Saying the Wrong Thing at Just the Wrong Time

photo-1473993702977-1706a7f23164_opt”Move on,” he said at just the moment he should have listened. “Let’s think about this some more,” he shared just when he should have let the person move forward.

The problem with advice books, the problem with writing these words, is that people cannot be captured by general advice. General advice is generally true, but we are particular, yes even a peculiar (!) people in our own situations.

I have seen good people tell people what to do, and they are generally right, but in the circumstances the result was devastating. Don’t talk about honoring father and mother if you do not know if father and mother have been very wicked! This is why local pastors, psychologists, and therapists are so needed. They know us and our situation. We should tell them as much as we can so they can take good general advice (“honor Mom and Dad”) and apply it to your given circustances (“Honor your parents by helping them stop the evil they do by getting far away from them.”)

No televised pastor can do this. No self-help book can make those distinctions and no on-line oracle (he says to himself with chagrin) can replace the local relationship.

A great mistake a Christian can make is to think that just because we know that some things are always wrong, what Aristotle would call base actions, that every situation has a sure “right” or “wrong” solution. Of course, some situations do have an always right, always wrong. No matter who you are, you should not torment innocent people for fun. Don’t do it. Don’t consider doing it.

In fact, thank God, all but a few sociopaths never consider doing such things, even picking an example is painful as you fear to cause pain to those unfortunate enough to have met such a sick person. Life would easier if all our decisions consisted of “this is always right” versus “this is always wrong.” We do face such moments: despite the convenience, do not throw battery acid into the ocean for sport. Do not. Stop. No.

Most decisions are in between . . .  I am left asking how much I should eat for dinner when excess, immoderation, is always a challenge for me. This bite of bread is not bad in itself, but somehow on the way to eating the whole loaf, I have gone too far. Most of my life choices lack moral content, I choose to wear this blue jacket, or are bad or good, if they are bad or good, in the context of my entire life and how that life interacts with other persons, including God.

Should I buy this? Where should I live? How should I react to this abusive person? When can I share my pain? How?

Christianity teaches that morality is objective and moral laws are knowable. Sensible Christians also know that most decisions we make depend on the circustances for moral justification.  Generally, I cannot  decide whether to watch this football game, based solely on some Eternal Moral Idea. Why? The moral content for this generally morally neutral act comes from the circumstance.

When it comes to giving specific moral advice, we must begin with that disclaimer. “Don’t steal. Don’t lie. You are having doubts as a pastor. Should you quit?”  We must ask many more questions in many cases. Of course, if a person knows she is an atheist and is writing this online, then taking money while doing so from believers, because she is a believer is (almost) always wrong. However, how strong do these doubts have to be?

There will be no perfect advice, though there are helpful guide rails. Generally: do not take money under false pretenses. Tell your ministry your struggle. Take a sabbatical while you wrestle with ideas. Mostly, put in your notice while you work out basic principles. Just as a man should not sell product that he no longer believes in (even if he is coy about it), so a personal generally cannot take money for teaching things she strongly suspects are false.

That is one example of a problem that will depend a bit on the person and circumstance, but where there is a general ethical principles to guide a decision. Other cases will be harder, because the action considered is itself morally neutral: eating this piece of bread. It is not bad to eat this bread, except when it is! How can we know? We can only know based on the circumstances in context of the entire life a person. Just as a doctor would not just glance at a patient and give advice from a machine, so if we wish to give moral advice in these harder circumstances, we must know the person and the life the person is leading.

God is for marriage, but if a spouse is abusive, then it is time to separate yourself from that abuse. What is next? That is harder and I do not even wish to give options lest someone thing while reading this that this is what they should do. 

God has given us free will and a vast cosmos where we can make choices. Should we go to Mars? If we can, then we can choose. How should we go? When? There will be moral components to all those questions, but the choose to go or not to go is our own. The person who thinks religion limits freedom is correct: God has given us no right to vice. We can choose wrong, but the consequences will be severe, though even then, so loving is the Good God, that we receive much mercy. God is always calling us to goodness, truth, and beauty. The person who thinks religion takes away all freedom is deceived. God wishes us to grow into mature Christian adulthood and that means learning to make choices where (often) the only determining question is what we wish! Thank the Good God for a world of choices!


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