Last week I noted in this post that the definition of morality has shifted frombeing defined by a law to being defined by what harms other people. (See point number six in that post.) Wrong and right used to be linked to a transcendent moral law and for most of Western Civilization that moral law was God’s character as described in His Word. But today morality is often defined by the harm it does to others. That could be one reason why in the latest Barna report more people are concerned about consuming too much water than they are about watching porn. Consuming too much water causes harm while porn really hurts no one. At least that is the line we have been fed.
Here is good illustration of the shift. Is it immoral to take ten dollars from a multi-millionaire? Is any harm going to come to him when I do this? Many would say it is not immoral because it does not hurt him. What about using porn to enhance my sex life with my wife? What harm comes from that? What about coveting something? Or hating someone, but never acting on that hatred? Does pride hurt anyone? For many people, even Christians, the standard for right and wrong has moved from a transcendent law to whether or not it does harm. That is why any consensual sexual act is considered okay. No one gets hurt so it can’t wrong. This is also why it is okay to steal from the rich, but not from the poor. The rich can “afford” it. It does not hurt them.
However, what is right and wrong is not defined by the harm it does to others, though it does harm others. Sin is defined by God’s character as expressed through His Word. To answer the question, “Is it wrong to take ten dollars from a millionaire?” we don’t look to the harm done, but to God’s law. The answer we find there is, “Yes it is wrong whether or not it harms anyone (Exodus 20:15). What tangible harm comes from wrong worship? Yet God says he hates it (Amos 5:21-24). Does lusting after a woman hurt anyone? Yet Jesus clearly condemns it (Matthew 5:28). Many sins in Scripture are internal. They will eventually show themselves and they do harm to the one sinning and those around him. But often these internal sins can remain buried for years and in some cases decades. Are these internal sins, such as lust, coveting, anger, bitterness, etc. still a problem if no one sees them and the harm is minor or unnoticeable? The Bible’s answer is yes.
Sin is about me and God. That is the key. It is not just about me and God. My sin impacts all those around me in various ways. But it is primarily about me and God. That is why David says, “Against you and you only have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4). He had just killed a man after sleeping with his wife. But it was still God to whom he must give an account (Hebrews 4:13). And God does not just see what you do, He sees who you are. Too often pragmatism rules in our pursuit of holiness. I am holy when I am nice, keep fellowship with other people, etc. But holiness is defined by the unchanging character of the living God not by the immediate impact of our actions and attitudes upon other people. That means what goes on inside us is just as important as what we do. Our heart matters. What we believe matters. Our lusts that no one sees. Our pride that we keep hidden. Our bitterness that is locked away matters to God. What does this mean for us?
First, why we do something is important. We can do the right thing for the wrong reason, which makes it a sin. I can be nice to someone so they will pay me back. I can go to worship so other people will believe I am a good Christian. I can tithe so the church will have to do what I say. I can preach for the praise of men. I can read my Bible so I have a tool to use against others. The why matters as much as the what. Our desires and motivations, which no one can see, matter to the Lord.
Second, we can do the right thing and other people get hurt. Holiness is not defined by the harm caused others. Therefore sometimes holiness, that is obeying God’s commands, can cause us to do something that harms others. Obviously, harm here is a relative term. But if I rebuke someone they will feel hurt, even if it was the right thing to do. If I turn a man into the police for child abuse he will feel hurt, even if it was the right thing to do. If a woman is excommunicated for her adultery she will feel hurt. A person’s reaction does not determine whether or not an action is right or wrong.
Third, the key deterrent to sin is the fear of the Lord, not the fear of consequences. That does not mean fear of consequences is unimportant. But that is for children in the faith. As we grow the primary motive to holiness is the love of and fear of God. If consequences keep us from sinning then when we cannot see the consequences or when those consequences are small we will sin. That is why so many Christian men can indulge in pornography with little shame and guilt. Or when they get caught all they are concerned about is the consequences, such as losing their wife.
Finally, this means we must cultivate heart religion. We must be students of our hearts. We must guard our hearts, keep our hearts, and examine our hearts. We must hold not just our actions, but our attitudes up to the mirror of God’s Word. Holiness begins on the inside. The Bible repeats this theme from beginning to end. Here are a few examples:
Genesis 8;21 And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.
Deuteronomy 6:4-6″Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.
Psalm 51:6, 10 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Isaiah 51;7 “Listen to me, you who know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law; fear not the reproach of man, nor be dismayed at their revilings.
Matthew 15:16-20 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
Hebrews 3:12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.
I Peter 3:4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.
These passages, along with many others, teach us that sin resides in the heart. There are outward actions that follow from our heart attitudes. But the heart is the key. Heart religion, an inward fear of and love of God that leads to right action is the goal of the Christian life. We cannot say that holiness is primarily defined by the harm it causes others. If we do that we will inevitably ignore the holiness of the inner man that Scripture demands.
But how can we do this? Can we truly know our heart? Do any of us operate from pure motives? How does the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and the sending of the Spirit help us in this matter of heart religion? What does justification by faith alone have to do with this? How do we keep from becoming paralyzed from constant examination of our hearts? How do I keep this from becoming self-centered in my pursuit of heart religion? I will look at these questions in a later post. For now, let us understand that God sees the heart, not just the hands. Therefore doing the right thing is not enough. Our hearts must be right as well.