Tag Archives: morality

Why the Ten Commandments are not Enough

When it comes time to teach the Christian faith, either to converts or children, it seems that the go-to moral code is the Ten Commandments.

These ten simple rules were inscribed on stone for the people of Israel wandering in the desert, and were part of a larger law given to the people at that time. It is one of the simplest, oldest codes of morality in human history.

For Christians, though, it seems like it is remedial at best. They are not even exclusively Christian anymore – lying, stealing, and killing are generally outlawed in any culture, and no sect is ok with profaning what they hold as sacred or important.

When a rich young man asks him what must be done to inherit eternal life, Jesus first asks him about the commandments. The young man says he has kept them since his youth. Then Jesus tells him to go and sell everything – a command not found in the 10 commandments – and the young man goes away sad. Jesus remarks about how difficult it is for a rich man to enter heaven.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the goats and the sheep. The goats are denied entry into heaven, even though they call their judge Lord. The difference between the two groups is the acts of charity, or works of mercy, that were or were not done. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the imprisoned. It is not against the commandments to not do those things, but apparently it is enough to deny one entry into heaven.

Put bluntly, you can keep the Ten Commandments and still go to hell.

The world knows this. Christians can keep the 10 Commandments and feel self-righteous, yet still be jerks. Even someone vaguely familiar with the gospels can point out that Jesus was calling people to much more than keeping 10 simple rules.

The 10 Commandments did not pass away or expire. You absolutely should keep them. But keeping them is a baby step for a Christian – like giving an Olympic athlete a medal for finishing a race, or thinking your marriage is great because you don’t cheat on each other. It should be a given. Even as we fail to keep them, and pick ourselves up again, we should be aiming higher.

What then should we teach as moral principles?

I have seen several sources recently point to the Beatitudes. Those are terrible goals, because they are not goals, they are effects. It’s rather like saying the goal is to be happy, when happiness is not an object that can be pursued, but the result or effect of something else.

If you are living as a true follower of Christ, you will be persecuted. But you don’t get there by going into a public place and demanding that people persecute you; if you actually follow Christ’s teachings in a fallen world, you will experience persecution. Then, blessed are you.

The Beatitudes lack the direct command of the commandments or the concrete task list we find in the parable of the goats and the sheep. Thou shalt not kill. Feed the hungry. Blessed are the meek. The first two give you a clear, firm prohibition or instruction, the last one just describes a divine effect for a particular state of being.

We should look to be the kind of people that the Beatitudes describe, but we don’t go about that by trying to force the effects or states of being.

If we want a set of ideals that will take a lifetime to perfect, I suggest we turn again to the virtues – those three chief virtues identified by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13, and the four virtues identified in Wisdom 8:7, otherwise known as the Seven Heavenly Virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Fortitude, Justice, and Temperance.

In them we see how the rich young man may have failed at temperance or justice, but kept the commandments, or how Dives failed to show Charity and Justice to Lazarus, while not necessarily breaking any commandments.

Even more detail, and clear instruction, is found in the parable of the goats and sheep, with a clear distinction that feeding the hungry and visiting the imprisoned are the sort of things that will come up on Judgement Day. In the Summa Theologica Thomas Aquinas listed 14 such tasks that are expressed throughout the scriptures, which he called almsdeeds but are better known as works of mercy or works of charity:

  • Feed the hungry
  • Give drink to the thirsty
  • Clothe the naked
  • Shelter the homeless
  • Visit the sick
  • Visit the imprisoned
  • Bury the dead
  • Admonish the sinner
  • Instruct the ignorant
  • Counsel the doubtful
  • Comfort the sorrowful
  • Bear wrongs patiently
  • Forgive all injuries
  • Pray for all

If we Christians spent our lives doing the works of mercy and striving to perfect the seven virtues in our lives, it would look much different than the lot of us resting on the fact we know and keep the Ten Commandments. Our lives would look a lot more like Christ’s.

Paul Nowak is a husband and father of 7, who also happens to be a writer and author. He has written The Way of the Christian Samurai among other books.

Examination Of Conscience by Virtues and Vices

 

 

Pursuit of the Christian ideal is more than being simply moral, we are called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mathew 5:48).

A daily or regular examination of conscience, sometimes referred to as an examen, is a practice that goes back to the very early days of Christianity. It is a reflection on one’s thoughts, words, actions, and omissions to identify areas where one can improve.

The idea is not limited to Christians. Ben Franklin kept a daily record of his activities and failings in pursuit of perfection. Though not particularly a Christian, Franklin chose 13 moral virtues that he wished to not offend, and daily checked that he was keeping those virtues. Franklin was inspired mostly in this endeavor by Aristotle.

There are many examinations of conscience that use the ten commandments as a guide. Those are good for starting out, but keeping the commandments are a lot simpler than pursuing perfection. The rich young man, for example, was unable to follow Jesus (otherwise referred to as being a Christian) even though he kept the commandments from a young age (Matthew 19:16-30)

Therefore this list of questions for yourself is divided by the 7 heavenly virtues – those three chief virtues identified by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13, and the four virtues identified in Wisdom 8:7. I’ve also included in the heading the traditional vice that opposes the virtue, a pairing made in Dante’s Divine Comedy and elsewhere.

This is only a start, you should of course use this to develop your own examen. I will warn you, though, that it will grow. Perfection is a goal you will pursue all your life, it will only get harder and more involved as you draw closer to God. However, as Thomas Aquinas wrote, “To stand on the way of the Lord is to move backwards.”

Take time each day, or each week, or on an otherwise regular basis to see how well you are keeping the virtues. Like any soldier, drilling and practicing and keeping a vigilant watch is critical to overcoming an enemy on the prowl (1 Peter 5:8).

Charity/Love – Sloth/Acedia

  • Do I think of and treat everyone with love, even those who are hurtful to me?
  • Do I only tolerate my enemies, or do I show them the same love as I do my friends, as Christ commanded?
  • Do I procrastinate, kill time, or watch the clock?
  • Do I waste time wishing that things were other than they are?
  • Do I love others as I do myself?
  • Do I do everything for the love of God?
  • Do I discount my own life or efforts are unworthy?

Hope – Envy

  • Do I believe, and act as though God will meet my daily needs?
  • Do I believe, and act as though God’s will is in my best interest?

 

Faith – Pride

  • Do I think that my actions, efforts, or status will provide for me and my family?
  • Do I act upon my fears – including fears of financial loss, death, suffering, and evil?
  • Do I trust God’s word about what is evil and good?
  • Do I trust God’s word that he will provide for my needs?
  • Do I think that I have merited my blessings or salvation by what I have done?
  • Do I think that my achievements, honors, or actions make me more worthy than any other human being, including my enemies, my friends, my family, celebrities, politicians, and people whose sin I believe I can see?

 Prudence – Greed/Avarice

  • Do I seek to possess more than I need?
  • Do I ensure that others have what they need?
  • Do I tithe from what God has given me?

Fortitude – Anger/Wrath

  •  Do I bear wrongs patiently?
  • Am I holding any grudges?
  • Do I endure suffering and pain without complaint?
  • Do I face my fears to overcome them, or do I seek to avoid them?
  • Do I endure trials, even embracing them as they draw me closer to God?
  • Do I seek to die to myself every day, taking up my cross?

 

Justice – Lust/Luxuria

  •  Do I desire things that I do not need?
  • Do I desire things that will have no benefit to me?
  • Do I give God, my employer, and my government their just due?
  • Do I see that those around me have their needs met, before pursuing things that I only want?
  • Do I practice chastity in thoughts and actions?
  • Do I treat others as I expect myself or my loved ones to be treated?

Temperance – Gluttony

  • Do I make choices based on my will to serve God or my selfish desires?
  • Do I seek pleasure more than I do God?
  • Do I worry about having enough time for pleasurable pursuits?
  • Do I abuse pleasures by indulging them too often?
  • Is there anything in my life that I do to excess, to the detriment of my spiritual life or duties to God, my family, or authority?

 

Photo courtesy of Eric the Fish on Flickr.

Paul Nowak is a husband and father of 7, who also happens to be a writer and author. He has written The Way of the Christian Samurai among other books.

Being Christian is More than Being Moral

 

About three years ago, Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales, gave an interview about Big Idea’s bankruptcy and what he learned from the company’s failure and his ambitions.

The things he said still ring true, perhaps even more. So it’s worth repeating here:

After the bankruptcy I had kind of a forced sabbatical of three or four months of spending time with God and listening to Him. I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!” But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality…

So I was acting like a big barracuda when in reality I’m a brainless, spineless bag of goo. And I only get my form when I stay in the current of God’s will and allow Him to carry me where He wants me to be. And that was such a huge shift for me from the American Christian ideal. We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true. It’s the Oprah god. So I had to peel that apart. I realized I’m not supposed to be pursuing impact, I’m supposed to be pursuing God. And when I pursue God I will have exactly as much impact as He wants me to have…

If you are involved in a ministry, you really ought to read Phil’s epiphany here. But the above paragraphs have meaning to all of us.

Being Christian does not merely mean we are moral people. The 10 Commandments are a starting point, not the sum of the rules of life. Sure, none of us have a 100% success rate at keeping the commandments, but if you’ve been rather successful lately you can hardly consider that “Christian living.”

About the same time I read something that cited Phil’s article, I came across a quote from G.K. Chesterton on morals as goals. In his biography of George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton went on a tangent (as he does) about Nietzsche  and the superman.

“If he [the superman] is simply to be more just, more brave, or more merciful, then Zarathustra sinks into a Sunday-school teacher; the only way we can work for it is to be more just, more brave, and more merciful — sensible advice, but hardly startling.”

Phil realized that Bob and Larry were teaching mere moral virtues – in essence, nothing more than Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s prophet taught. No different, really, in the principles that any philosophy teaches, except from where we claim the authority came. So long as you follow the rules we have in common, what does it matter who gets the credit for authorship?

We are called to do more than just live moral, righteous lives. We’re called to love, trust God, and believe his promises. Charity, faith, and hope, in other words.

Jesus said to love our enemies, not just our friends. Not tolerate them, not endure them, not to “not hate” them, but to love them. We are told not to worry about tomorrow, or ask after what we shall eat, or wear beyond today – ask only for our daily bread. We are to hope in impossible things; those Israelites that walked across the Red Sea, with a pillar of fire in their midst, spent 40 years in the desert because when they got to Caanan they thought it would be “impossible” for God to keep his promise.

Instead, we Christians have given enough cause for governments to consider us a hate group, since our condemnation of others is more visible than our love of the unlovable. We have 401(k) plans, storing up our riches for rainy days or restful retirements. We don’t really act like we believe the promises God made to us, even when we profess that we do. We mix prudence with worldly financial advice and pass it off as ‘Christian’ even when it contradicts Christ’s instructions (Luke 12:13-21).

Be careful that you’re not drinking the American (or Western) cult cocktail of worldly Christianity. Keep striving to follow Jesus’ instructions – especially the ones that seem ridiculous and hard. Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect, not just good enough that others think you’re a good person.

Photo courtesy George Bannister on Flickr.

Paul Nowak is a husband and father of 7, who also happens to be a writer and author. He has written The Way of the Christian Samurai among other books.