A few years ago, a Sophomore bent a cherished rule while attending a Christian high school, but rather than doing the right thing such as giving him a few days at home to think about changing paths; they expelled him. And the reason–they didn’t want people to believe the school endorsed “bad” behavior; they thought it would give the school a bad reputation if they didn’t do something punishing.
In like manner, many schools and businesses do the same, and so does the government. It’s possible that the bigger the institution, the more commonly this sad practice occurs. But why? What drives this behavior?
Kohlberg, Piaget, and Timothy Jennings suggest that people can go through 6 or 7 stages of moral development. However, it’s my experience that not everyone advances at the same pace, nor do they all reach the final stages, and it’s possible to advance and retreat along the spectrum depending on the issue. Consider Corrie Ten Boom, who broke the law to save Jews in the Holocaust. She illegally hid Jews in her home from the Nazis and then lied when they asked her about it, which is wrong, but she saved many lives, which is the right thing to do. Corrie lived and acted on the, do what is right, principle, not the, do what is legal, principle.
She Suffered a Stroke
Consider Eric, when he noticed his wife had suffered a stroke. Her face was drooping; her arm was numb. He had to get her to the hospital and did so by doubling the speed limit, sliding through stop signs, and running orange-red traffic lights in desperation. With the hospital in view, a police car pulls in behind him with lights flashing and siren blaring. But Eric doesn’t pull over. Instead, he turns on his flashers and continues to speed-on to the hospital. He gets to the hospital entrance, brushes past the arresting officer, and carries his wife into the emergency room. Eric was arrested and charged with assault on a police officer, disorderly conduct, reckless endangerment, two counts of traffic signals violation, and an expired registration. Did Eric do the right or wrong thing? It depends on your level of moral development. https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/news/story/2010/jun/22/officer-put-leave/21018/
For many, moral growth stagnates at Stage 4, Law and Order, a don’t break the rules, idealism, and fail to mature into fully developed adults, who, do what is right because it is right.
Why Don’t We Grow Up?
Why then do we not grow up? What hinders our growth? Is it easier and safer to merely depend on keeping the law and not thinking for ourselves? Is it a crutch, an easy out we use when it’s convenient or when it’s to our advantage? Could it also be part of our Judeo-Christian heritage and the laws God gave in the Bible? Could it be that in our culture, everything is decided in the courts where we settle for the lowest moral bar?
For non-Christians such as atheists and agnostics, whether we know it or not, we have expectations and visions of what perfection looks like in a person, even if we don’t put a name on it such as Allah, or Jehovah, or Jesus, or The Force. Regardless of what we call it, we become what we most highly admire, desire, and idolize. We imitate what we prize most; we become what we love. It may be power or money, it may be a mentor, but we only rise as high as our heroes take us. As Kohlberg, Piaget, and Jennings suggest, we all grow through these moral stages and most of society hovers around Level 4 unless pushed and challenged to rise above, to plunge forward.
It’s a Christian’s Picture of God that Counts
As Christian adults, I posit it’s our picture of God that allows for or inhibits our maturation in moral lines. If you fear a God who has the ultimate power over your life or death and you don’t trust him, you will rarely rise above level 4 thinking. Out of fear, you will do what it takes to avoid punishment (Level 1), you will obey out of self-interest (save your skin, Level 2), you will obey to be a “good little boy or girl” staying off our heavenly Santa’s bad list (Level 3), or you will obey the laws precisely as given, never deviating an inch (Level 4).
Moving forward and rising above the fray is risky. Those in Levels below you believe you have abandoned the truth, gone soft, lost your marbles, or have gone to the Dark Side. Your friends don’t understand and neither do your family. And this is why it’s so hard to change: no one wants to be the focus of criticism, especially from those you love.
Not until you see God as friendly can you develop past Levels 1-3 and the law and order stage. And for that, you have to get rid of the fear of punishment. Fortunately, the Bible does this in several ways.
- Jesus came to this planet to demonstrate what God is like, and he wasn’t scary; he didn’t hurt a fly. He healed the blind and the sick, forgave sinners, and washed his betrayer’s feet. Even those who beat him and spit on him had nothing to fear because he didn’t retaliate. Jesus showed us that God is not as his enemies have made him out to be: vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. He painted a picture of God that’s full of love and kindness and compassion and not someone to fear–ever.
- Jesus was given the task of representing us in heaven, as our advocate. When Satan comes around to accuse us to the Father or angels, Jesus defends our name. Knowing that God is on our side, reduces the fear too.
Needing Milk Not Solid Food
I wish everyone could read the Bible through for themselves. If we did, many of the sermons we hear would be unnecessary. We are served milk and not meat because we don’t read for ourselves, and some significant churches don’t help. They cloud the goodness of God behind formality, behind beautiful choirs or exciting bands, behind pomp and circumstance and stained glass, and they never get to what’s essential. They don’t encourage their congregations to read the entire Bible for themselves or to think for themselves. Here-a-little and there-a-little is their only approach because they can’t justify their teachings if you take the whole of Scripture. I believe that they think we are stupid and gullible, and maybe we are. I also believe that many people don’t question their teachers and just go with tradition because they have not taken the time and effort to study for themselves.
And the results are predictable. Without knowing the truth: that God wants us to love the individual, to care for and uplift the suffering, struggling sinners among us, we support the institution instead. We settle for Level 4 or lower morality, protect the powers that be and damn the people that need our help the most. What has happened to Christian love? My Bible says to love, love even your enemies; and yet, we throw-out people left and right to save the institution.
In contrast, consider Jesus’ radical love. He, the institution, healed the untouchable lepers by touching their wounds. He broke bread with tax collectors and prostitutes, the dregs of society, and his friends and followers were lowly, unskilled fishermen. Can we do any less?