Partitioning Morality

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Partitioning Morality

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Try it with the judge

How are people deciding right and wrong? It's human nature to attempt to cover and justify immoral behavior, at the same time as wanting to be well thought of. The excuse that's offered is: "Look at the good deeds that have been done, not at the few mistakes."

"Yes, I told a lie-but I do not steal!" "Yes, I committed adultery-but at least, I am honest about it!" Human nature might be comical to observe, if the subject weren't so serious. We would immediately recognize the foolishness of offering such a defense in a criminal court. "Yes, your honor, I embezzled the money. And, since I am honest about my crime, I expect the court to let me go free."

Why do people think that moral crimes, a.k.a. sin, should be so readily brushed aside?

To listen to the reporting of the American media, you would think that morality is by majority rule. That's not to imply that everyone "shoots from the lip" on the subject of right and wrong, although many do. Many reasonable people weigh their thoughts with care before they speak-and some of them speak eloquently. But whether our arguments are brash or brilliant, can we decide for ourselves what is moral and what is not?

The United States and its mother country, Great Britain, were once inhabited by people who believed in God and practiced their faith. They lifted their eyes to the heavens to ask God for bountiful crops and for rescue from their enemies. They bowed their heads and gave sincere thanks for the blessings that they received. Because of their reverence for God, many sought to let His standard govern their behavior.

Of course, there are people who still believe in God and practice their faith. Additionally, legislative sessions still begin with a chaplain's intoned prayer for God's guidance and many politicians still sprinkle their speeches with a deferential nod to the divine.

But, increasingly, the previously clear definition of morality has dimmed, whether the question is how to judge a politician's peccadilloes or deciding moral behavior in one's own life.

Prophecy of parsing morality

Jesus Christ made an incisive observation about how human nature will cause people to parse morality. To the people of His day, He said, you mention God's name in ceremonies and imprint it on your currency; you invoke His name when you're desperate for emergency relief. But, just as easily as His name rolls off your tongue for His blessing on your deeds and His help with your needs, His judgments on what is right and wrong are nudged aside by your opinions. You partition off what you are not willing to do, replacing God's instruction with your own opinions. Whether you mean well is not the issue, but rather whether you do well. For, in partitioning yourself off from God's words, you partition yourself off from His favor.

No, those aren't Jesus' exact words, but they are an accurate paraphrase.

Here's what He actually said (quoting from Isaiah 29:13): "These people draw near to Me with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:8-9).

Sure, this pertains to religious teachings, but any diligent student of the Bible knows that God's teachings should not be thought of as confined to discourses in a house of worship or to presentations by religious media. The public perception of religion demonstrates how complete the partitioning of morality is, for the term religion stirs thoughts of a specific denomination or charismatic personality, rather than a way of life for a family, a neighborhood, a workplace and a government.

The separation of the lip from the heart or of one's words from his actions is not immediate, but Christ's plain message shows the inevitable conclusion of partitioning morality-"doctrine" or morality comes to be based upon the opinions of people, instead of on the opinions of God.

Editing the Ten Commandments

When reporting the same prophecy as Matthew, Mark recorded, "For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men…" (Mark 7:8). How does this relate today? Do you know anyone who would so blatantly turn his back on God? Sure, there are people who coarsely declare their hostility toward religion, but most Americans and many other citizens of the world still profess a belief in God.

Think of Mark's words in the modern context. Is there any evidence that people have substituted their own opinions for God's standard of morality? The evidence is all around us. The "thou shalt nots" have been replaced with "according to the latest opinion poll on that subject…;" or with "personally, I don't agree, because…." Where are we headed with this trend? Will a sincere heart guide people through the moral questions they debate? Looking at what's happened in the United States and Britain in the summer of 2001, the answer is, "No."

Learning "the latest" opinion, especially in the entertainment and political arena (and they are sometimes inseparable) has become an obsession. Learning "the best" opinion, that is, the Creator's, has become obsolete.

This phenomenon is not unique to our time. Acts 17:21 reports the Greek Areopagus of the first century was occupied with people from all over the world who spent their time in the sole pursuit of gathering and giving their opinions about "new things." Instead of tuning in to the TV news or logging on to the Internet for their information, they traveled to the Acropolis to hear opinions and to give theirs.

Addressing them, Paul noted they were quite religious. In seeming incongruity, he also described them as groping for God. How can one be religious and not be able to clearly see or hear God? We witness the same phenomenon today. Unwilling to have their behavior challenged or changed by God, people have built a partition between their lips and their hearts.

God's name is on the former, but His words are not in the latter.

Time to tear down that wall

"Truly," Paul said to the audience on Mars' Hill, "these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent" (verse 30). God historically has not forced all peoples to live His way of life.

Instead, He has allowed nations, communities and individuals to deliberate and debate their opinions, deciding their own course of action. He's allowed all who wanted to experiment with implementing their ideas on right and wrong to do so.

Why would He take such an approach? Simply, like any wise parent, He knows that some lessons are only going to be learned by experience, and He steps back for the good of His children. But, for the good of His children, He will step in to revoke His tolerance of their immaturity at the needed time. His call to "repent," for the human family to turn around, comes when it should.

So, when is "now"? When is it time for Him to say, "I'm no longer going to allow you to partition between using My name and actually doing what I say"? When will He declare, "I am no longer going to allow you to pretend that you are moral, simply by partitioning off wrong behavior and calling yourself good"?

"Now" is now. Oh, the skies have not yet been split to open the gateway for Christ to return to judge every man for his actions, but the announcement of His approach goes out in advance of His issuing the summons to appear before His court of justice. People who are truly wise will tear down the wall they have built between the lips that drop God's name and the hearts that do their own thing. WNP