Last week we talked about the Sabbath. That is a commandment God gave the Hebrews back in Old Testament times. We talked briefly about the commandments of God not representing God making the rules and expecting people to live by them, but rather as God trying to direct us toward things that in the long run will be good for us and trying to warn us away from things that in the long run will be bad for us.
I thought it might be good to talk more about it today. The reason I think this is so important is that it affects our picture of God, what we think God is like. This concept is, I think, one of the most important things that tells us what God is like.
Frankly, I think some of the beliefs you hear coming from Christians give a false picture of what God is like, and this is one of those places. That’s why I think it’s so important to talk about this more.
It has to do with morality—right and wrong. The concept of morality says that some things are right, and some things are wrong. Hopefully, we live our lives doing the things that are right and avoiding the things that are wrong.
But where do right and wrong come from? There are three main ideas about that. One idea says that right and wrong are relative. Right and wrong depend on the situation. This idea says, basically, that society determines right and wrong. What society determines is right is right; what society determines is wrong is wrong. That means that what is thought of as right and wrong today, in 21st century America, may be completely different than what was thought of as right and wrong in China 2000 years ago, but that’s OK. China 2000 years ago was not the same situation as America today. They had their standards of right and wrong back then, and they were right for them. Today, we have our standards of right and wrong, and they are right for us.
That’s the idea that morality is relative, right and wrong depend on the situation, and society, at that time, decides what is right and what is wrong. Although philosophers talk about that idea, bounce around the idea that morality is relative, virtually no one believes it. Very, very few people really believe that right and wrong are relative, determined by society. Virtually everyone agrees that morality is absolute; that is, there are standards of right and wrong that are, in effect, written in stone, and they are valid for everyone in every place and at every time. The great, great majority of people believe that right is right and wrong is wrong, that it doesn’t matter whether you are living in 21st century America or were living in China 2000 years ago, right and wrong are the same. Right and wrong never change. What’s right today has always been right and always will be right. What’s wrong today has always been wrong and always will be wrong. That’s the idea that moral standards are absolute—they are the same for everyone for all time; they never change.
Virtually everyone today believes that. Although we live in an age where it seems like standards of right and wrong are changing, that’s not really what’s happening. What’s happening is that some people believe we’re just now discovering true morality, that many ideas about right and wrong people had in the past were wrong, and society is just now advancing to the point where it is able to truly know what is right and what is wrong. People today don’t believe that true right and wrong have changed; they believe it’s just been discovered, that finally, with us, society has advanced to the point where, for the first time in the history of the world, we finally know true morality. We are the first people in the history of the world to ever know, really, what’s right and what’s wrong. Everyone else who came before us was wrong. That’s the belief many people hold today, and even a lot of Christians believe that.
So today, the idea that virtually everyone agrees with is that morality is in fact absolute—what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong, that the standards of right and wrong have always been the same. They’ve never changed, and they will never change.
Nothing shows more clearly how fundamental that belief is in our society than the way our political system operates. We have two main political parties—Republicans and Democrats. Republicans have their idea of right and wrong, and they try to use the power of government to have their standards of right and wrong enacted into law so that they will be binding on everyone. Democrats have their idea of right and wrong, which is somewhat different from the idea Republicans have, and they try to use the power of government to have their standards of right and wrong enacted into law so that they will be binding on everyone. Now of course that’s an oversimplification, because among Republicans themselves there is disagreement, and among Democrats themselves there is disagreement, but it does illustrate that throughout American society, from one end of the spectrum to the other, the belief is that there are unchanging standards of right and wrong that are binding on everyone. The disagreement is about what those standards are.
So, although there is no agreement in American society today on exactly what the unchanging standards of right and wrong are, there is at least agreement that there are unchanging standards of right and wrong.
So, if there are unchanging standards of right and wrong that are the same for everyone everywhere, where did they come from? Two main answers have been proposed to that.
Christianity has most often taken the position that they come from God. God decides what is right and what is wrong, and then God tells us what He has decided in the form of commands. God says, “Thou shalt do so-and-so,” and “Thou shalt not do so-and-so.”
God makes the rules, in other words, and then demands that we play the game by His rules.
That’s what much of Christianity has traditionally believed. In fact, it’s such a widespread belief in Christianity that it has a name. It’s called the Divine Command Theory of Morality. It says that God decides what’s right and what’s wrong and then tells us in the form of commands.
So why is something that’s wrong wrong? Because God says it is. We might not see anything wrong with it. We might think it’s OK. We might want to do it. But we can’t, for one reason—because God says not to. It’s like you have a two-year old child sitting at a table; you lay a piece of candy on the table but won’t let the child have it. Why won’t you let the child have it? Because you don’t want to.
That’s the Divine Command Theory of Morality, and that’s what a lot of Christians believe. God makes the rules, and we have to play the game by God’s rules. We might not like the rules, we might not agree with the rules, we might even think the rules are stupid, but none of that matters. We have to play the game by the rules God has set.
This idea sees God as the rulemaker. If you believe this Divine Command Theory of Morality, it will affect how you picture God. One of the main ways you’ll view God is that of rulemaker. That will form a big part of your picture of God—God is the rulemaker. God’s up there with the rules He’s made; He’s watching to see how good you keep the rules; every time you break a rule, He writes it down, and He will use it against you later. That’s the view of God the Divine Command Theory of Morality leads to, and a lot of Christians have that picture of God.
But there is another idea. What if God is not the great rulemaker in the sky, making the rules and demanding that we live by them? What if what’s really going on is this: God is a Being who has far greater understanding than we do. He is able to see down the road much further than we can, which means that God can see the long-term effects of things much better than we can. As God looks down the road at the long-term effects, He sees that some things will lead to problems down the road. They might not seem to us now as if they will lead to problems down the road, but they will. We can’t see that, but God can, and God knows we can’t see that far down the road. So He tells us not to do those things.
On the other hand, there are other things God knows will lead to good things for us down the road. God can see the long-term effects of those things much more clearly than we can, and although it might not look to us as if those things will lead to good down the road, they will, and so God tells us to do them.
You see the difference between this and the one we talked about earlier? The earlier idea we talked about says that God just makes the rules and demands that we live by them. But the idea we’re talking about now says that God can see much further down the road than we can, so God can see long-term effects of things much better than we can. God knows our vision is limited, that we can’t necessarily see the long-term effects of things.
And so to help us out, He tells us not to do some things, and to do other things. It’s not that He’s making rules for us to follow. It’s that He’s warning us away from things He knows will, in the long run, be harmful to us; and He’s steering us toward things He knows will, in the long run, be good for us.
In this idea, God does not create morality. God does not decide what’s right and what’s wrong. God merely sees what’s right and what’s wrong and is trying to help us know. Right and wrong are not things God decided; they’re just a part of the way things are. They are absolutes that are just there.
It’s not that God decided to make a world in which some things are right and some things are wrong. It’s the only way things could be. God could not have made the world in such a way that right was wrong and wrong was right.
Right is right and wrong is wrong. What makes right right and wrong wrong is the effects they have in the long term. Things that are right produce good things in the long term. Things that are wrong produce bad things in the long term. That’s where right and wrong really come from. That’s what makes any certain thing right or wrong—the effects it produces in the long term. Not the effects it produces in the short term. Some things may seem to produce good effects in the short term but in the long term will turn out to produce bad effects. And that’s how we get in trouble sometimes.
There are some things in the Bible we are told not to do that we might not agree with; we might not see anything wrong with them. And so we might just go ahead and do them. And, there are places in the Bible that tell us how to live that we might not think are right. We don’t see how living like that is beneficial; in fact, we might think living like that would lead to us having worse lives. And so we don’t live like that.
But what we forget is that our vision is short-sighted. We tend to see today and tomorrow, next week, next month, next year—the short term—but a lot of times we can’t see or predict the very long-term effects of things, how things will play out in 10, 25, 50 years, or longer. And so we can’t necessarily see how doing this or that will turn out in the very long term.
But maybe God can. Maybe God sees long-term effects much better than we do. Maybe God can see that, while doing a certain thing may seem harmless in the short term, in the long term, it will lead to very bad things. And maybe God can see that while living a certain way might not seem now like the best way to live, in the long term it would turn out to have been the best.
I think this is something a lot of people miss when looking at things the Bible tells us to do and not to do. People look at them as rules to follow, and frankly, lots of people resent them. Since we’re not able to see the long term effects, we just ignore those things and do as we please. Then, years down the road, those things have led to bad effects, and we wonder what happened. We don’t connect what’s going on today as being the result of things that happened 25, 50, or 100 years ago, but it is. We can’t see all that, but God can. God actually predicted it, which is why He told us not to do it, but we didn’t pay Him any attention. He tried to help us, tried to steer us away from these things He knew would have bad effects we couldn’t see.
So, today we’ve seen very different ideas about where right and wrong come from. Above all else that we’ve talked about today, I hope you see how the different ways of looking at where right and wrong come from produce very different pictures of God. One idea we looked at says God decided right and wrong. It produces a picture of God as the rulemaker and the monitor of how well we play by the rules, the one who punishes infractions of the rules and rewards following the rules. This is the God who arbitrarily decides what He likes and doesn’t like and then demands that we do as He wants. That’s one picture of God.
But then we looked at another idea of where right and wrong come from. It produces a picture of God as the one who tries to warn us away from things that will harm us and steer us toward things that are good for us. It’s a picture of a God who has our best interests at heart, whose primary motivation is to see that we have good lives. It’s not a God who demands obedience to rules; it’s a God who wants the best for us, and to try to give us the best, warns us away from things that will harm us and points us toward things that will be good for us.
This is a completely different way of looking at God than most Christians have been taught to look at God. Most Christians have been taught to see God as the rulemaker who demands that we follow His rules. In fact, we’ve been taught to see God as getting so absolutely furious when we don’t follow His rules that He would love to burn us in hell for all eternity.
Very few Christians see God as the one who wants the best for us, has our best interests at heart, and whose “commands” are not really rules at all, but are things that point us in directions that will, in the long run, lead to good for us.
Very few Christians have been taught to believe that what God wants most of all is good for us. And yet I believe that if you take the organized religion out, that’s what Christianity really does in fact say.