Is ethics serious business?
Consider Ecclesiastes 7:16-18:
16 Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? 17 Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? 18 It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.
While it is true that there is such a thing as excessive ethical zeal, or moral fanaticism, in some segments of the church, in my experience there is also a significant and perhaps growing antipathy towards ethics that I find disconcerting.
Mark Galli does not show such antipathy, but he discusses the seriousness of ethics in a recent online column at Christianity Today entitled “Mastering the Golf Swing of Life.” From the title, one might infer that an ethic of imitation, practice, and effort will be the focus, but the subtitle points in a different direction: “We tend to think of ethics as real serious business. It is not.” Galli points out that a PGA golfer will tell you that in a round of golf where he hits two under par, there are maybe two out of seventy shots which were hit “exactly as they intended them.” But this is the nature of golf, and according to Galli it is the nature of life as well. As he puts it, “the sooner you come to grips with incessant failure, the more you can enjoy the game.”
Galli raises several interesting points, some of which I take to be true having to do with freedom, grace, and our inability to attain moral (or golfing) perfection in this life. And yet there are other points at which I think he is mistaken. For instance, he notes his pessimism about our potential to be radically transformed in this life, because he takes most of the language of transformation in the New Testament to be anticipatory of our life with Christ when all is ultimately redeemed and transformed. Until then, “we muddle along mired in sin, but not without hope.” The good news is that this does not define us, but rather forgiveness, grace, and God’s love do. But I believe there is greater potential for radical transformation now than Galli, and that our hope is not just for the next life but for deep change in this one as well, though I leave this as an assertion for now.
Second, Galli states that “We are in the bad habit of thinking that ethics is REAL SERIOUS BUSINESS, that our welfare and the welfare of the world depend on its proper execution. Not quite. The gospel is the end of ethics in this sense….The welfare of the world is a settled issue.” In one sense, Galli is right. The ultimate welfare of the world is a settled issue, but I would argue that the welfare of the world between now and the reconciliation of all things is not a settled issue, and this is why ethics is very serious business.
Our individual welfare in this life ultimately depends upon God, but we have been given the power to impact it for better or worse. If I am open to the fullness of God’s Spirit and growing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, my life will be better for it. We cannot make ourselves better, but we can work in partnership with God and become more like Christ in this life, in sometimes radically transformative ways. And it seems clear that this sort of life is better than a life of hate, sadness, anxiety, impatience, cruelty, badness, unfaithfulness, proud rudeness, and lack of self-control.
In addition, the welfare of the world can be positively or negatively impacted by the character of followers of Christ, in a variety of ways. If we are cultivating, growing in, and practicing compassion, there will be much less suffering in the world over time. Surely we fall short, but the state of the world should move us to seek to excel in this and other social virtues. Christians past and present have played and continue to play important roles in expanding literacy, providing health care, abolishing slavery, fighting human trafficking, and countering other social injustices. Christians have done our share to foster these practices, and we could do more to fight them, but nevertheless it seems clear that in this sense the welfare of the world does depend on ethics, which makes it very serious business indeed. I would guess that Galli would agree with these points, but on one reading of his piece they might be pushed aside or not given the place which they deserve.
In sum, ethics matters because “Christian antipathy towards ethics is itself unchristian. Christianity is not merely about ethics, but it does essentially include ethics. The Christian, as a follower of Jesus, should seek to embody the moral and intellectual virtues of Jesus Christ.” This fosters her individual welfare, and helps foster the welfare of the world as well. In this way, the Lord’s prayer is answered, to some degree: God’s will is done on earth, now, as it is in heaven.
 Mark Galli, “Mastering the Golf Swing of Life,” 6/28/2012, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/juneweb-only/golf-and-christian-ethics.html; accessed 7/2/2012.
 Nevertheless, I encourage the interested reader to explore the New Testament in order to determine whether or not Galli’s reading is correct, or if instead there is in fact hope for radical transformation in this life. See Romans 12, 2 Peter 1, Galatians 5, Ephesians 4-6, and the Sermon on the Mount.
 Michael W. Austin, R. Douglas Geivett, “Introduction,” in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), p. 1.