Some recent interactions with friends and family have left me wondering: If there is no source for moral conduct, then how do we figure out what’s right and wrong? Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual (fundamentalist argument that the Bible fits the bill aside). So where is the line between anything goes and some things are simply not moral or ethical?
I don’t buy into the slippery slope idea. Just because I’ve rejected some things as morally unimportant doesn’t mean that I will eventually reject everything. After all, I now have short hair and I don’t wear a hat in church, but I’m not about to teach Sunday school in a bikini. On the other hand, when a person rejects everything, what’s left?
I’ve noticed that many of my fellow Christians believe that in order to be a moral person, one must be a Christian. I will personally vouch for that being untrue. I have many friends and family members who are highly moral people. I also know more than a few people who call themselves Christians but slowly destroy the lives of themselves and those around them by their lack of character. Clearly the answer isn’t religion (or even “relationship,” as my Christian brothers and sisters like to say).
The one big difference I see is between people who genuinely care about the well-being of others and those who don’t, or don’t appear to. One recent conversation left me reeling. Afterward, I ended up having the sense that the person to whom I was speaking has almost no regard for other people. She bases her decisions in life on what she personally will stand to gain from her actions, or, in some cases, what harm may come to her as a result.
Sadly, this is the sort of thing that bleeds into every aspect of one’s life. If you don’t like some aspect of your job, go ahead and quit instead of finding ways to cope, work around it, or change the nature of what you do at work. If a relationship isn’t working, send the other person packing instead of finding out what lies beneath the surface. If you’re tired of the preaching at your church, try out a different one. And all the while, you convince yourself you’ll be happier once that issue is out of your life. One problem: It doesn’t work. I’ve seen countless people slowly bleed emotionally from trying to hold that kind of lifestyle together. The bar is set lower and lower, until running from one job or relationship or location to the next develops an impossible pace.
At this point, there are people rolling their eyes and wondering who I am to judge someone else for living his or her own life. After all, if someone wants to engage in serial monogamy or church shopping or change jobs once a year or repeatedly move town to town, what business is it of mine? To be honest, I don’t actually care what someone else does, until I see the effect on the people around them. When person after person is wounded by someone else’s discontent, it makes me angry.
I originally saw this in the context of marriage. We live in a society where marriage is disposable. Divorce can be costly if it’s contentious, but it’s not difficult to obtain in a legal sense. More and more I’m seeing people explain it away by saying that people grow apart, that marriage shouldn’t be difficult, or that modern marriage isn’t really meant to last a lifetime. I wonder, though, if those same people feel the same about blood relatives or best friends. Are the same people as quick to say, “My sister annoys me. I’m just not ever going to talk to her again”? I suppose some might. But the majority of people wouldn’t treat family that way. Why treat marriage that way?
If it were only people outside the church living this way, I might feel some hope. If we Christians were bringing love and grace and forgiveness and hope to despairing people, there would be a chance to stop the spiritual and emotional injuries. Sadly, the discontent is all to common even inside the church. The only difference is that inside the church, people feel the need to justify themselves, often by using the Bible in a legalistic manner.
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t actually know how to tackle this sticky problem. It doesn’t seem like enough to throw Bible verses at the problem or remind people about the responsibilities of keeping one’s commitments. And it’s made even thornier because of legitimate reasons to quit one’s job, end a marriage, chase a dream, or leave a church. How do we determine where the line is between selfish pursuits and protecting ourselves from real harm?