At the end of this paper I will give four very practical steps that I take as I enter the arena of each day where I must make moral choices. But more important than my commending to you these steps is my explaining the ground on which they are taken. If I don't give you the roots and stem, the flower will quickly wither in your hand. So the bulk of what I have to say will be an effort to lay bare the roots from which the flower of my moral choices spring up.
The method I will follow will be to ask four questions, each one being a more precisely defined form of the one before. After answering the fourth question, I will give the practical steps that I follow in making moral choices.
“How do I make moral choice?”
The first step in answering this question must be to define the terms “choice” and “moral”.
Choice: I will state my definition of “choice” in three ways.
- A choice is that act by which I prefer one thing above another.
- That is, it is the act by which I esteem one thing preferable or more desirable than another.
- Or finally, my choice is my being more pleased by one thing than another.
Moral: I call an act of preferring “moral” when it can properly be judged to be right or wrong. In general my preferences for chocolate over vanilla or stripes over checks is not a moral choice. But my preference to be honest rather than to deceive is a moral choice because it can be properly judged right or wrong.
On the basis of these definitions question one now becomes: “How do I come to prefer one thing above another in such a way that the preference may be properly judged to be right?”
In order to answer this question the term “right” must be defined. That is, we must ask, “What constitutes the rightness of a moral choice?”
At this point I have to bring in the Christian framework of my thought and life. I am going to assume here (what I think could be reasonably defended if we had time) that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus exists and that he has revealed himself and his will in the Christian Scriptures. Within this framework I would like to mention first an inadequate and then what I think is an adequate answer to the question, “What constitutes the rightness of a moral choice?”
- An Inadequate Answer – The typical answer that one chooses rightly when one chooses the will of God is ambiguous and thus inadequate. If the will of God is conceived of as outward acts like not killing, not stealing, and truth-telling apart from the motive out of which the acts are done, then doing the will of God may be of no moral value at all. God may will things which when men perform them are sin.
For example, God willed that the Assyrians destroy the Northern Kingdom of Israel (Isaiah 7:17-19), but they sinned in doing this according to Isaiah (Isaiah 10:12) because they did it arrogantly. Therefore, it is inadequate to say that the rightness of a moral choice consists in preferring to do the act that God wants done. A thing done out of no good motive is of no moral good.
- An Adequate Answer (as far as I can see) – A choice or preference is right when it is motivated by a true perception of and delight in the moral beauty of the act chosen. To put it another way, in order to choose rightly we must prefer an act not merely because God wills it but also because we have a deep agreement with God that the act is morally beautiful and praiseworthy.
For example, a choice not to lie which in one sense is the will of God, has no moral value unless it is made for a true perception of and delight in the moral beauty of truth-telling.
Or again, Romans 12:13 admonishes us to contribute to the needs of the saints. But 2 Corinthians 9:7 tells us not to do this “under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” That is, the mere act of giving to the poor may not be a morally good act. It is good when the giver sees and delights in the moral beauty of generosity. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:3 “If I give all my possessions to feed the poor . . . and have not love it profits me nothing.”
(Since love “seeks not its own” but “rejoices in the truth”, it will move us to be generous not out of self-interest but out of a delight in the truth that generosity to the needy is morally beautiful.)
Having defined the rightness of a moral choice in this way our question now becomes, “How do I come to truly perceive and delight in the morally beautiful?”
Here again several definitions are in order. What is “moral beauty”? I suggest a three-fold definition:
- The moral beauty of a human act is the harmony between that act and the totality of reality;
- an act is morally beautiful if it is fitting or suitable in the light of truth;
- an act is morally beautiful if it is appropriate in view of our true human situation.
In this definition of moral beauty I used the terms “reality”, “truth”, and “human situation”. These must be defined and here is where my understanding of the Christian Scriptures becomes crucial. I start with the basic insight that everything in all the universe from the smallest bug in the grass to the greatest constellation belongs to God, because he made it (Psalm 50:10-12). It follows that every single thing we have is a gift from God, we have not merited the daily rising of the sun or the once for all resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 4:7; James 1:17). God is moved to bless men not because of any distinctive in them but because of the overflowing fullness of his glory. To display this glory to all his creatures in heaven and on earth is his goal in all that he does. He does this fundamentally (though not only) by lavishing on us the riches of his kindness in our utter unworthiness.
Since God is the source and sustainer of all that is (Acts 17:28), his goals in creation and redemption as well as his ways of achieving those goals are the reality, the truth, and the human situation with which all human behavior must accord if it is to be morally beautiful. The biblical concept of walking according to the Spirit means, similarly, bringing ones thoughts and deeds into harmony with the mind and the ways of God.
To be more specific, the fundamental truth about the human condition which could influence our behavior is that we are beneficiaries of great mercy from God. No matter how great or small our pleasures are, we do not deserve them. They come from the mercy of God as a gift not a wage. Therefore the only morally beautiful behavior is the behavior which befits a beneficiary of mercy. If a moral choice does not harmonize with the fundamental fact that every second of every benefit we enjoy is an undeserved gift, then the choice is evil.
Having defined “moral beauty” in this way, our question now becomes: “How do I come to truly perceive and delight in those actions which befit a beneficiary of mercy?"
I will try to answer this question by describing two conditions which you must meet if you are to see and delight in actions which befit a beneficiary of mercy.
The First Condition
You must believe in your heart that you are a beneficiary of mercy and you must be glad about it. For if you resent being a beneficiary of pure mercy and would rather think of yourself as deserving and earning what you have, then you will have no desire to bring your actions into harmony with the reality of mercy. Instead your behavior will tend to harmonize with your conception of your own merit.
Knowing that you are a beneficiary of God's mercy and gladly pinning your hopes on this mercy is what the New Testament means by faith. And the process of becoming that kind of person is called a new birth, a new creation, becoming like a child, etc. It is a miracle performed in the heart by the Spirit of God. This is the first condition that you must meet if you are to see and delight in those actions which befit a beneficiary of mercy.
The Second Condition
The transformation effected in the new birth is decisive but incomplete. Therefore we are called to be transformed by the renewal of our minds so that we can approve the morally beautiful (Romans 12:2). This continued process of becoming new results in an increasing sensitivity to our own true condition as unworthy beneficiaries of mercy and an increasing awareness of what kind of behavior harmonizes with such a condition.
There is a twofold function of the Bible in relation to this transformation. First, it is precisely from the Bible that we are made sensitive to our unworthiness before God and his great mercy toward us. According to 2 Corinthians 3:18 the more we meditate upon the glory of God in Christ the more we will be transformed into his likeness. The Scriptures are the focus of this meditation and thus the means of our transformation.
Second, the commands and the admonitions of Scripture are all descriptions of behavior which befits a beneficiary of mercy. In this way they provide guidelines by which we can measure the level of our newness in Christ. The biblical ideal for the moral person is that the law be written on his heart (Jeremiah 31:33) so that he need not be urged with commands from outside. So the more commandments that we do out of a spontaneous delight in their moral beauty, the greater the degree to which we have been transformed into Christ's likeness. Yet while we are still imperfect and subject to self-deception, we cannot dispense with the external guidelines of Scripture. They remain a necessary part of our lives quickening our aesthetic sensitivity to what is morally beautiful and reproving us when we have been too callous to see and delight in the moral choices which befit a beneficiary of mercy.
Practical Steps in Making Moral Choices
- I pray that God will hallow his name in and through me; that he will increase my love for his glory; that he will not let me grow callous to his mercy but will cause me to cherish it as more dear than anything in the world; and that through all this he will not lead me into temptation but will lead me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
- I try to meditate upon the Scriptures day and night, desiring to saturate my thinking with the structure of God's thinking. I try to keep alert to tests that call me out of some slumber of sin I might have fallen into. I try to pay special attention to those places where God's reality explicitly impinges upon my behavior (e.g. The Unmerciful Servant Parable, Matthew 18:23-35). The Word of God is the tool God uses to answer the prayer I make: in them I see I am being transformed (all too slowly) into a person who sees and delights in behavior which befits a beneficiary of mercy.
- I consciously pin my hope on the promise of God to work in everything for my good (Romans 8:28; Jeremiah 32:40-41), so that my mind and heart are at rest in his mercy. To the degree that I enjoy this God given contentment of soul I can be free from pride and fear which might cause me to manipulate or abuse people for my own ends, since my ends are already met in the mercy of God.
- As I confront moral choices during the day, if time and circumstances allow, I try to understand the effects of each choice on people's lives. Then on the basis of that understanding and all that has gone before, I choose what seems to me in that situation to befit a beneficiary of mercy and thus to give glory to God.