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Moral but Godless?

 What happens after death? Many people at one time or another contemplate this question. Discussions regarding this subject reveal a pattern such as in the following conversation.[1]  While sitting around a fire with adult neighbors in a driveway after the kids had canvassed the neighborhood for trick or treat, Ryan asks, “Who are you guys voting for on Tuesday?”

John replies, “Hey man, I’m not getting into talking about politics-It’s the fastest way to kill a good time.  Politics and religion are two things you should never talk about with friends.

Jill objects. “Really, John?”  “I agree not much good comes out of talking about politics but religion is different to me.  Politics only concerns this life but religion concerns things way too important not to talk about- like eternal life and stuff….we might be able to learn from one another.”

“Well, I don’t need to talk about it-I’m going to heaven-I’m a pretty good person.” John replied.

  “What do you mean when you say you’ve been a pretty good person?” Jill inquired.

John answered, “I mean, I haven’t murdered anyone or done anything that bad. I’m just livin’ life-not hurting anybody. And I do some good things; I work hard, take care of my family and give some money to charities on occasion.”

Ryan agreed, “That’s good. That’s more than some people do, John. I admit I’ve done some things wrong but overall I think my good outweighs the bad too. I go to church every week.  I think when it’s time to face the Maker, he’ll let me in.”

The characters, John and Ryan, believe they will experience heaven or gain eternal life when death arrives for them on the basis of their good behavior. Is this true? From our perspective in this brief encounter and their own evaluation, John and Ryan seem relatively moral and upright. They appear as nice, typical Americans who walked the neighborhood with their kids to trick or treat, then tucked them into bed prior to some friendly socializing with neighbors around a fire.  Is anything wrong with John and Ryan’s belief that God will evaluate our lives on the ground of moral behavior?

The problem with John and Ryan is that while they are comparatively moral they are mostly godless. By godless, I mean they have disregarded or displaced God from the center of their lives. Godlessness is not atheism; atheism is the belief in the non existence of God.  John and Ryan accept that God exists. However, the godlessness of John and Ryan and in many of us manifests itself in two primary ways.

Self Not God

First, a closer examination of this common conversation reveals an emphasis on self.  John used the word, I seven times in two sentences, Ryan, five times in one sentence.  What do I think about how I have performed compared to other humans on the good scale? How do I compare on the bad scale?   Anytime we utter, “I’m a pretty good person,” we are employing a human, horizontal comparison.  Bombarded by news reports of atrocities committed by other people, we too easily conclude ‘since we’ve done nothing so bad that is newsworthy; we’ll be okay when we meet God.’ These thoughts expose a heart centered on self: a self-erected standard, a self-performance evaluation and a conclusion of self-adequacy based on comparisons to other humans. These conclusions themselves are godless; made without any reference to God.

Behavior Not Relationship

Additionally, when we focus on behavior, sticky questions arise concerning the acceptable standard for our evaluation.  Is it, as John stated, one just needs to be a “pretty good person”?  When pressed to define a pretty good person, he replied, he hadn’t murdered or hurt anybody; he had taken care of his family and on occasion given some money. Ryan admits to doing “some things wrong” but he thinks overall his good outweighs the bad.  These standards seem pretty fluid for something as important as our destiny after death.  And, whose standard is being used?  John is expressing his opinion.  Ryan says, “I think…” Is what any human thinks enough?  Is any self-erected standard adequate ground to build a case for acceptance by God?  Since God is the evaluator, don’t we need a God focus instead of a self focus?

On a human level, we can see that an emphasis on behavior is fundamentally wrong.  If my adult child acted “motherless” and came to my death bed after a lifetime of not relating or talking with me, not showing up to see what’s going on in my life as well as sharing what’s going on in his life and said, “Hey mom, I’ve been pretty good; I haven’t murdered anyone; I’ve paid my taxes and worked hard to take care of my family and I’ve not really done too many bad things; aren’t you pleased with me?  How would I feel? What would any parent experience?  Wouldn’t the offer of “good behavior” feel trivial and mistaken?  Is what I want most from my child acceptable behavior?  What a parent desires from their adult child is a relationship with him or her, some space in their lives and some time or priority that recognizes that the parent has loved them, invested in them and continues to delight in them.

How much more does our maker and father God desire and delight in a relationship with us rather than an offer of “good” behavior! God is vastly more loving and invested in us. Using this comparison, godlessness then is the failure to properly relate to God as Father. C.S. Lewis summarized this perspective:  “The worst we have done to God is to leave him alone” [2]   Even though it seems clear that like a human parent, God desires a relationship more than good behavior, this analogy uses human reasoning from a human perspective.  On an eternal life-and-death issue we need a word from the one making the evaluation.  Has God spoken about who he is and what he wants?  To have a God-focus, to be full of God and not self, demands that we look to see who God is, what God thinks and desires and what God says is acceptable.

God Not Self

Who is God? No simple answers to this question.  Only God can tell us who he is; he must reveal himself.  Has he done this?   The claim of the Bible is that God has spoken and revealed himself in creation, through his son Jesus and through human agents called prophets and apostles who wrote the Bible under inspiration of God the Holy Spirit.[3] While there are many descriptions of God in the Bible, Paul to the Athenians explains God in this way.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth               and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human               hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and           everything else. From one man he made every nation of men that they should                       inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact                   places where they should live.  God did this so men would seek him and perhaps                   reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. For in him               we live and move and have our being.”[4] (Emphasis added).

This passage is one of many biblical descriptions that reveals God is in fact, the center of all that exists, including humankind.  Do we in practical everyday life “live and move and have our being” in him? Or do we need a Copernicus correction?

Copernicus was an early astronomer who proved mathematically that the sun was the center of the solar system, correcting Ptolemy and many others who believed the earth was the center.  When we focus on self evaluation or behavior we are like Ptolemy with the earth, placing ourselves at the center. We too need a Copernicus correction.  We must shift to a God centered evaluation not one focused on my moral goodness or lack thereof.

Relationship Not Behavior

God’s revelation of himself in the Bible emphasizes relational God-centeredness rather than behavioral morality.   Paul wrote to the Romans that God’s wrath “is being revealed against all the godlessness and wickedness of men.”  He explains godlessness and wickedness as “[f]or although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him….”[5]  God’s anger is directed at the failure of people to rightly relate to him. Thus, wickedness or immorality is godlessness and further immorality or wickedness results from godlessness as Paul subsequently recounts the moral failures of all people.  The primary focus begins with God and what we did not do with him not our moral goodness or failure.

This priority suggests that what God desires and requires is for us to be centered on him: to be “God full” not godless. The greatest crime, sin or moral wrong of our lives is godlessness: the lack of thinking about, seeking and falling in love with God.

Jesus similarly emphasized God’s desire for relationship when he answered the question concerning the commandments of God.  “‘The most important one’, answered Jesus is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” [6] This phrase was recited every morning and night by pious Jews and reminded them of the comprehensive primacy of place God should have in their lives. Jesus identified this commandment not only as the “most important” but also the “greatest” and the correct answer to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”   So if John or Ryan had said, ‘I think I’m going to heaven because I love the Lord with all my heart, soul, strength and mind’, although it would be doubtful that they had achieved such perfect God-centeredness, at least their answer would echo the standard of God.

What might it look like to obey this commandment? Is it possible? Nothing short of focusing on God for every waking moment entirely: centering on God with every thought or emotion or choice we make and with all our energy and passion would seem to achieve God’s standard.  This standard shifts and levels the ground of morality.  The question is not whether one has been a “pretty good person” but for everyone–convicted serial killer, average John or Ryan and apparently holy person–[7] ‘how much of our lives are given to God?’

Now of course there are varying degrees of focusing our lives on God.  The person who believes in the existence of God is closer to relating with God than the atheist even though the atheist may spend more time debating the issue.  The “religious” person may honestly but mistakenly think that showing up to a weekly service about God is enough.  Even “full time” ministers or preachers are convicted under this standard. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus denies entry to the kingdom of heaven to apparent ministers who offered their good works of prophecy, exorcisms and miracle performance telling them, “I never knew you.”[8]  Once again the basis for entering God’s kingdom was relationship not good, moral or even religious behavior. The question then begs to be asked: Who loves God all the time with his entire being?  The answer is no one.  But at least this standard originates from God and not self.

God’s Solution

What do we do with the failure to love God with our whole being all the time?  We look again to God not self. We fall back on relationship not behavior. In humility, we seek him and his solution. We cry to him for an answer and God’s answer is his Son.

God offered his son, Jesus, to die for all our godlessness so we could begin a God centered life, a personal, intimate love relationship with a perfect, powerful Father. For all our failures to make God the reference point of life, Jesus provided the way to center our lives in him.

How do we make him the center?  In God’s incredibly relevant revelation, we find that Jesus tells a story similar to the modern fireside conversation between Ryan and John and Jill but with a character who illustrates humble God-centeredness–the first step to making God the center of our lives.

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God I thank you that I am not like other men-robbers, evildoers, adulterers-or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”[9]

In this parable, the Pharisee’s standard only differs in the details from Ryan and John. The Pharisee hadn’t robbed anyone or committed adultery, and he fasted, tithed and attended temple. Ryan and John offered that they hadn’t murdered or hurt anyone and they gave money sometimes.  The Pharisee is using a self-focused, self-erected behavioral standard the same as Ryan and John.  Yet, Jesus in this parable reveals that to begin a God-full life is as simple as humbly saying to God, “Have mercy on me a sinner.” The tax collector surrendered any self-originated basis for acceptance, relationship and eternal life and cast himself on the mercy of God.  Immediately thereafter, Jesus declared him justified or right with God.

God’s mercy to the tax collector and to all of us comes through Jesus’ death on the cross. As the apostle John testifies, “God has given us eternal life and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.”[10] To all the Ryan’s and John’s and Jill’s who want to know God now and to know they will receive eternal life at the time of death, the God centered question is “Do you have the Son?”  He is yours for the asking. Because according to God in his revelation, having Jesus is the only way to begin a God centered eternal life.[11]

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[1] Although these characters are fictitious, the author has engaged in many conversations where the essential emphasis is the same.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing, 1962), 57.

[3.] Hebrews 1:1-2; 2 Peter 1:20-21, Psalm 19:1-4. All scripture references are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version.  Copyright, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

[4] Acts 17:24-28.

[5] Romans 1:21a.

[6] Mark 12:29-30 quoting from Deut. 6:4.

[7] Of course the consequences of sin are vastly different sociologically, that is as to other people. Clearly the serial killer who has murdered many people has committed more horrifying sin consequentially than the religious person who through anger commits murder in his heart but does not physically harm anyone.  Before God however, the difference is non-existent in terms of falling short of God’s moral standard of perfection.

[8]  Emphasis added. Matthew 7:21-23. See also Matthew 25:12.

[9] Luke 18: 10-14.

[10] I John 5:11-12

[11] John 14:6.

One final note of clarification: I am not suggesting our moral choices are irrelevant but am arguing they are secondary to seeking God first and wholly. From God centeredness springs truly good morality. With God at the center, our lives begin to reflect true goodness that is defined by and emanates from God. We’ll know better how to live well and have the power to choose good.

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