04 April, 2008

Can We Be Good Without God? Part 3

Limitations of Law

The maintenance of social order is not the same thing as instilling a high moral tone in its subjects. A government can pass any number of laws, but that does not make its citizens any more pure in heart or compassionate towards their fellows. The highest form of morality is found only when people do the right thing because they want to and because right behaviour is ingrained in their nature.

The main limitation of any legal system is not so much that people will break the law, but that they will simply go through the motions of obedience. They will make their behaviour conform without putting their heart into it. A man who obeys the law only so as to stay out of prison can hardly be said to live by a very high moral standard. It can hardly be called morality at all, it is simply enlightened self-interest.

Even the Ten Commandments shave this limitation. They were not the highest form of morality as long as they legislated only on outward behaviour, and as long as they were imposed on subjects who had no real inclination to obey them. For example, the sixth commandment states 'You shall not murder' A devout Israelite could claim to have obeyed this simply by not murdering anyone, even though he might heartily have wished his enemies dead. Which is not the kind of morality that God wants. He does not want an adjustment of behaviour, but a change of heart. One of the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah, mindful of this problem, looked forward to a future time when the law which came from God would no longer be imposed from above upon reluctant subjects:
“I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they will be my people (Jeremiah 31:33).
The prophet Jeremiah recognised that the drawback to any legal code is that it is external to ourselves, imposed from above. The law of Moses was mostly concerned with outward behaviour, with visible actions. It had to be. because its original function was to provide magistrates with a means of assessing guilt. A human magistrate cannot see the state of a man's heart, he can judge only on the basis of outward appearances. Jeremiah predicted a future age when morality will be more than outwardly good behaviour, but something ingrained in people's hearts. How can this be achieved? It is no use offering rewards for obedience or punishments for disobedience, because morality then becomes self-centred; its aim is to gain the reward and avoid the punishment.

The Morality which Matters

One of the aims of Jesus was to solve this problem. Therefore he did not simply provide his followers with a list of do's and don'ts. In fact he was sharply critical of a morality founded on a rule-book mentality, which seeks to modify behaviour according to a written code. He knew that the morality which really mattered was achieved by transforming people's hearts, changing their underlying motives.

In the Sermon on the Mount, the great manifesto of his teaching, (see Matthew chapters 5-7) he deliberately contrasts the legislation of Moses with its emphasis on the outward act with a moral code that emphasised inward purity of motive. This was the theme of his own teaching: "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago ..., but I tell you ...". For example, where the old Law legislated against murder (Matthew 5:21), adultery (5:27) and false witness (v.33). Jesus goes further. He forbids the hatred which animates murder, the lust from which all adultery springs and the spirit of deceit which stands behind all false witness. His teaching therefore does not simply add a bit more to the old law: it has a different character from the old, it governs not just behaviour, but the motives behind behaviour.

There is another difference. The old Law had represented strict justice: "You have heard that it was said, Eye for eye and tooth for tooth" (Matthew 5:38). That is natural justice, to give enemies exactly what they deserve. But Jesus replaces justice with a dignified submission to injustice. He urges his followers to meet hostility with kindness. "But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right check, turn to him the other also " (verse 39). And so he continues—if someone demands your coat then give him your overcoat as well. Go the second mile with the exploiter: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute yon" (verse 44). The purpose behind all these sayings is that the followers of Jesus should take whatever course of action will turn their enemies into their friends and neutralise their animosity. They must never allow the spirit of revenge to motivate their dealings with others.

Morality and the Character of God

But why should the followers of Jesus obey such an exacting standard of morality, a morality which penetrates so deep into their very nature? Why should they go out of their way to turn enemies into friends? The answer of Jesus is simple—because God is like that—His love, compassion and benevolence is extended to friend and foe alike:
... that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to shine on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).
Jesus urged his disciples to show benevolence to others and to turn their enemies into friends because that is how God deals with people. God comes in at every point in the Sermon on the Mount — His reality, His love for us. His claim upon us. All these things form the basis of Jesus' ethic. A God who is ever present, though unseen, and before whom all of us must one day give account.

Moreover, the message of Jesus was more than words. He himself practised what he preached. It is often said that Jesus led a life that was 'sinless'. So it was. But that is far too negative a description. His was more than an absence of sin. but rather a dynamic, moral goodness, a radiant warmth of character. This flowed out of him spontaneously and continually, filling every aspect of his life, so that those who came in contact with him felt strengthened, cleansed and forgiven.

His compassion for suffering humanity prompted him to identify himself with their hardship and afflictions. When he submitted to the unjust and violent death which his enemies inflicted upon him he demonstrated that his love was stronger than their hatred, and his power to forgive greater than their evil. In all this he provided an example for his followers and a vision for them to live by. That was the extra dimension which Jesus introduced into morality. A new understanding of God's love, with self-giving and self-sacrifice at its very heart:
My command is this: Lore each other as I have loved yon. Greater love has no-one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends (John 15:12,13).
In this way Jesus revealed to us what the character of God is like. It could be said that a man's character is shaped by what he worships. If he has a view of God that He is cruel, vengeful and intolerant, then these qualities of character will reveal themselves in his own dealings with his fellows. If he worships a God of love and compassion then he is more likely to be loving and compassionate himself.

The Greatest Commandment

Jesus took the Ten Commandments and made each one a matter of the heart, not of outward behaviour. In fact he went further than this. He reduced the Ten Commandments to two, and did so in answer to the question "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law'? (Matthew 22:36). There were ten to choose from, but Jesus did not pick out one from the ten and elevate it over the other nine. His answer was:
“Love the Lord your God with all vow heart and with all your soul mid with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37, quoting Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:5).
In this answer of Jesus we see his remarkable facility for reducing religion to its essence. These two commandments summarise the Ten Commandments: Love God and Love man. We can understand why. If we truly loved God, then it would not occur to us to take His name in vain. If we truly loved our fellow men, then it would not occur to us to steal from them, kill them or bear false witness against them.

How simple his two commandments sound: 'Love God' and "Love man'—that's all there is to it, everything else will fall into place. Yet how much more difficult to obey. It is far easier to obey a list of do's and don'ts, no matter how long the list. Yet these two commandments to love cannot be imposed upon us from above, they cannot be coerced. We must want to love.

Suppose that our own government tried to introduce a law stating that every individual in society must love his neighbour as himself. Such a law would make most other legislation superfluous. There would be no need to make murder and theft illegal, simply because no one would ever think of committing them. If every member of society placed the common good before his own. then there would be no need for legislation to protect property, no need for laws against burglary or violence against the person. If everyone were honest, there would be no need for surveillance systems and security guards. Of course, no government could hope to make such a law work. The most they can do is to prohibit wrongdoing and punish wrongdoers; which is far different from instilling positive goodness in their citizens.

A man can be compelled by legislation not to harm his fellows, even to act benevolently, but he cannot be compelled to love them. Christ, on the other hand, expects those who follow him to love both him and one another, not because he compels or induces them or because they are afraid of the consequences of disobedience: but because he has demonstrated the depth of his own love for them. This has given him an authority over them that no government has ever had over its subjects.

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