If we don’t understand morality we might fail to see the goodness of certain behaviors and the sinfulness of others. How tragic would it be to spend years doing something you thought was amoral (or spiritually neutral), only to find out it’s immoral. Or how tragic to avoid something you thought was immoral, only to find it’s amoral?
During college, I took a world religions class. A Buddhist monk was brought in as a guest speaker. He had no vehicle, computer, or refrigerator because he thought these were sinful (immoral). He thought it was good (moral) to allow himself only what was necessary for survival, such as food, water, and shelter.
This is not what Jesus meant when He said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Jesus referred to denying ourselves immoral pleasures, but the monk abstained from the amoral (non-sinful, spiritually neutral):
Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.Colossians 2:20–23
When people rigorously neglect the amoral and follow legalistic, man-made commands, Paul acknowledged there’s “an appearance of wisdom,” but there’s “no value against (indulging) the flesh,” which is to say there’s no spiritual benefit. How heartbreaking is it for people to spend years rigorously neglecting themselves in amoral ways that have no moral advantage?
The Bible teaches drunkenness and homosexuality are immoral (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). How tragic is it for people to spend years getting drunk or participating in homosexual relationships because they’re convinced these immoral actions are amoral?
We must understand morality because if we don’t, we might fail to see the goodness (morality) of certain behaviors and the sinfulness (immorality) of other behaviors.
What defines morality for us? The Bible! The question isn’t, “What do we think is moral, immoral, or amoral?” The question is, “What does the Bible teach is moral, immoral, or amoral?” We typically err two ways regarding morality.
Error 1: Thinking Something Is Immoral When It Is Amoral
What we do with food, guns, and money is moral because each can be used in moral and immoral ways. Our relationships with them are moral because they can become idols, addictions, and obsessions. Although, as lifeless and inanimate objects, they have no morality of their own. People are not spiritually better or worse if they do or don’t eat certain foods, have or don’t have guns, or are rich or poor.
Food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.1 Corinthians 8:8; see also Matthew 15:11, Mark 7:18, Acts 10:15, Romans 14:17, and Colossians 2:16-23
Food is amoral, but our relationship to it is moral. We can commit the sin of gluttony or, on the other side of the spectrum, the sins of anorexia and bulimia. God doesn’t care what we eat, but He cares how much we eat.
Money is amoral, despite the famous quote: “Money is the root of all evil.” First Timothy 6:10 says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” Notice that the word “money” is substituted for “love of money,” and “the root of all evil” is substituted for “a root of all kinds of evil.” Although the differences seem small, they make two untrue statements.
- The love of money versus money itself is evil. We are not better or worse if we’re rich or poor. We get into trouble when money controls us, regardless of how much wealth we have. Some of the most generous people can be the wealthiest, while some of the stingiest can be the poorest.
- The quote makes money responsible for all evil in the world, but there’s plenty of sin that has nothing to do with money.
Jesus said evil comes from our hearts versus money:
For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.Matthew 15:19
Sin is not birthed from money but from giving in to temptation:
Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.James 1:14–15
Error 2: Thinking Something Is Amoral When It Is Moral or Immoral
Many verses discuss the morality of our words. For example:
- Matthew 12:37—Jesus said, “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
- 1 Peter 3:10—He who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit.
What we say is moral or immoral. The prophet prophet Jeremiah suffered terribly at the hands of his fellow Jews. He lamented over his abuse, but he seemed to recover from the physical abuse easier than the verbal abuse. When Michal ridiculed David, their relationship was never the same. Words can have lasting consequences:
There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword.Proverbs 12:18
When we think of the morality of speech, we typically think of what we say, but we should also think of how much we say.
The Morality of Listening Too Little and Speaking Too Much
Most people know their speech is moral, but they might not know that the amount they listen and speak is also an issue of morality:
So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.James 1:19
The verse contains three commands, which means we’re dealing with morality. It is moral to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. It is immoral to be slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to anger. Anger and listening might be mentioned together because they’re closely related. As a pastor, when I’m counseling, sometimes it’s obvious early on who’s more at fault because they’re slow to hear and quick to get angry.
Ecclesiastes teaches that one way to identify fools is they talk too much:
A fool’s voice is known by his many words…a fool also multiplies words.Ecclesiastes 5:3 and 10:14
David took so seriously how much he said that he prayed God would protect his mouth for him:
Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.Psalm 141:3
Proverbs is filled with contrasts between wise and foolish people. One of the contrasts is wise people listen, but foolish people talk too much:
- Proverbs 10:8 says, “The wise in heart will receive commands, but a prating fool will fall.”
- Proverbs 10:19 says, “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” Talking too much leads to sin, and the wise know when to remain silent.
- Proverbs 13:3 says, “He who guards his mouth preserves his life, but he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction.” Controlling what we say is so important God says doing so can save our lives. On the other hand, talking too much brings ruin.
- Proverbs 17:27–28 says, “He who has knowledge spares his words, and a man of understanding is of a calm spirit. Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; when he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive.” Wisdom is associated with listening, because that is how we learn. Even fools can fool people into thinking they’re wise if they’ll be quiet, but since they’re fools, they can’t keep quiet. They let everyone know they’re fools.
The Need for Self-Control
One reason talking too much is a sign of foolishness is it shows a lack of self-control. We all think of things we shouldn’t say. It’s wise when we keep them to ourselves, and it’s foolish when we let them escape our mouths. Peter is probably the best example in Scripture. He’s known for talking too much, and at the wrong times. At the Transfiguration,
Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—because he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid.”Mark 9:5-6
Peter didn’t know what to say, but he spoke anyway. The parallel account:
While [Peter] was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were fearful as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!”Luke 9:34-35
God the Father interrupted Peter and said His Son should’ve been speaking, and Peter should’ve been listening. Peter’s life reveals, on more than one occasion, that if we don’t know what to say, it’s better not to say anything at all. If you can’t improve on silence, don’t.
A Bigger Problem Than Ever?
In today’s culture, there are more opportunities to talk than ever, or a better way to say it might be: there’s never been another time in history when even fools can have platforms. Anyone can start a blog or get on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and say as much as they want, about almost anything they want. We have cell phone plans with unlimited minutes and unlimited numbers of texts. There are talk shows and call-in radio for people to constantly sharing their opinions. It’s never been easier to lack self-control, and give in to the temptation to talk too much
As Christians, talking too much even hurts our witness:
If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless.James 1:26
People won’t take our religion seriously if we can’t control our mouths. It’s almost like they can’t see Christ because our tongues get in the way.
“Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”Ephesians 4:29
If this verse set the standard for us, I wonder how much of our communication can really be considered good for building up and [giving] grace to those who hear it?