Two Extremes Concerning Moral Goodness
In first lines of the introduction to Being Good, we observe that in some segments of the church it is routinely claimed that Christianity is not about ethics, but rather about a relationship with Christ. We then note that while it is true that Christianity is not merely a moral system or code of ethical behavior, nevertheless it does essentially include ethics. More specifically, it centrally includes character. I think that as individuals there is a related issue worth considering, concerning what I will call two extremes concerning moral goodness.
At one end of the spectrum, I might think that ethics and faith are not that closely connected, and conceive of a concern for growth in character (not to mention engaging in some sort of intentional path of character development) as some sort of moralistic legalism opposed to grace. I may even routinely engage in many of the classical spiritual disciplines, but through neglect or mere inattention fail to see that there are particular virtues I ought to pursue in partnership with the Holy Spirit, and so fail to develop the virtues of Christ.
At the other end of the spectrum is a certain sort of moral perfectionism. Here I look at the character of Christ, and see my own severe shortcomings in light of his perfect goodness. So far, so good. A problem can arise, however, when we set unrealistic standards for ourselves. We should pursue the character of Christ. As creatures made in God’s image (and given the new creation that happens in us if we have become followers of Christ) we will see radical change over the course of our lives. But if we engage in morbid introspection and focus on our shortcomings, this can hinder our growth in character as well as our connection to Christ, due to the ensuing feelings of guilt or condemnation. However, as Dallas Willard has said with reference to the Lord’s Prayer, it is instructive that God wants us to pray to Him as “Our Father,” not “Our Eternal Scrutinizer.” Those of us with perfectionistic tendencies would do well to remember this important truth.
So, while one of the primary goals of editing this book was that we and our readers would grow in understanding and practicing the virtues, our hope is that all of us would avoid the two extremes of moral goodness: moral sloth and moralistic perfectionism. Neither are a part of the abundant and self-sacrificial life that Christ came to make possible for us.
If readers have thoughts on either of these extremes, please share in the comments to continue this discussion.
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