Not long ago I got an email from a Christian man who asked me, “What can I do to become knowledgable in Christian ethics?” Obviously, I think that’s a good question. Ethics is not, after all, something that only academic types or pastors have to think about. Every Christian has a mandate to be able to articulate the truth of the gospel and to apply it in every season of life.
Here are the three most important things you can do to develop a solid Christian ethic:
1) Know the Bible.
Knowing the Bible goes beyond being able to recite individual verses. There are a lot of Christians who know specific proof texts, but they don’t know how to understand the whole fabric of the Scriptures. They’re unable to inhabit the world of the Bible and see how it applies to ethical and moral issues in their life, especially those that feel new and difficult.
We live in a time when, because of everything from technology to cultural change, there are all sorts of ethical issues that we haven’t had to think about before. But we know, as the Scriptures tell us, that there is nothing new under the sun, just new applications of old principles.
For instance, one question that I get a lot from parents is: What do I do about a smartphone for my pre-teen or young teenage son or daughter? That’s the sort of question that, if you had described twenty years ago what a smartphone is and what it does, would have sounded like science fiction. And we can speculate about the sorts of questions that people are going to have to address in the church in the next twenty years, questions like “What about artificial intelligence,” or, “How do we think about that child in Vacation Bible School who was cloned?” Those are questions that may seem outlandish to us right now, but they are really dealing with very old, ancient issues being brought to the forefront in a new way.
2) Know People
Developing a Christian ethic means understanding human nature. And that means listening and developing empathy for people, especially people who are in a different situation than you.
One of the things that I miss the most since I transitioned out of full time pastoral ministry is counseling. When I was serving as a pastor, people would come to me every day in crisis situations. Counseling them through these circumstances helped me to understand and to develop empathy for people in situations that I just don’t have to face—people who have different points of vulnerability or different points of suffering than the ones I have.
I may not have experienced what a widower who is lonely after the death of his wife is experiencing, but in talking to him and ministering to him, I can enter into his life and develop empathy for others whose loved ones have gone. When I am helping someone addicted to gambling or prescription drugs, even though those aren’t my specific areas of temptation, I can no longer caricature those struggles because I’m looking for how this person can find healing.
Getting this close to people can also help us see what’s at stake in our own lives. I remember talking one time with a married couple where the husband was having an extramarital affair. He was sitting across from me as he listed all these reasons why what he was doing wasn’t wrong after all. But right next to him, they had a little six week-old baby in a car seat on the floor. All I kept thinking was, “Do you not see what your sin is doing? Do you not see what it’s costing you?” Later I found myself thinking about those areas in my own life that I don’t see—those blind spots that those around me can point out but that I can’t see.
3) Know Great Stories
Reading good literature, especially fiction, is more important than keeping up with current events. That’s not to say that it’s unimportant to keep up with current events, but reading good fiction can help you to get inside the minds of people different from you in a way that is more significant than simply knowing what this or that group of talking heads are saying.
Fiction can sometimes, like Nathan the prophet’s story of the ewe lamb, awaken parts of us that we have calloused over, due to ignorance or laziness or inattention or sin. One night, in the car on my way home, I was talking by telephone to my eighty-six year-old grandmother. She was telling me a story about the last time she saw my grandfather alive. She told me about feeling the coldness of his feet as she changed his socks in his hospital bed, about how his eyes were focused on her, though he couldn’t speak. She talked about how, when the nurses told her she had to leave, she kissed him, told him she loved him, and that she could feel him watching her as she left the room, for the last time.
I knew she had lost my grandfather. I know that people die. I know “Husbands love your wives” (Ephesians 5). But that story awakened something in me. It prompted me to hold my wife with a special tenderness when I walked in the door. I had imagined what it would be like to say goodbye to her in that way, and, suddenly, all the daily pressures of kids and bills and house repairs and travel just seemed to fit in a bigger context. Fiction often does the same thing. When I read Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illych, I gain an imaginative sympathy with something I might avoid in the busyness of life: what it’s actually like to die. When I read Wendell Berry’s stories of Henry County, Kentucky, I can gain insight on what it would be like to face losing a family farm in the Great Depression. This fiction gives a richer, bigger vision of human life.
If you want to become more well-versed in Christian ethics, start with these three things.