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March 2007 Archives

March 20, 2007

Advice to My Sons Upon Graduation from High School

1. Develop your talents. If you do what interests you--and do it well--you can make a living and find satisfaction in your work.

2. Experience all you can. Continue to grow and expand as a human being. Widen your horizons. Give your life balance.

3. Never shun the difficult. Life will require you to prove yourself over and over again anyway. Relish the challenge.

4. Search for good teachers. A great teacher will make any subject worthwhile. Take the teacher, not the class.

5. Be gracious to others. Respect their feelings. Believe in their sincerity. They will respond to you in kind.

6. Be ready to laugh at yourself and your work. Laughter is uniquely human, so cultivate your sense of humor.

7. Smile whenever you can. Human relations are important. Smiles lubricate human relations by putting others at ease.

8. Criticize sparingly, if at all. Always criticize instructively.

9. Do nice things for people. Buy someone a soda from time to time. Give a little gift. Do someone a service or a favor.

10. Try to leave everything you touch a little better than you found it.

11. Practice the art of serenity and detachment. Never blame others for what happens to you. Never make excuses.

12. Take care of your body. Eat in moderation. Get enough sleep. Exercise daily. An investment in good habits will pay off as you grow older.

13. Be as modest, cheerful, and polite as you can. A combination of quite competence, good humor, and common courtesy will find its reward.

14. Learn from the New Testament what your attitudes should be. Live the ideals of Matthew 5-7, Philippians 2-4, Romans 8 and 12.

15. Marry a sincere Christian. It can make all the difference in the happiness of your life.

March 21, 2007

Is It All Relative?

Is it unethical to eat meat? Many people today think it is. They argue that animals have the capacity to suffer and do suffer both in the merciless way they are raised for slaughter and in the slaughter houses themselves. These same people maintain that a vegetarian diet is better for human health. They note that Adam and Eve seem to be vegetarians in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:30; 2:9-16) and that Daniel purposely abstained from meat in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace (Daniel 1:8-16). Considering the world’s food shortage, they say, more food could be produced by giving up meat products, since animals raised for slaughter consume huge quantities of agricultural products and land area that could be redirected toward human consumption.

As Christians, you probably view the question of eating meat as a personal preference that has no ethical implications. After all, the Bible nowhere forbids the eating of meat per se. In fact, we find extensive teaching in the law as to which animals may be eaten (Leviticus 11) and as to how one should consume the meat of animals that have been sacrificed (Leviticus 7:15; 22:30) in religious ceremonies. Jesus seems to have had no qualms about eating meat. In his famous parable, the father who commands the fattened calf to be killed and served for dinner is a symbol for God himself (Luke 15:23).

I use this example to underscore a major difference between secular ethics and Christian ethics. Secular ethics are usually based on argument and reason whereas Christian ethics are based primarily on the revelation of God found in scripture. Christians do reason, but they reason mainly about the meaning and application of scripture. In addition, they sometimes give pragmatic reasons to buttress and defend scriptural teaching that may otherwise seem arbitrary. Generally speaking, if an action does not contradict a clear command, example, or principle found in scripture, it is considered a matter of opinion rather than a matter of right or wrong. On the other hand, if an action does go against a clear command, example, or principle of scripture, it is considered wrong, no matter what reasons or arguments can be marshaled to defend it.

What is the difference between sin and unethical behavior? Sin is something God disapproves of; unethical behavior is something society and moral philosophers disapprove of. They may overlap, but they are not always the same. Randy Cohen makes the interesting observation that there can be solitary sin, but there is no solitary unethical behavior. You can sit at home and covet your neighbor’s wife. That is a sin. But for people who don’t believe in a God that reads your mind, ethics isn’t ethics until other people are involved, until you try to seduce your neighbor’s wife. You see the difference. God is able to look upon the heart and see secret sin. Human beings cannot call something unethical until they know for sure it has actually happened.

Another clear distinction between secular ethics and Christian ethics is that the former tends toward relativism and the latter toward absolutism. In philosophical terms, relativism is the idea that any system of ethics is a reflection of the customs of the society in which it operates. To a relativist, saying that slavery is wrong merely means that my society disapproves of slavery. Relativism essentially says that whatever the majority of a particular society believes is right or wrong is indeed what is right or wrong, but just for that society.

For the relativist, ethical truth can and does change. For example, in the 1950’s, the majority of Americans believed homosexuality was wrong. Fifty years later, homosexuality is portrayed favorably on many television shows and in many movies. Public and judicial opinion has changed to the point that homosexuality is considered an alternate lifestyle, but not necessarily wrong. On the other hand, in the 1950’s, smoking was considered entirely acceptable. Today, smoking is often banned from restaurants and public places, and society increasingly looks upon it as harmful, dangerous, and the wrong thing to do.

Subjectivism is an extreme form of relativism. For a subjectivist, to say something is wrong is simply to say that I personally disapprove of it. If someone else does not disapprove, it is not wrong for that person. According to subjectivism, you cannot argue about ethics because ethics is simply personal opinion, the expression of attitudes or the expression of personal wants and preferences. There is no such thing as an objective moral fact.

Whenever someone says, “That’s just your opinion” or “It’s all relative,” in regard to an ethical question, that person is often expressing the subjectivist viewpoint. There is no absolute truth, only subjective personal opinions. For Christians, ethics is based on the character and revealed will of God (1 Peter 1:15-16; 1 John 3:3; Hebrews 12:14). Christian humility recognizes that Christians may not fully comprehend or correctly apply those objective moral facts, but that does not alter either their existence or their authority.

It is difficult to convince secular people that Christian teachings about ethics are factual rather than subjective. C. S. Lewis attempts the task in his book The Abolition of Man. Because secularism is based on reason rather than upon revelation, secularists accuse Christians of confusing their belief statements with reasons. For example, we Christians say sexual promiscuity is wrong because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. For secular philosophers, our claiming to have the Holy Spirit is a belief statement, but certainly not a rational, compelling reason to forbid sex between consenting adults who may not even believe in God.

Most secular moral philosophers are not complete relativists. They cannot bring themselves to say that slavery is right or that the genital mutilation of females is right just because some society practices it or accepts it. They cannot bring themselves to say that Hitler and Stalin were moral men simply because they were national leaders supported by the majority of their country’s citizens. Moral philosophers base their ethical ideas on reason and argument, but they realize that society as a whole mostly ignores them. Their arguments have no authority behind them. They stand or fall on the persuasiveness and personality of the philosopher or politician making the argument.

In some ways, the same holds true for Christians. This side of eternity we can never prove the validity of our faith statements. The way to persuade unbelievers that God is right and relativism is wrong is not by reasoning better than they do but by living better than they do and dying better as well.


1. If we as Christians believe our moral and ethical standards are absolute, do we therefore have the right and even the responsibility to impose them on others who are not Christians? For example, was Prohibition a good idea that should be reinstated? Is the movement to ban abortions a good thing or misguided? Should we try to legislate morality?

2. When my cousin’s 12-year-old daughter got out of my car, she opened the door into a parked car, leaving a visible dent. I asked my cousin to leave a note. She refused because she didn’t want to pay for a repair. Should I have left a note myself with her name and number? With mine?

3. We are writing a will and want to leave all our money to our two children. One is very rich and the other lives almost hand-to-mouth. Do we divide equally or give the poorer one a greater proportion?

4. As a teacher, sometimes I make mistakes grading a test. Sometimes when an answer is wrong I inadvertently mark it as correct. If the student brings this to my attention, I praise him for his honesty, then take off the points. Is this right, or should I let him keep the points because the mistake was mine?

5. In one of his novels, Ernest Hemingway wrote this: “What is moral is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” Is this a good ethical rule-of-thumb to follow? Why or why not? What if you feel good because you’ve done the right thing?

6. My mother has Alzheimer’s disease. Recently her condition has deteriorated and her doctor has warned me she soon will need to be placed in a nursing home. With my power of attorney, should I transfer her assets to my name so that when she enters the nursing home she will qualify for Medicaid, thus preserving her small estate?

7. What do you think about eating meat? Can anything be wrong if it is not considered wrong by Scripture? For example, slavery is not expressly condemned in the Bible. Does the Bible consider slavery to be wrong? The same goes for gambling. Is it okay since the Bible doesn’t expressly condemn it?

March 27, 2007

What are Christian Ethics?

The Christian life resembles a three-legged stool. For the stool to stand firm, each leg must rest securely in place. The three legs are faith, fellowship, and fidelity. Faith entails knowing God and trusting him for salvation through Christ; fellowship implies being a functioning member of Christ's body; and fidelity means showing loyalty to Christ by living a worthy life. Without each of these three supports, the stool shakes, the Christian walk begins to stumble.

The word "ethics" comes from a Greek adjective that means "pertaining to character." "Morality" derives from a Latin word that the Roman orator Cicero (106-43 BC) used to translate the Greek word for ethics. In modern times, ethics is the study of how we ought to behave; it asks questions about what is right and wrong. Morality is the set of rules we live by, rules that reflect the expectations of our culture, the demands of our religion, or some combination of both. You might say that ethics is theory and morality is practice—sometimes indirectly linked.

For Christians, ethical and moral behavior relates directly to fidelity--living a life that honors Christ's sacrifice, but it pertains to faith and fellowship as well. How we as Christians understand God, ourselves, and our relationship to others provides the basis for how we act in specific situations. With the Holy Spirit's help and guidance, we reach spiritual maturity by informing our minds, deepening our relationships, training our emotions, and disciplining our behavior (Romans 8:11-17; 1 Corinthians 2:11-16).

Christian ethics touch upon thought, feeling, and action. "The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil" (Matthew 12:35). From the "treasure of our hearts," thoughts and feelings, come the actions that ultimately prove ethical or unethical, good or evil.

Ethics point the way to living a good life. The study of ethics is a practical attempt to learn how to live, just as the study of politics is (in theory, at least) a practical attempt to learn how to make society flourish. For the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), the purpose of ethics was finding how to be happy or fulfilled, because the person who lived a good life, he believed, was also a person with a strong sense of well-being.

Christian ethics have an added dimension because Christians believe that goodness is a characteristic of God. To be good is to be like God and eventually to be with God. To know good, one must know God as he has revealed himself and live according to that knowledge (Jeremiah 9:23-24). Simply knowing about God does not produce ethical behavior, as the scandals occasionally created by certain prominent Christians demonstrate. "Even the demons believe" we read in James 2:19. By the same token, the reverse is true: Even believers are capable of demonic behavior.

Practical ethics attempt to identify the qualities that exemplify good character. We test the validity and usefulness of ethical principles as we apply them to specific moral decisions about behavior. Should a Christian own a restaurant that serves alcoholic beverages? Should a Christian banker charge interest on loans to fellow Christians? May a Christian wife ever divorce her husband and remarry? Can a Christian activist justifiably shoot at a doctor who performs abortions? Can Christian soldiers kill in the service of their country?

Easy answers to ethical questions rarely exist because rules of thumb do not always suffice in difficult situations. These lessons do not attempt to ask or answer every ethical question. They simply seek to provide adults with food for thought and discussion about what it means to become more Christ-like.


1. Is it worse to be called “immoral” than to be called “unethical”? What is the difference? For example, is immodesty unethical or immoral? What about murder? What about divorce?
2. Aristotle says that "activities in conformity with virtue constitute happiness." His definition assumes that in order to be happy a person must have the physical means to engage in good activities. What do you think the term "happiness" means to a Christian? Do you agree that happiness depends to some degree at least on having a sufficient number of possessions?
3. If a law-abiding driver accidentally kills a child who darts into the road, American society does not consider that person unethical (although African society might). Does ethical or unethical behavior require intention or premeditation? If you and the grocery checker accidentally overlook a small item in your grocery cart and you do not discover that you have taken it without paying until you are putting your groceries in the car, are you obliged to go back into the store and wait another ten minutes in line to pay for that item? After all, you did not intend to steal it. Can you think of another example of unintentional wrongdoing? Is all unintentional wrongdoing guiltless?
4. In making ethical decisions, Christians experience the reality of God. James Gustafson says that the practical purpose of Christian ethics is to aid Christians in "discerning what God is enabling and requiring them to do." Tell about something you did or didn't do because you thought God would approve or disapprove.
5. If bombing a residential area would hasten the end of a war and save thousands of lives, would it be morally right to kill innocent women and children? How does the rule "You shall not murder" apply in this case? How does it apply to cases of personal self defense or to capital punishment?
6. Paul seems to suggest that rules (or laws) are the means to an end rather than the end itself (Romans 2:12-15). Can you imagine an ethical life without following rules or laws? Are there other approaches to ethical living aside from following rules?

About March 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Trite but True in March 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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