Evil and Ethics

This has been my longest writing drought since starting my blog in January ’10.  The demands of a new job coupled with my wife starting a new career as a nurse has made consistent reflection and writing more challenging.  Most of my thoughts have been occupied by ideas about the nature of knowledge and how we come to know, since this is the focus of the high school class that I teach.  I’ve just completed a unit on Ethics that engaged students in critical reflection on how they justify their beliefs about what is right and wrong.  The last ethical “knowledge issue” we explored was “How are our ethical justifications influence by our views of the nature of evil and of the moral nature of man (good, evil, or neutral)?” As we discussed different views of the nature of evil, I challenged them to consider whether they believed that evil originates inside of us (i.e. in the “heart”) and works outward into external manifestations, or that evil originates outside of us and works inward to corrupt us.

Jesus teaches us that moral corruption does not work from the outside in, but from the inside out (see Mark 7:14-23).  Social norms only require external adherence and thus are only violated by specific taboo behaviors; God’s standards of righteousness requires adherence from the heart, and thus can be violated internally by our thoughts, desires, attitudes, etc.

Our view on this question has a profound influence on our personal approach to ethics.  If we ignore Jesus’ teaching here, and regard evil as an essentially external problem, we’ll deceive ourselves into thinking that we can deal with evil influences merely by external strategies:  avoiding negative influences, surrounding ourselves with positive ones, resolving to exert more self-control.  Not that any of these things are bad or not useful, but by themselves do not deal with the heart and may only make us more prideful if used successfully. On the other hand, if we recognize honestly our internal corruption, we will avail ourselves of means to change the heart:  means which God has ordained for the purification of the heart.  These include reading/hearing God’s Word in the Bible, prayer (expressing thanksgiving, confessing sins, and repenting), and sacraments (regularly partaking of the Lord’s Supper).  The Spirit of God makes all these practices effectual to transform the heart.
If evil affects us from the inside-out; we need an approach to moral transformation that also works from the inside-out.  Jesus is unique in not only teaching us a way to do this but by providing a way for us to change.

2 comments on “Evil and Ethics

  1. Peter Sayal says:

    Thanks, Jeremy! Even though I know this truth at one level, there is a tendency to forget it, and I am grateful for the reminder! May the LORD continue to bless you, and may you continue to encourage the brethren in their Christian walk!

    • One realizes how important such simple ideas are when trying to advance them against opposing ideas. As I challenged my students to consider the question of where evil is I was reminded of my own internal corruption and hence my need for on-going internal transformation. It’s easy to get comfortable in our own righteousness, especially when the world around is so corrupt and it is so easy to live a ‘moral life’ by the standards of our society. So we need to continually see our hearts through the clear lens of Scripture and not the distorted lens of the opinions of men.

      Glad you’re reading!

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