Some advice I picked up somewhere:
Who among you loves life, and desires long life to enjoy prosperity?
Keep your tongue from evil-speaking, and your lips from lying words.
Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, puts it in less tactful words. We live in evil times, he wrote, so be wise, not foolish. Don’t get drunk on wine because that’s debauchery. Were the Ephesians excessive in their love of wine? Who knows? Read in the context of everything else he had to say to them, it’s a stern warning to not let any desire overwhelm a spiritually and physically balanced, healthy life. It results in destruction of the good things in life for one’s self, and for those near by.
You don’t have to be an alcoholic or drug addict to live into debauchery. It happens whenever the impulse to satisfy yourself with what you want when you want it becomes the center of daily living. We all have those impulses. It can feel good to act on them, but wisdom calls for us to set and observe boundaries under the guidance of what God teaches is moral and ethical.
So far so good, but the question of what is moral and ethical too easily gets translated into lists of specific behaviors, sins, said to be immoral or unethical, each paired with a set of socially prescribed reprimands. The lists are endless. No one agrees about what should or shouldn’t be on them. They’re dictated more by social custom than godly instruction. Scripture is assaulted for proof texts to justify them. We strain at gnats while letting camels in. We mistake human precepts for godly precepts.
God, as we understand God in Christ Jesus, takes an entirely different approach more interested in what philosophers call the prior question. What is it about a particular behavior that is troubling? What are the socially prescribed reprimands intended to accomplish? Pay attention to the prior questions that lie behind lists of sins. Jesus does it all the time. For that matter, I think the Hebrew prophets do too, but that’s for another time. Keeping with Jesus’ teaching, I’m constantly driven back to the Sermon on the Mount as the example of how it works.
In it, Jesus pointed in a new direction. He instructed his followers in ways of living that contribute to a more abundant and godly life without dwelling on no-no prohibitions. Interpreted for our own time, they might read like this:
- Be humble in spirit and demeanor
- Be honest about what Paul calls evil times, and the role you have played in it
- Hunger and thirst for righteousness
- Be merciful
- Be pure (have integrity) in heart
- Be a peacekeeper
- Be willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake
- Be a person worthy of the respect of others
- Let your behavior illuminate God’s presence in all that you do
- Understand the spirit and depth of the Ten Commandments, not just their words
- Seek reconciliation with those whom you’ve injured
- Let your yes be yes and your no be no
- Confront violence in radically peaceful ways
- Give anonymously with generosity
- Pray in simple words as Jesus has taught you
- Serve God, not wealth
- Trust God, and don’t worry so much about this life
- Don’t be quick to judge others, you’re not good at it anyway
- Respect the holy in all creation
- Ask, knock, seek: God will answer
- Aim for the narrow doorway, not the big one that leads to damnation
- Beware of false prophets
- Build your life on the solid rock of God as revealed in Christ Jesus
It’s a curious list the way I’ve presented it. Unclear about specific behaviors not allowed, it’s disinterested in punishment. The warning that disregarding it will result in a second rate life and eternal death simply points to the natural consequences. For the most part it emphasizes what you should do, not what you shouldn’t. Jesus exercised his disciples in them so they would become habits of the heart when he was gone. They didn’t get it all, but they got most of it. That’s what we also are called to do: work at it so that they become habits of the heart. Perfection is not ours to have, but we can do better tomorrow than we’re doing today. And that’s the path to wisdom.