Blind jazz pianist, George Shearing, according to a popular story, was waiting at a busy intersection for somebody to help him across. He heard a tapping and a man spoke: “I am blind. Please could you help me across the road?” He is later quoted as responding: “What could I do? I took him across and it was the most thrilling moment of my life!”
It is, I think, an apt illustration for how we try to understand God. When it comes to making sense of the divine, we are all basically blind. And so we construct ways to make sense of the fundamentally insensible. We develop rules and creeds, and search for signs in the world around us, all so that the enormity of God’s unknownness seems a little less terrifying.
Today I want to address one of our more common misunderstandings: believing that acting morally is what God most desires of us. I apologise that in order to do even remote justice to my argument, this will have to be a longer than normal post. Stop reading when you get bored.
Despite our almost pathological obsession with being good, something that many of the wise men in the Bible – Solomon, Job, Jesus himself – note, is that morality seems to have no bearing on God’s ‘blessings’. Consider, for example, Jesus’ words:
“But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5: 44-45)
To complicate matters, we fail to recognise that one’s ‘goodness’ is not determined by one’s actions. One does not do good deeds and become good. Rather, one’s good deeds are the natural manifestation of good character. It is easy for a ‘bad’ person to do good deeds, just as it is for a ‘good’ person to do bad ones. Jesus had this to say about it (Matthew 15):
1 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” 3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 5But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ 6 he is not to ‘honor his father ‘ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 8 ” ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'”
10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’ ” 12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” 13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
15Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”
16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’ ”
Having never been unconstrained by time, as God is, I am in no position to even begin to speculate about how the universe looks from that perspective, but when I try, I cannot see how any single deed has resonance in that space. Actions are time-based; they have a beginning and an end. This would mean that they could hold no value in a timeless realm. Character, on the other hand, probably would. A state of being, I think, would transcend time. That is why descriptions of God through the prophets and through Jesus base themselves primarily on His character. That is also, I think, why ‘cleanness’ or ‘uncleanness’ are less about actions and more about character.
This means that salvation by faith, which the Bible espouses, should not be viewed as an action. It is not a raising of the hand in a room full of people with their eyes closed. It is not the saying of a ‘sinner’s prayer’. Those are actions. Faithfulness is a state of being. It is not something you do, but something you are. And only God can create or alter a state of being.
That is why when Jesus says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14: 6) I do not think he is saying that unless you say the right prayer to the right deity you are condemned. That would be an action-based interpretation. I think he means that only God – through the incarnation of Jesus – is able to restore humanity to a state of being that allows communion with God, because only God can alter a state of being.
That state of being is, as Jesus has alluded to here, ‘life’. I believe that God’s primary concern with people is not our goodness. It is a state of ‘life’. Somehow sin alters our state of being from ‘life’ to ‘death’. If you read the Biblical account of the fall of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3), you will see an implicit understanding that something has fundamentally changed in our state of being. It is not merely about disobedience.
So when I look at Calvary, I do not see God punishing sin. That would be to see salvation as based on actions. Rather, I see God somehow restoring our fundamental state of being back to ‘life’. I do not believe that the numerous references to Jesus bringing “eternal life” are about rewards for actions and the removal of a death sentence.
So where does that leave morality? I am not saying that being good is unimportant. I am simply saying that it is only tangentially related to the question of ‘life’.
I think there is in all of us an implicit understanding that living a fulfilling life is related to behaving in certain ways. Because of who we are – beings created to live synergistically – certain values will always lead to a more satisfying experience. For example, love is relatively universally accepted as making life more worthwhile. We have a reasonably common understanding of what the ‘good life’ entails. And that life is facilitated by the kinds of moral actions that the Bible espouses. Sinful actions are, I suspect, not reprehensible so much because the individual actions are evil, but because they diminish life.
People will always struggle to comprehend that. Instead, we see the actions as intrinsically good or evil. We mistakenly believe that good deeds produce good life, and we attempt to do things in the hope that they will wake us from the dead. But the Bible calls these characteristics of ‘good life’ the fruits of the Spirit. And the thing about fruit is that the tree does not choose to grow them. They appear as a natural consequence of the tree’s flourishing. If the tree is dead, it will produce no fruit. If it is alive, it will produce fruit in abundance. So with us.
I think much of what we understand as morality is an attempt to recreate this state of life by attempting to grow its fruit artificially. We invent rules that will give us the outward appearance of being loving, joyful, or patient, for example, without understanding that such fruits are indicative of life; they do not produce it. Consider Galatians 5:
1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. 2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. 7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? 8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9 “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” 10 I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be. 11Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. 12 As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! 13 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. 14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” 15 If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Life and goodness are beyond any law. It is why rules-based morality is always a human construct and ultimately useless. That is not to say we can do whatever we want to. On the contrary, if we have no fruits, our tree is dead. But it does mean that we can be kinder on ourselves. We can stop stressing about being good. We can stop condemning ourselves every time we fail. We are powerless to alter our state of being. Fortunately Jesus took care of that for us.