who lives by his moral principles, or a Christian who doesn’t? I mean, that’s what He was saying when He talked to that lawyer about those guys that walked by that guy on the side of the road. They were good, upstanding Pharisees – whatever…lawyers in society. Well, we’re going to talk about that, but we’re not going to talk about it today. We’re going to continue on with our terms.

Let’s look at this word values. Something intrinsically valuable or desirable – they have in parenthesis there – as a principle or quality. So a principle or quality that is – the operative word here is – intrinsically valuable or desirable – principles that are important to us – what we value intrinsically. In other words, what is in our hearts.

So how would morals and values be different. Well, one way of thinking about this is to say that moral principles are what we are taught, and values are the moral principles that we accept into ourselves that become a part of us. That is what you value.

My parents used to value going to the Episcopal Church – at least, my mother did – every week. I didn’t happen to have that same value. I knew that was a principle that I was supposed to follow, but somehow I never accepted that.

Let’s read in Hebrew 8, and verse 10.

Heb. 8:10 – This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be My people. So there is a whole lot that is said in here in this scripture – in this one verse. He wasn’t just satisfied to have the law – the moral principles of the law – taught to people. He wanted them to take it in and integrate it into their being. He says that He’s the one that does that – that He writes it on our hearts. When that happens, then our values become like God’s. We have the same set of values. And that’s how He becomes our God and we become His people.

So Jesus was telling us that the law needs to become a part of our hearts and that that is what He and the Father are doing with us. So, if we were to use modern language, we would say that they are taking their moral principles and turning them into our values. We have a LifeResource presentation on it. It’s called The Law in Our Hearts. It is still available, even though we did it a long time ago. It’s free of charge. Somebody has already paid for your copy, so you can have one. You can order it from our Website or download it – CD, DVD, transcript or MP3. So, if you’re interested, go there.

When people develop a value – when they have principle or a way of behaving that is intrinsic – that is part of them – and they violate that value, they usually suffer inner conflict over it. And that is usually depression or anxiety.

I had a really interesting situation happen once when I was a counselor at an elementary school. They sent a fifth-grader to me. I knew him, because he had been having problems with his teacher. He was caught in class reading a magazine during the class – and it was a magazine about guns. You know what that does at public schools – it makes everybody really jumpy. Well, he got busted and, apparently, the teacher, who was not exactly Mr. Tact and Diplomacy, said something that really set this kid off again. And he impulsively stood up and pretended to mow down the teacher and the class with an imaginery Mac 10. Well, of course, that doesn’t fly at public school these days, so he went home and he had to get a “psyche eval,” and then he had to get counseling, and he had to do counseling with me.

So I was talking with him about it, after he came back from his week suspension, and he said, “I really feel bad about that. I want to apologize to Mr. So and So, but they moved me from his room” – something I’d been trying to get to happen for two months, because I knew they were just like fire and gas – and he said, “when I see him, he won’t even look at me.” And I said, “Why do you feel bad about that?” He said, “Well, I know it’s not right to pretend to kill people.” “Well, why not?” “Well, because it scares everybody – especially at school.” He’s pretty smart. This little guy had empathy. He understood the experience that the people had had when he was doing that – how it affected them. And more important than that, even, he regretted his behavior – not only because he was in trouble, but because he had hurt other people. So everybody was worried that he was going to become a gangster – you know, a thug – but I knew that he wasn’t, because he had empathy for others. When you talk to kids that are on their way to becoming gangsters, that’s what they don’t have. They don’t have that. He just got angry, did a stupid, impulsive thing, and then later had enough whatever it takes to regret that.

So that moral principle – that it is wrong to hurt others – he had taken that into his heart and it had become a value for him. That principle comes from the Bible, doesn’t it? Of course, you can read it in other religions, too, can’t you? Buddhists know that. Muslims know that. Pretty much everybody knows that, right? It’s not right to do that. So I asked him where he learned that it was wrong. He said, “At church.” “What church do you go to?” “I go to God’s one and only true church, where the only Christians exist – the Church of God,” he said. No, he didn’t really! He didn’t say that. He said, “I’m a Catholic.” I said, “Oh.” We used the term moral compass earlier. When we take the behavorial principles we have learned, and we apply them in everyday life, and they guide us, then we have a moral compass. And this little guy’s moral compass was overridden by his outrage at the way he was being treated day after day by his teacher. I talked to the teacher, too, and he was outraged by the way the kid was treating him. So I just figured that, if they weren’t together, things would be a lot better.
I was talking to a seventeen-year-old girl in my practice once, and she told me that a boy she knew at school came to her house unexpectedly one afternoon and asked to speak to her. So she came to the door, stepped out on the porch to talk to him, and he gave her a flower, and he kissed her. She said that it freaked her out so badly that she ran in the house and shut the door. She wanted to know, “Is that normal?” I said, “Is that the first time a boy has ever kissed you?” And she said, “Yes.” From there we had an awesome discussion about her morals and her values. She valued virginity. She wasn’t a member of our church. She was a Lutheran. She was seventeen and she was still a virgin. And she was proud of it. As I was talking with her, I was thinking of the dozens and dozens and dozens of teenagers I’ve known in our church over the years, and some of them have held this same kind of value and pride over virginity. Some of them held the value, but didn’t live it, and so were conflicted. Some of them just didn’t hold the value at all. They disagreed with their parents, the church and the Bible. But this girl held that value and was intent on living it. And she was not in our church. It’s interesting, too, that the freaking out that this girl did was not about being kissed, but it was about her fear of letting herself get close to another human. So she professed a value – love – but she couldn’t let herself trust people. So she knew that she had a problem. There was a conflict there. And that is what her work turned out to be about. So it was about learning to trust. And it started with trusting God. Since she brought that to the table, we talked about that and, also, about trusting her therapist, because she was able to talk about really personal things in sessions.

I knew that she was learning to do that one day when she reported this very vivid dream that she had. She mentioned that we needed to work on our dream. Then she caught herself and said, “I mean, my dream.” So that was like a Freudian slip that let me know that I was in there with her doing that work. I was in the presence of somebody who was truly seeking to be a good person. And I was so pleased that she could include someone in something so personal. I was so honored that I had been the one she had included. She was growing in trust. Without trust, we can’t love.

So that is kind of an example of how when we have values – and she valued love – but she couldn’t let herself do it. So she was in a terrible place. So that’s what we worked on.

Let’s look at another term: ethics. From Webster: a set of moral principles; a theory or system of moral values. Some examples are: the present day, materialistic ethic – everything is about stuff and things – the more you have, the better you are – or an old fashioned work ethic, or Christian ethic. Another definition they give is: principles of conduct governing an individual or group – professional ethic, the ethics of human cloning. We’re moving into all these new areas that humankind has never visited before and so we have to try to devise how we’re going to handle that based on moral principles.

So I see us applying the overarching moral principles of society to a specific situation – like for counselors – we have professinal ethics – and one of the things they talk about there is dual role. That’s not a good thing when you are a counselor. You are only supposed to have one role in the life of the person and that is their counselor – not their golf partner, not their pastor, not anything else – just their counselor. Why is that? Well, it is because of confidentiality, for one thing, but also because it contaminates the relational field. When it is forty-five minutes once a week, and that is all that person sees of you and knows of you, it makes it a lot simpler than if all this other stuff is going on. It is also about responsible care for people. And that really is the dual role thing, too. It’s about responsible care for people. That’s biblical, isn’t it? It is, isn’t it? Being responsible. When people divorce, they’re not being responsible to their children – if they have little children. So, if you have a suicidal client, you don’t send them to the answering service when they call. You take the phone call, no matter what time it is, and you take care of them. Right? That’s what we have to do if we’re going to do that work.

Now sometimes, humanly devised ethical codes conflict with personal or biblical moral principles. When that happens you have to go with the higher principle. I was thinking about the story of Joan of Arc. She claimed to receive information from God. Of course, this absolutely outraged the church leaders, because He wasn’t talking to them and they knew it. So what are you going to do there? Well, their job was to take care of her as a part of their congregation, but somehow that all went away. They applied the immoral principle of kill the messenger. That was what they were operating under. They told her that if she would recant, they wouldn’t kill her. So she recanted in weakness, but then recovered herself and took it back. It was a lie. She had been talking to God – at least, in her own mind. So they burned her at the stake.

We were talking about the trial of Jesus just before the presentation today, in our Bible study, and how over and over again through the entire account, you see them breaking their own rules – over and over again. Desperate times require desperate measures. Suspend all the morals, and the principles, and the Bible and everything else for right now and let’s just get rid of this guy. We’ve got to take care of ourselves, not Him. So ethical rules tell us what we should do, but they don’t guarantee that we will do them.

Let’s look at another term – righteousness. That’s a biblical term related to moral principles. The word righteousness, when used in scripture, often applies to those who are free of sin. For example: the righteousness of the saints. We’re told that sin is the violation of the law of God. So then righteousness is obedience to the law in both the letter and the spirit – not just the letter of the law, but also the principle of it. We know that nobody has ever lived a sin-free life – obeying the law perfectly. It’s humanly impossible to be righteous. And yet there are people who are called righteous in the Bible. So that means there is at least one more definition for that term. Seth, Abraham, Job, Moses, Noah, John the Baptist, etc. were called righteous people. Well, what do these people have in common beside the fact that they didn’t obey the law perfectly? Well, they all had a close relationship with God, didn’t they? And they all tried with all their might to obey God, even though they knew it was impossible. So, in our day, we know that the righteousness of Christ can become ours if we surrender our life to Christ. His grace can cover our sins and we can be accounted righteous because of what He did. His righteousness becomes ours. And we know that once that happens, that process is called justification – when our sins are forgiven and we have Christ’s righteousness. Then God begins to sanctify us. He begins to write His law on our hearts, so that it becomes us. That only seems to happen, however, when we strive for it because we love God and are grateful to Him for His love and forgiveness that He has extended to us. So once forgiven and covered by grace, those who strive for righteousness are considered righteous.
I believe that somewhere in there God is going to do a good work in all of us, even the ones that aren’t trying very hard right now. He has His ways of making us try hard. So we don’t have to worry about everybody else. We just have to worry about us, right? God is taking care of us and He is taking care of them. So it’s all good. Right?

One of the things that I worry about, though, is Jesus spent a lot of time telling very religious people they weren’t very righteous. So just being religious and going through the motions doesn’t make a person righteous. Pharisees, for example, valued their own oral traditions. The oral traditions of the Jews…what would that be…what word would we apply from the things we just talked about to this? Well, the thing that seems to fit there to me is ethics, because those are things that people do to try to contain a given situation. Their problem was that they didn’t want to go into captivity again, so they were busy building a big fence around the law. We might say that they worshipped their law more than they worshipped God. And there were people in the population – at that time – who were not as religious – didn’t attend synagogue – but were less sinful than the people who were at the top of the religious heirarchy. One of the raps that the Pharisees had against Jesus was that He spent so much time with sinners! They looked down on those sinners. They were not religious. They were not up the social ladder. Jesus response to that was to tell them that unless your righteousness exceeds that of scribes and Pharisees, you are not going to see it! And I believe that that’s why, in response to their hostility, He cited a Samaritan – who was the most loathed element of society in Judea – as a better person than those who held form and looked good. So where does He draw the line. What is He saying? Well, we’re going to talk more about that later, too.

I want to look at another term here, too: goodness – a good guy, the nice guy, the nice girl, the good person, the quality person. “She’s a quality person.” The tenth car that came by the old man lying in the road…. That person was a good person. That was a quality person. They stopped, risked being run over, and stayed with him until the police arrived – called for help. The Samaritan was a good guy, wasn’t he? The woman teacher who called my office to refer a third grader, who was noticeably quiet and withdrawn – she sensed something was wrong – she was a sensitive and caring person – she is a quality person. Someone who is honest, somebody we can trust, somebody we can count on – that’s a quality person. Somebody who is empathic and understands the feelings and experience of others, who is kind – that’s a quality person. Somebody who has principles and sticks to them – like my friend, the therapist, who would not refer somebody that he wouldn’t work with himself, unless it was just because he didn’t know enough.

Do we know people in the church who are unfeeling and self-centered? Yes, we do. Sometimes they are us, right? Do we know people who are not Christians who are quality people? Yes, we do. Of course we do. So what’s the difference? What is the difference? Well, you know, to this point – and I’m pretty much done for today – to this point, we have only taken the very most shallow look at this topic. There is a huge difference. And along with that huge difference, comes a huge difference in outcome, as well.

Our nation is in more trouble than it has ever been in my lifetime. The problem appears to be economic. We’re so deep in debt, we may never recover. And economic weakness is directly related to your ability to protect yourself. We have this problem because we’re being robbed blind by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and by business people at the highest level, but also because voters have learned how to vote themselves money that they did not earn. And that is even a broader base of dishonesty than all of these people that we have pointed our fingers at. It is a sweeping moral problem – a principle of honesty that is being violated across the board in our nation.

So next time we’re going to look at how our nation got its moral principles and why they work so well when we apply them, and why we get in so much trouble when we don’t.