Soon after I became a Christian I remember an exchange that I had in defense of my new found faith. During that exchange I stated that even if what I believe in is wrong it would still help me be a moral person. My line of thought, at that time, was that Christianity at its heart was about making people moral.
Over the years my line of thinking has changed on that. I can certainly see why my young Christian mind viewed things the way it did, but I think that Christianity is about a lot more than simple morality. In fact sometimes I wonder if morality is a friend or a foe to Christianity. That may seem a strange way of putting it to some, but let me explain what I mean.
Let’s first start with the idea of morality as friend to Christianity. This is probably a more comfortable place for many of us to start. I don’t think it is a hard case to make that Christianity is related to morality in a positive way many times. A popular example of this would be the Ten Commandments.
We often view The Ten Commandments as the bedrock of morality in following God. There are ideas in there which are also reflected in our more popular culture, like not murdering, stealing, or committing adultery. In addition to these ideas, there are also a morality, of sorts, that is unique to the Bible which refer to only following God, not taking the Lord’s name in vain and keeping the Sabbath.
These aren’t the only laws that are found within the Old Testament or the Bible as a whole, but it is a fairly well known example that morality is part of following God and is displayed as something that we should strive after. It also displays that following God has it’s own peculiar sort of morality. There are aspects of the morality that would have broad appeal and can be found outside of faith, but at the same time there are parts of this morality that is very unique and focused in on the life of faith.
Moving out of the Old Testament you can still see morality presented as a positive by Jesus and in the Epistles. The Sermon on the Mount often builds off the morality of the Ten Commandments, but seeks to drive things much deeper than the surface. For example Jesus talks about even hating someone as being equivalent to murder in Matthew 5:21-26. He takes something that many people might claim to have never done, like murder, and reveals that even what we’ve been thinking and feeling about other people matters just as much as the actual physical act.
I’m could give you more examples of how morality is positively connected to Christianity, but I think this should be sufficient to lay out some groundwork for that position. What about the idea of morality as an enemy to Christianity? Is there any evidence of that being the case?
I would argue that there is. Even with Jesus’ comments in the Sermon of the Mount, is his equating of hatred to murder, simply to get us to be moral people or is there something else that he is getting at? What if the whole concept was to strip away the idea that we could be moral in the first place? That even if we haven’t murdered someone we may have still broken that commandment in our hearts and minds. Is this simply to get us to control our minds and feelings better? Maybe, but maybe it is showing us that complete morality, at least according to God, will always be out of our reach.
If this is true, this changes the landscape quite a bit. If this is what Jesus is getting at, then if we think we are moral individuals, we are going to have a hard time understanding the need for Jesus in the first place. This is what happened with a few people who Jesus interacted with. They appeared to think that they were moral, but this made them blind to their own need and the limits of their morality.
One such group that seemed to often demonstrate this kind of attitude were the Pharisees. An example of one of these interactions is Mark 2:13-17. Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners and the Pharisees were wondering why Jesus was eating with them. Jesus responds to this question by saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” I’m not so sure that Jesus is saying that the Pharisees are healthy or righteous, but more that Jesus has come for those who are able to acknowledge their sin and illness.
Another example, although it is slightly more complicated, is the rich young ruler seen in Mark 10:17-27. Here is a man who comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by telling him to keep the commandments. The man responds by saying that he has kept all of these since he was young. Yet Jesus tells him he lacks one thing, and that he needs to give away all of his wealth and follow him.
Now as I said this is a more complicated situation, but I think we see a situation similar to the Pharisees. I would say the young man is sincere in his question to Jesus, and is also sincere in his belief that he has kept the commandments since he was young. The young ruler also seems to be wealthy and powerful, which has been taken, both then and even now, as signs of God’s favor. Yet, despite all this, Jesus is saying that he still lacks something. Jesus isn’t denying the man’s morality or sincerity, but saying that even with what he has he will not earn eternal life on his own terms.
In these cases, morality seems to be a hindrance to the life of faith. It hinders us from seeing what God is doing around us. We begin to believe that our own efforts are good enough. It can even cause us to view those who don’t share our morality as beneath us. This morality can develop into an illness, even though we think we’re perfectly healthy.
So is morality ultimately a friend or a foe? It honestly seems to me like it can be both. If we begin to think that morality is the goal of the Christian life, like I did when I first became a Christian, then I think it can turn into a quite deadly foe. It will lead us to pride and a reliance on our own efforts. It can lead to judgment and an overall lack of grace to other people.
While morality can become a great foe, I personally think it is impossible to divorce morality from our faith. Striving to be like Christ is a goal put forward to us by the Scriptures, and holds a certain morality inherent in that goal. Yet, at the same time our following of Christ involves two conflicting realities about morality.
One reality is that we should desire to follow the laws and commandments of God. The other is that we are incapable of doing this fully. We have our areas where we may succeed more than others. We also have our own particular struggles. It is here that we need more than just morality, rule following, and our own efforts. What we need is the love and grace of God that Jesus came to demonstrate in its fullest.
If we hold onto that love and grace, then morality can be a great friend to our faith. If the love and grace of God is absent from our faith, then morality can turn into a great foe. One who will burden our own lives under missed expectations, and cause us to be severe to anyone who fails to live up to the standards that we are able to keep.