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August 23, 2016

Making the Ethical Choice in a Gray World

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Some people see everything in black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. Others see an ocean of gray with nothing really ever firmly planted on one side or the other. I actually believe the better idea is something in the middle of both polar positions.

To be honest, life might be easier if Scripture contained a clear answer for every possible ethical dilemma. But that’s simply not the case. In fact, the Bible doesn’t even give a definitive answer to every ethical question that is discussed within its pages. So, how is the conscientious follower of Christ supposed to make the right choices when traveling through those tricky gray areas of life?

Or what’s George Bailey to do in this moment of It’s a Wonderful Life?

First of all, everyone is held to the same standard of ethics when it comes to Biblical commands. For example, “Thou shalt not steal” doesn’t apply just to the cashier at the local convenience store. It applies to everyone—rich or poor, young or old. Beyond the obvious Biblical mandates, however, there lies a world of preference, option, and opinion in which what is right for one person may not be OK for another.

What is needed, then, is a filter to help make ethical choices regarding issues that are not directly addressed by a specific Scripture.  We can’t simply look to the law either because sometimes the law says what is allowed but not what you should always do. As former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”

So what filter should we use? You could use an ethical decision tree, like the one shown here.

I always enjoy the challenge of a good HBR article. But I also appreciate the truth embedded in the Scriptures when applied to any situation. My personal filter for navigating the daily ethical landscape comes from two New Testament passages: Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10:23-33, both of which deal specifically with whether a believer should eat meat offered to idols. Although that’s not a pressing concern in today’s marketplace, the principles that guided the Apostle Paul’s discussion on the issue also can be applied to gray areas of today.

These questions—drawn directly from these two passages—can be used as an acid test to help determine the correct response to an ethical dilemma. If the answer to any of these questions is no, then we shouldn’t do it.

  1. Is it permissible? (If there is a clear Biblical command against it, then it is not permissible.)
  2. Will it lead to peace and mutual improvement?
  3. Is it beneficial, profitable or constructive?
  4. Does it have the good of others at heart?
  5. Will it cause another believer to stumble?
  6. Does it bring honor to God’s name and reputation?

A “no” to any of these questions should mean a “no” to the decision, and in that way, these questions serve as an anchoring of sorts.

The trick, though, is not just doing this once but over and over again building up our ethical muscle memory. Ethical behavior is not a last-minute decision. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Making ethical choices on small matters makes it easier to identify the right choice (and to make the right choice) on the bigger matters. And usually, our ethical edge is dulled and blunted with the daily small choices not the battering ram of a single huge decision.

This principle is experienced every day when I face stealing money from my employer through false expense reports, flirting with a co-worker, paying sub-par wages or shading the truth to get a deal done. In other words, if personal convictions aren’t established before we get to an ethical intersection, it’s naïve if not downright absurd to think we’re going to make the ethical choice.

Instead, get in good habits, particularly in surrounding yourself with the right friends whose support makes it much easier to stay true to convictions. As Donald Miller writes, you become like your friends, so choose friends who will strengthen your ethical resolve. The biggest test of a person’s convictions often comes when he is detached from a comfortable Christ-centered subculture, but the knowledge that Christ-centered people are still out there often tethers us to the ethical north pole.

Our ethical edge must stay sharp. Our heart for the true, the good and the beautiful must stay stoked. Ethical intersections come at us each day. The consequence is not just doing the right thing at the right time but it is in a way posting a gospel Snapchat of our Creator to the curious world.

British New testament scholar N.T. Wright said it this way, “Christian ethics is not a matter of discovering what’s going on in the world and getting in tune with it. It isn’t a matter of doing things to earn God’s favor. It is not about trying to obey dusty rulebooks from long ago or far away. It is about practicing, in the present, the tunes we shall sing in God’s new world.”

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