For the last year, there’s a phrase that’s been rattling around in my head. It comes from Hebrews 5:14 and talks about our “powers of discernment [being] trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil”. I think it’s a phrase we, as Christians, need to get acquainted with.
This phrase shows us that distinguishing good from evil isn’t the black and white business we like to think it is. It’s not always obvious. It takes training. Knee-jerk, off-the-cuff reactions aren’t a reliable guide. Moral reasoning is something we need to invest effort in. When we think about right and wrong, there’s nuance. There’s emphasis and degree. There are shades of grey. There’s prioritisation.
Jesus uses the vivid picture of people straining out gnats and swallowing camels (Matt 23:24). He says there are “weightier matters of the law”, and, therefore, by inference “lighter”, less important parts of the law. The Bible is quite clear that we can major on the minors, and minor on the majors. That means we can be quoting something true from the Bible and still be getting the Bible wrong!
It seems to me that as Christians our powers of discernment are in desperate need of training. We’re living in a media-saturated environment. Every day, headlines are training our sense of what matters and what doesn’t matter. Some subjects get all the attention. At points in the year, it’s felt like we’ve been doing morality by mathematics; algorithms have been making our moral decisions for us. In such a situation, it’s more important than ever that we train our powers of discernment. We need to take them down to the gym for a moral work-out. We’re going to have to work our socks off.
The best place I can recommend to help correct our moral disproportion is the Ten Commandments. We, Christians, need a good soak in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. (If you don’t have a Reformed view of the law, it’ll work just as well to use Romans 1 and Galatians 5). We need to get applying God’s word to the world around us. We need to stop reacting, and start applying and connecting Scripture to our real life.
– How much do the first 4 commandment feature in your thinking? Does God’s glory matter more to you than man’s? Is the sin of idolatry registering on your moral compass? For example, Paul’s spirit was provoked within him when he saw the idols of Athens (Acts 17:16). Do you see a problem with the place football holds in our society?
– Does the misuse of God’s holy name and character bother us? Paul talks about “the unholy and profane” (1 Tim 1:9). I wonder is that a category we even recognise today, given the volume of profanity on youtube and Netflix. Would you ever label someone “profane”, as Paul does?
– how seriously are we applying the Sabbath commandment to our lives? Back in the 1980’s Christians in Britain rallied behind the “Keep Sunday Special” campaign, to oppose the loosening of Sunday trading laws. But Sunday has vanished from a lot of Christians’ moral horizon.
– when did you last hear about the importance of respecting and honouring authority in the family, and in the nation? Do we talk about the sin of dishonouring parents? The language of “equality” is quickly gobbling up any concept of “authority”.
– A lot of our moral reasoning today is based on the sixth commandment alone – the preservation of life, the valuing of life, the equality of each human life – the sins of abuse, racism, sexism. This is the place where the church is busy making moral pronouncements. This is, of course, a very important and valid things for us to be doing. However, to universalise this commandment and detach it from the others is exactly what our secular society is trying to get us to do.
– The seventh commandment is where we feel the pinch, both personally in practicing sexual purity, and in presenting Christian sexual ethics to our society, with the furious reaction it provokes. God’s word is clear that to get our sexual ethics wrong is to “disregard God” (1 These 4:8), so it’s not a topic we can afford to roll over on.
– The ninth commandment addresses sins of speech. This is something we’ve got very lax on. In Paul’s list of sins in Romans 1, he talks of “strife, deceit, maliciousness… gossips, slanderers”. The lack of interest we have in our political, church, and family leaders speaking truthfully does not match the Bible’s moral vision.
Of course, God does help one age to see the sins of other ages. Each age has its blind-spots. But I’m really not convinced that we 21st century Christians are sitting on the high moral perch we like to think we’re on. If we used just the Ten Commandments to take the moral temperature of British evangelical Christianity, I don’t think the reading would be very healthy.
Praise God that Jesus saves sinful Christians, but his salvation does actually lead to godliness (1 Tim 6:3). In order for Christians to weather the coming storms of a post-Christian culture, “who call evil good and good evil” (Isa 5:20), we’ve got our ethical work cut out. We’ll need to stop majoring on the minors, and minoring on the majors. We’ll need to stop drinking milk and venture on to the solid food (Heb 5:12-13). In order for us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world that Jesus has saved us to be (Matt 5:13-14), we need to stop mirroring back the world’s agenda, which our media soaks us in, and get practicing a different moral agenda.