We have forgotten how to make critical distinctions in our reasoning
I recently sat with a friend and talked about mistakes we had almost made when we were younger. Youth–if you ask me–is synonymous with mistakes, yet this is something almost totally ignored in contemporary youth culture.
As I recounted a moment in which I made a good decision–yet a moment when a bad one was startlingly within reach–my friend responded, “it’s okay if you did [i.e., if you made the wrong decision].” I wanted to reply, “Actually no. It wouldn’t have been okay.” It might have been understandable. It might even have been justifiable. It could have been redeemed, but it would never have been okay.
That little work “okay” carried with it the (modern) human impulse to make a conversation partner feel better about himself and avoid the perception of a negative judgment. Here’s the thing though, “okay” also carries with it the possibility of cheap grace and shrouds a relatively clear scenario in an unnecessary moral opacity. Okay cannot carry the freight of moral decision-making and we shouldn’t ask it to.
Two truths in tension
(1) Actions have contexts that inform them
Discerning conversations requires us to keep two truths in tension. The first is that some actions are morally wrong and cannot be other than that in the form in which we encounter them. Every moral action takes place in a context and the decision cannot be separated from the context in which it is made.
It is not wrong to kill a man who threatens your life. It is always wrong to kill a man who has done nothing others than stroll down the street. It is not wrong to sleep with a woman you meet in a bar if that woman is your wife. It is always wrong if she is not.
(2) God is greater than our moral choices
The Bible tells us that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Put another way, we all regularly make choices that contravene God’s law. This is simply a fact of life. If God wanted us to live in a state where it is impossible to sin then God could usher in the new heavens and the new earth. For reasons known only to him–surely among them extending to us the chance to turn to him (2 Peter 3:9)–God has delayed inaugurating his full reign. We therefore have time to repent and time in which we must continue to wrestle against sin and temptation.
God is greater than our moral choices and therefore is able both to absorb them and to change them thereby producing something good in our lives. Redemption does not, however, remove the consequence of sin from our lived experience. Just as surgery often leaves us scarred our transgression of God’s law often leaves a mark. It is a mark that will one day be erased, but it is a mark nonetheless.
The way of wisdom
The way of wisdom holds these two truths in tension. The way of the fool rushes to “its okay” or “you’re damned.” The good news is that there is time. Time to realize that a wrong deed needn’t be the end of the story. Time to experience the love of God extended in surgical grace that may leave a scar. Either way, time is of the essence.