November 26, 2013| 0

Bumper-Sticker Ethics (Psalm 34:14)

Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

Here’s a good one-sentence distillation of biblical ethics. It sounds so simple. “Don’t be evil” makes a good motto. Same for “Do good” and “Seek peace.” These could fit easily on a bumper-sticker, T-shirt, or corporate S-1 filing.

The only problem is that these mottos become meaningless when cut off from their source. It’s all too easy to define good and evil in terms of what seems to work best “under the circumstances” or what permits us to avoid “upsetting the applecart.” Furthermore, there’s always the temptation to rationalize any business decision on the basis of doing what’s most pragmatic for the company. This rationale ends up believing in the advice, “Do good to do well.” In other words, the reason to do good deeds is that it brings success in the long run. While that is often true in a practical sense, it’s not generally true in a moral sense. That kind of bumper-sticker ethics might be an exercise in good practical thinking, but it forgets the source of moral goodness.

The Psalms remind us of the source of morality: worship. Psalm 34 begins here:

I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together! [Psalm 34:1-2]

Ethics begins in worship, in praise. That’s the true source of moral understanding. It’s only in the context of praising God that we can sort out the ethics of the situation. We desire in our hearts to steer clear of evil, to do good, and to seek peace, because our hearts are full of thanksgiving and praise. Worship is the proper posture for ethical discernment, because thanksgiving is the mechanism which aligns our hearts and minds with God’s purposes.

“Do good” makes sense when we let thanksgiving be our guide to moral discernment, thanks be to God.

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© Bruce D. Baker 2013

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