Jesus summarized our duty to God in the command to love God with our whole being and our duty to other people in the command to love our neighbors as ourselves. But what does it mean to “love God”? And what does it mean to “love your neighbor”? Sadly, many people within our culture are so alienated from the Christian way of understanding human life that they do not know the answer to these questions. Some even reject the idea of there being a right answer. In the previous two posts, I began to explore what it means to love our neighbors.
Paul charts the course for us in his ethical teaching. In last week’s essay, I quoted 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, where he lists 7 things love does and 8 things love won’t do in relation to others. In Romans 13:8-10, Paul does something similar; but here he relates the love command to the negative provisions of the Ten Commandments:
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Paul makes it clear that love should never be defined in a way that makes breaking the commandments the loving thing to do. Never! In coming weeks I plan to explore in detail some ways in which the Bible’s moral commands show us how to love our neighbors.
Today, however, I want to pursue a related set of questions: is the Christian moral vision recognizably “good” by all people of good will and sound reason? Is there a universal moral law? Or, is there such a thing as “a good human being”, and would a person who lived according to Christian moral vision be “a good human being”?
The New Testament writers clearly assume that to a certain extent everyone recognizes the difference between good and evil and right and wrong. And there is a huge overlap between the Christian vision of a good human being and the pagan vision of a good human being. I shall quote a few examples:
3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:3-4).
Paul speaks here of the Christian’s relationship with those responsible for maintaining the civil order. No society can tolerate murder, robbery and theft, lying under oath, armed rebellion, and other anti-social behaviors. Consequently, everyone recognizes an honest, truthful, faithful, peaceful, self-controlled, and helpful person as a “good human being.” The angry, murderous, thieving, lying, out-of-control person is universally condemned as a “bad human being.” In Paul’s view, Christians have even more reasons and more power to be “good” in the area of social virtues than pagan do. Clearly, pagans do not think the distinction between a good person and a bad one is arbitrary. The virtues and behaviors that make a good person good are recognizably good and beautiful.
Peter also assumes that the difference between a good person and a bad one is universally recognizable, and pagans know the difference:
11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people (1 Peter 2:11-15).
13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed (1 Peter 3:13-14).
As did Paul in the earlier quote, Peter assumes that everyone recognizes the difference between behaviors and attitudes that contribute to the stability and welfare of a society and those that do not. The “good lives” of Christians refute the false accusations of some pagans. Indeed, Peter envisions Christians as model citizens that outdo the pagans in embodying the highest social virtues.
Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and other Greek and Roman moralists agree that a good human being should possess the virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. These virtues are also praised in the New Testament along with many others that are implicit within them or consistent with them. I think one can argue that Jesus calls his disciples to a higher standard than even the highest pagan moralists do. But the most pressing issue in morality does not center on its ideals but on our failure to live up to those ideals. The pagans have high ideals but fail miserably to live up to them.
Hence the first imperative of the Christian moral vision is to become good human beings in the universally recognized sense. Christians don’t live by a totally alien and weird morality. We should at least live up to the best pagan morality, displaying prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. We should be kind, helpful, trustworthy, gentle, compassionate, honest, peaceable, faithful, patient, and generous. How can we rise to the heights of loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us if we’ve not internalized the more basic virtues? By all means aim to become a good Christian, but understand that you cannot be a good Christian unless you are also a good human being.