Jesus and the Moral Life
We have entered the Season of Lent, the forty-day period leading up to Easter, reminiscent of the time Jesus spent alone in the wilderness before his public ministry. It is a season of soul searching, penitence, and spiritual growth.
If we are honest, we will admit that inner work and personal growth is challenging. Pointing out the flaws in others is much easier to do but is often a convenient way to avoid examining our own hearts and lives. Judgment and blame is far too common in this culture. Jesus offers a more profound question: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but fail to recognize the log in your own eye. First, remove the log from your own eye and then you can see clearly the speck in your neighbor’s eye.”
What does it mean to live a moral life, to be a good person, to treat others with civility and respect? What does it mean to grow morally and spiritually?
Morality is defined as, “Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” Ethics is defined as “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior.” Most people would say that living a moral life and making ethical decisions is very important, yet many fall short on a regular basis. Perhaps it all goes back to parenting and upbringing: were we taught right from wrong at a young age or not?
One can argue that the Judeo-Christian tradition has established a basic framework for morality. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Help the poor and marginalized. Avoid idolatry. Honor and respect the Lord’s name. Keep the Sabbath. Honor your father and mother. Don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, or lie. Don’t covet the things that other people have. Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. All of this sounds simple and fairly straightforward. But why is it so hard? Why do we fail to do these things time and time again, at every age and stage of life?
A few common words come to mind: selfishness, envy, ambition, arrogance, competition, and fear. The word “sin” is biblical and gets thrown around in all Christian traditions. But what exactly is sin? Is it true, as Augustine once argued, that we are born with original sin, the universal result of Adam’s fall? Or is Adam a metaphor for the fact that we all develop a sinful nature over time in our attempt to struggle, grow, compete, and survive.
Paul writes these words about our inner conflict: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want but I do the very thing that I hate.” Profound, perplexing, yet real. If we know what to do but still fail to do it, then how do we explain it?
Living the moral life is an ongoing challenge for every person. A solid foundation put in place when we are young is certainly helpful but does not ensure that we will stay on the right path forever. Life is a series of decisions and opportunities, some big and some small. Every day we get to choose whether or not to do what’s right. Thankfully, there is grace and forgiveness when we fall short, but we must keep trying.
Bonhoeffer once warned of “cheap grace”, the basic assumption that we can do whatever we want because God will forgive. That doesn’t cut it. Moral character is formed by trying to do the right thing over and over again. Trust, respect, and a good reputation are built over time. When we fall short, we need to own it, not deny it or run away from it.
Spiritual growth in life only happens when we have enough humility to admit our mistakes, learn from them, and then make a concerted effort to do better the next time. Nobody is perfect. But there is a significant difference between those who continue to try and those who do not.
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