As a child growing up in a typical household in the province with neighbors that have similar experiences and traditions as our family, I thought there were certain things we believed that were true for everyone.

“Huwag kang magwalis kapag Bagong Taon; lalabas ang blessing.”

Huwag ka mag-uwi ng pagkain galing sa lamay; sasama ang patay sa’yo.”

“Huwag kang kumanta habang kumakain; tatakbo ang pagkain.” (Or maybe this was just my dad preventing my horrible singing.)

When I was a teenager, I finally figured out that none of these rules had any basis except for cultural or individual preference. So I started to think, “Is there anything that is really good or right? Or are we all just at the mercy of culture or of other people’s preference?”

I wanted to be good and to do good, but if our basis for right and wrong are subjective, how can I know if I’m really doing good?

 

Relative Morality: Trying to Be Good without Absolute Truth

“You do you.” Moral relativism is the belief that there is no absolute truth or absolute standards of right and wrong or good and bad. According to this belief, each one of us is free to define good and evil for ourselves. But how can we say that what is good for us will not be harmful to another? What if fighting for our rights takes away the freedom of another? What if our freedom of expression degrades a certain group of people? What if our freedom to pursue what we want harms others?

Freedom is one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind. God created us with free will to make moral judgment calls. Since He created us with the capacity to choose, He also gave us His perfect law to guide us toward making good moral decisions.

Without God’s law, the world will fall at the mercy of human beings whose natural inclination is to think of themselves and insist on their own rights and preferences. Imagine a world where seven billion people live their lives according to what feels right for each one and insisting on their own rights and freedoms. Chaotic, right?

 

Religious Morality: Trying to Be Good without Love

On the other side of the spectrum is religious morality or, to put it simply, legalism. It is the expectation that in order to be morally good, one has to adhere to a certain set of rules that define right and wrong.

When you follow these rules, you are commended, respected, and even envied, especially when you adhere to a “difficult rule” (e.g., water fast for 40 days or giving away 90 percent of your income).

When you fail to meet the standard, you experience shaming and ridicule. People will judge your convictions as too weak, and the authenticity of your faith is questioned. After all, if you’re truly a believer, you should try harder and set more rules. You can’t question or disagree with any of the rules. Even Christians fall prey to this.

Instead of remembering that Christianity means walking with others in becoming more like Jesus, some see it as a contest over who is the most sacrificial, the most holy, the most knowledgable about the Bible, and the most radical. We become impatient with those we perceive are lagging behind, instead of extending patience and grace to them. We become frustrated with their stubborness. We unwittingly set more rules to avoid future mistakes, instead of leading them to repentance and helping them walk in faith. We address the behavior but not the heart.

“Our ultimate goal can be nothing less than full obedience to everything Jesus taught. It’s the only way we can fulfill the second half of the Great Commission. But our attitude toward people who struggle and even ignore what they already know needs to be aligned with the compassion and ministry of Jesus rather than the disdain, disgust, and exclusivity of the Pharisees.”

—Larry Osborne, Accidental Pharisees

It is interesting to note that the motivation for religious morality is the desire to prove ourselves. And only when we are reminded that we have nothing to prove and no one to impress can we be set free from legalism.

 

A Balance of Truth and Grace

How then do we avoid both extremes? The antidote to moral relativism is absolute truth, while the antidote to legalism is love. We need both.

We need absolute truth for us to realize just how far we fall short of God’s standard for purity and holiness. And yet in the midst of that realization, we need to understand that we are loved by God, regardless. And we find both grace and truth in the person of Jesus Christ. It is through Him that we can try to be the person that God wants us to be. Through Him, we are loved unconditionally, and a daily understanding and reminder that we are unconditionally loved despite our shortcomings will lead us to love and honor God, who pours out so much grace and mercy, and to love others who fall short, just as we do.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

‭‭John‬ ‭1:14‬

 

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