I have frequently mentioned the sweeping changes that we see in almost every facet of American life. The changes have been particularly challenging in the area of morals and ethics. In previous generations, there was a much stronger agreement between the church, the government, the entertainment industry, the schools, and the various social institutions, of right and wrong, good and evil.
As our nation has entered into the postmodern era, all truth, all morals, all ethics, are up for grabs. Most of the churches continue to stand up for some standards of right and wrong – but most other institutions are unable to take a stand on any moral issue since doing so would be intolerant or oppressive – or a form of “micro-aggression” against those who don’t agree. With the elimination of God and the Bible as standards for truth in the various social institutions, we find ourselves in an era similar to the period of the Judges in the Bible where “every man did what was right in his own eyes.”
Sadly, we are seeing that a culture without a clear sense of right and wrong, and without a clear sense of what it means to honor God with one’s life, ends up unable to produce men and women of strong character who will do what is right even when it is costly.
As I write this article, we are in the final weeks of the process of electing a new president. Though there are some who are wildly enthusiastic about one candidate or the other – I hear people of both parties wonder “Is this really the best we could do?” We wonder if there are people more honest, more principled, more humble, more concerned about leading by example, and more committed to serving God through the institution of government.
When Solomon became king over Israel, he asked God for the gift of a wise and discerning heart to equip him to govern the people well. Where are the leaders who govern with great wisdom and great concern for the well-being of our entire nation?
I have been reading David McCullough’s biography on the life of Harry Truman. I have not finished the book yet, but I have appreciated the insights I’ve gained on the challenges that Truman faced, and the character that he developed over the course of his life. I especially appreciated the lessons he learned early in his life.
In Truman’s hometown of Independence, Missouri, there was a strong moral tone reinforced by family, school, church, and community. Let me share an extended quote from the book about Harry Truman’s childhood:
Certain precepts and bywords were articles of faith in such a place, in such times, and nearly everybody growing up there was imbued with them, in principle at least: Honesty was the best policy. Make yourself useful. Never give up…. Harry’s mother would remind him as he went out the door: “Now Harry, you be good.” He appears never to have questioned such dictates. Many of the most familiar guidelines came straight from the Bible: “Honor thy father and mother.” “A good name is to be chosen above great riches.”
Harry knew many Bible passages by heart, especially Matthew 5,6, and 7, the Sermon on the Mount. He memorized a prayer that he would say much of his life:
Oh! Almighty and Everlasting God, Creator of Heaven, Earth, and the Universe: Help me to be, to think, to act what is right, because it is right; make me truthful, honest and honorable in all things; make me intellectually honest for the sake of right and honor and without thought of reward tome. Give me the ability to be charitable, forgiving and patent with my fellowmen – help me to understand their motives and their shortcomings – even as Thou understandest mine! Amen.
“Say what you mean, mean what you say”, he was taught at home. Keep your word. Never get too big for your britches. Never forget a friend.
They were more than words-to-the-wise, they were bedrock, as clearly established, as integral to the way of life, it seemed, as were the very landmarks of the community, its schools, church steeples, and courthouse. Not everyone lived up to them of course, but to Harry it seemed that everyone ought to try.
Most of us would be very pleased to have leaders in our nation, in our businesses, and in our schools who prayed the prayer above and who lived by these principles. Yet sadly in just one or two generations we have eroded all of the institutions that promoted this uniform vision of virtue for the children of our nation.
The task of moral and ethical education has always been challenging for people and for nations, but with a culture that is unable to rally behind a uniform vision of virtue and good character, the task is nearly impossible.
The temptation might be to throw in the towel and simply pray for Jesus to come again soon – however followers of Jesus do not have that luxury. That would not be good stewardship of our lives or of the mission of our church.
In the book of the Prophet Jeremiah, God gives an interesting commandment to his people, even though they will be held captive in a nation and culture that was hostile to Yahweh and his people:
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Jeremiah 29:7 (ESV)
Though the nation of Babylon was opposed to Yahweh in almost every way, God called his people to work for the welfare of the city where they were held captive.
Those who take seriously the call to follow Jesus are called to do our part to seek the welfare not just of our OWN people – but the welfare of all people. We are committed not to a lifestyle of escape from the culture – but we are committed to a lifestyle of transformation of the culture – one day at a time, and one life at a time. The challenge is daunting – but by prayer and example, by giving and serving, by worshipping and making disciples, we may be helping to influence a young man or woman who will one day stand up for what is good and right and who will help to lead in a family, in a school, in a business, or in public office with honesty, humility, wisdom, courage, and faith in Almighty God.
We don’t know for sure that we will succeed in this endeavor, but we know that God has called us to fight the good fight and run the good race, looking to Jesus Christ no matter what the future brings.