When I arrived at Fuller in 1968, the teacher of Christian ethics was a man in his mid-thirties with the electric eyes of a recent convert, which he was—not from the world to Christ, but from Christ back to the world. Jaymes Morgan had the magnetic makings of a new breed of evangelical leader in a tumultuous time. But he had cancer, had had it for some months before I came on the scene, and he died hardly more than a year after I arrived.
Morgan's death left us with a big hole in the curriculum. I was by this time a tenured faculty member still learning how to teach the philosophy of religion—which deals with such things as how a powerful and good God could let the world get into the mess it seems always to be in.
Now we needed someone to teach ethics—which deals with how weak and sinful human beings can know what is right and what is good. But evangelicals with scholarly credentials to teach ethics were rare at that time. We looked everywhere and found no one to match our needs. During one more futile meeting of our search committee, and after thinking about it for no longer than thirty seconds, I offered myself for the job. I proposed that we look for candidates in both the philosophy of religion and in ethics; if we found a philosopher before we found an ethicist, I would switch over to ethics. A generous offer, I thought; others were probably more impressed by my presumption!
The next thing we knew we had found a fine philosopher of religion, and there I was, at fifty, leaping into a complex and controversial subject for which I had few academic qualifications to recommend me. I did not have the time to make myself over into the sort of bona fide scholar who writes articles in academic journals and gives learned lectures at conferences. But I might be able, I thought, to teach future ministers how to guide their people through the moral quandaries of life.
When we talk about ethics in a theological seminary, we mean to be talking about what God requires of us and how we can know it. And since this memoir is, strictly speaking, about my walk with God and not about ethics, I will limit myself to three assumptions that I have made about God in our efforts to learn his will for the moral choices we are called on to make.
I assumed, first of all, that God the Father is the origin of all morality. If there were no God, there would be no morality, because nothing would be intrinsically right or wrong. Without God, we would probably create social conventions and social rules that might keep people from putting their hands on our purses or around our throats. But this is self-protection born of self-interest, and, while it may be practical, it does not have much to do with what is not morally right and morally wrong.
With God, we are called to act not in self-interest but in obedience to his moral law. The fact, however, is that obeying his moral law leads us to what is in the best interests of all of us. A rational God who would go to the trouble of creating a world full of free-willed people must, I thought, have a design in mind for how these people could best live together. God's design is what makes things right or wrong. We do right if we live according to his design. We do wrong when we violate his design. So what we call moral law—or the divine commandments—is a manual for life at its best.
Much of the time, if our hearts are pure, the commandments are all we need to live a good moral life. We know that when we talk, we must be truthful. When we make a promise, we must keep it. When we want something our neighbor has, we must keep our hands off of it. When our neighbor does us wrong, we must not kill him for revenge. And no matter how unhappy our marriages may be, we must be faithful to them. Thus, for most of our daily moral choices, we do not need to study ethics; all we need is a knowledge of God's commandments and a will to obey them.
But much of the time is not all of the time. No doubt corporate CEOs who lie to their shareholders and politicians who lie to their public know and believe intellectually that lying is immoral. Why then do they lie? They lie to others because they first lie to themselves. The lies we tell ourselves are the most subtle of all lies. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says to himself, "I think I shall lie to myself today."
The deception happens in such a tiny fraction of a second that the self-deceiver is not even aware that he has lied to himself. What lies does he tell himself? One of them is the lie that he is not really lying when he tells a lie. Another is the lie that the moral law does not apply to him, at least not in this case. In short, people tell bold-faced lies about very important things, and feel no guilt about their lying because they lie to themselves about what they are doing. Their problem is not with their heads, but with their hearts.
My second assumption was about God the Son. I did not assume that Jesus Christ brought us a new ethic to replace the old one. I assumed that he showed us two new ways of understanding the old one. The first has to do with what: showed us that if we have love, we will do more than just saying no to what the commandments forbid. The second with how: he showed us how to obey the moral law in a way that helps other people. Jesus' way of love, then, calls for doing more than saying no to bad things, and it is the way of doing good things in ways that are helpful to other people.
My third assumption was about God the Spirit. The Spirit of God is our eye-opener to the human situation that requires a decision from us. The moral law by itself is not enough to guide us. What we need is the ability to see what is really going on in the human circumstances to which we are trying to apply the moral law.
We must remember, however, that the Spirit is not like an eye surgeon; he does not remove our cataracts. Nor is the Spirit like an optometrist; he does not prescribe new lenses for our eyeglasses. The Spirit works on what lies behind our eyes. It is said that what we see lies eighty percent behind our eyes. It is that eighty percent that the Spirit works on.
Ordinarily, we see what we want to see. We do not see what we do not want to see. We do not want to see reality, because we are afraid of what it might tell us. The Spirit, however, gives us courage and honesty to want to see the truth no matter how much we fear it. This is how the Spirit opens our eyes to reality: he takes the blinders of fear away.
Seeing reality for what it is is what we call discernment. The work of discernment is very hard. Reality is always deucedly complicated; any human situation has far more to it than first meets anybody's eye. No one has twenty-twenty discernment. This is why we need other people to tell us what they see in the same chunk of reality that we are looking at. This is why people of the church need to share their visions of reality with each other before they shout their judgments at each other.
Teaching seminary students, I often used real-life situations about which someone had to make an important moral choice. Each student was given a written report of the situation. Invariably, some students protested: "Why do we need even to discuss it?" they said. "What is going on in this situation is perfectly obvious." But we did need to discuss it. Invariably, the students who thought that what was going on was as clear and as simple as the bark on a tree were shocked to learn that others, as smart and as spiritual as they were, were seeing things that they missed. It is always this way: discovering God's will for a human situation requires us to listen to what other people see in that situation.
I discovered a long time ago that listening to people who see reality differently than we do is one of the most important parts of discovering the will of God for that reality. Nobody sees reality whole; we all need others to show us the parts of it that they see better than we do. Nobody sees reality with total accuracy; we all need others to correct our own vision. This is why we need to pray for patience to see what is really going on before we decide what God wants us to do about it.
Consider what it was that opened Christian people's eyes to the fact that slavery was an evil thing. They had grown up listening to preachers who quoted passage after passage from the Bible to prove that slavery was not only the will of God, but was a blessing to both the slaves and their masters. What persuaded them that the preachers were wrong? What persuaded them that slavery was a curse to both masters and slaves?
It was not a scholar's new interpretation of Bible texts. The conversion came only when their eyes were finally opened to see slaves for what they were members of the same human family as the masters who owned them, fellow human beings who, like them, wept when they grieved and laughed when they were happy, who aspired to better things for their children, and were as likely as any Calvinist to love the Lord their God. It took courage for people to see what they were afraid to see and hear what they did not want to hear.
During most of my years at Fuller Seminary I served on the Bioethics Committee of the Huntington Memorial Hospital, one of the larger hospitals in the Los Angeles area. The task of this committee is to advise physicians on the moral aspects of the life-and-death medical decisions they are called on to make. We had to begin with the facts of the case. The facts of any case, however, range well beyond the facts that the doctor writes on the patient's chart. The facts of the case include facts about the desires of the family of the patient, about the patient's religious beliefs, about the civil law, and about the likely consequences that a given course of action would have on still others.
Once a pediatric surgeon came to us with this problem. A woman who had recently arrived from mainland China, the mother of a three-year-old boy, was living in an apartment in Los Angeles while she waited for her husband to join her. She neither spoke nor understood English. One afternoon while she was talking to someone on the phone, her son toddled out of the apartment and went outside. When she put down the phone, she called to him but he did not answer. She rushed in panic to the recreational area where the swimming pool was. There she found her son lying face down in the pool.
The manager of the apartment called 911 and the boy was rushed to the hospital. His brain, the thinking part of it, was already dead, though he was still breathing. But there were other serious complications. The doctor called in a translator who relayed his words in Chinese to the mother.
Here is the gist of what he told her: "Your little boy needs immediate surgery to stay alive. But if we do surgery and 'save' his 'life' he will exist on a respirator as a breathing vegetable for the rest of his life." He told the woman that she was the only person who could decide whether to operate or not.
But this woman did not have the slightest idea of how to go about making a decision; she had grown up in communist China and, as a woman, had never been allowed to make a major decision in all her life. She was paralyzed by the fear of her husband's wrath should he come home to a dead son. Through a translator, she told the doctor that she wanted him to decide what to do. He told her that he could not make the decision for her; only she could decide.
What was the right thing for the doctor to do? I did not know of a single biblical command that told me in so many words what God wanted him to do. What we needed was more than the divine law; we needed human wisdom. I remember that what we suggested for the doctor to consider (no ethics committee decides for a doctor) was this: we suggested that he tell the mother that he will do nothing for one week and that if she has no answer by then he would interpret her silence as a decision not to operate and to take her son off the respirator. I do not know what he did.
It is seldom enough that we know what we should do. We also need to sense the right way to do it. This is where love must do its work. Take our duty to tell the truth, for instance. Without love, we are likely to spout the truth with no regard for its effect on the person to whom we tell it. But if we have love, or empathy, we can put ourselves in the other person's shoes, and this will give us a better chance of seeing the right time and the right way to tell her the truth.
I cannot remember ever having told my children a lie. But I do remember times when I told them the truth at the wrong time and, what is worse, in the wrong way. And I know that telling them the truth at the wrong time and in the wrong way often hurt them worse than if I had told a merciful lie.
How do we know the right time and the right way to tell the truth? How do we know when and how to tell a person that she is dying, or that her son has gotten himself in jail, or that her husband has lost his job, or that she has made a fool of herself, or that her little child has an incurable disease, or that his wife is having an affair? What we need more than anything else is the Spirit of love to open our eyes and ears to see and hear what is really going on in the heart and mind of the person to whom we are talking.
I will briefly summarize what I have been saying about my view of God's role in our search for what is right and what is good.
- God the Father has shown us what is right and what is good in his design for the good life in his world.
- God the Son has shown us not a brand-new ethic, but a more excellent way of following the old one — the way of an unselfish love that nudges us to do more than the law demands and to do it always with a will to be helpful to other people.
- The Spirit of God opens our eyes to see and our ears to hear the conflicting and confusing voices of the human situation that requires a moral decision.
These three assumptions about God formed the backbone of my life as an ethicist. They seemed right when I began and they seem right to me still.
This article excerpted from Lewis B. Smedes' My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir. © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission; all rights reserved. To order this title, contact the publisher at 800.253.7521 or visit www.eerdmans.com.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
My God and I and Sing Me to Heaven are this month's selections for CT's Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site, you can:
Read the extended review by David Neff
Read an interview with the author of Sing Me to Heaven.
Read an excerpt fromSing Me to Heaven.
Buy Sing Me to Heaven and My God and I online.
Previous Christianity Today articles by or about Lewis B. Smedes include:
Lewis Smedes Dead at 81 | Theologian and ethicist noted for his writings on forgiveness. (December 20, 2002)
Hurt, Hate, and Healing | A 1985 interview with Lewis Smedes. (Dec. 20, 2002)
How to Deal With Criminals | Is there a biblical principle behind the punishment of those who break the law? (July 8, 2002)
Keys to Forgiving | How do you know that you have truly forgiven someone? (Dec. 3, 2001)
Who Are We to Judge? | Did Jesus forbid us from judging others? (Oct. 8, 2001)
Can God Reach the Mentally Disabled? | Are mentally challenged adults whose intellectual age is probably that of a 1-year-old sheltered under God's salvation? (March 21, 2001)
The Forgiveness Factor | Social scientists like Robert Enright are discovering the healing power of a Christian virtue. (Jan. 10, 2000)
Is Suicide Unforgivable? | What is the biblical hope and comfort we can offer a suicide victim's family and friends? (July 6, 2000)
Forgiveness—The Power to Change the Past | To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. (Jan. 7, 1983)
Arguments in Favor of Abortion Are Strong … | … if you accept one all-important assumption. (July 15, 1983)