Back in the early Pleistocene era when I was a lad, road crews would mark out construction zones with bowling-ball sized canisters filled with kerosene and topped by a large wick. When lit with a match, they would burn all night long, warning motorists away from broken pavement.
I grew up with only three absolute prohibitions: fire, fire and fire. Dazzled by these forbidden, flaming bowling balls, I snuck out one night and stole one, hiding it in the nearby woods where I could secretly worship before its smoky flame.
Naturally, I got caught. I could have argued that I was old enough to handle fire responsibly. I could have claimed that as taxpayers, we were entitled to our very own flaming road marker. Instead, I denied everything, leaving my mother no choice but to conclude that the burning globe had been levitated into the woods by Martians.
No, she wasn’t that dumb.
From the moment I first conceived of my crime until I was finally caught red-handed with the goods, I knew perfectly well that what I was doing was wrong.
In my last post, I brought up the idea of a moral fog. I’m not talking about an ethical dilemma that has no obvious solution, or a situation so novel that we have to blaze new moral ground. Those sorts of problems are really quite rare — except in the movies.
When I talk about being in a moral fog, I mean the conditions that lead us to moral capitulation. There are times when we fully understand the ethical risks, times when we’re on top of the navigational charts and understand exactly where to find the shoals and obstructions — and yet, we veer off course. It would be unbelievable if it weren’t so commonplace.
When Hillary Clinton’s staff slipped some prepared questions into the audience at a recent town hall and got caught, they didn’t argue that the town hall format needed to be changed, or that no one had bothered to explain the rules to them. No, they quickly assured the press that that sort of thing would never happen again.
We can assume from that response that everyone at Team Clinton understood perfectly well that planting softball questions is wrong.
Therefore, the decision to plant those questions must have been made in a moment of moral fog, using some clever rationalizations. It could have gone like this: “Hillary has a great position on global warming, but no one ever asks her about it. People care about global warming. Odds are someone in Iowa is going to ask the question eventually. Wouldn’t it be better to get her statement out sooner rather than later?”
I don’t want to pick on the Clinton campaign. My point is that this sort of moral fog is a universal human problem. We all make self-serving rationalizations. A woman is on trial here for driving drunk, at twice the legal limit, and running over a bicyclist, killing him. Another woman just lost her career as a teacher because she engaged in a sexual relationship with a student.
If Jeremiah’s observation is correct that our hearts deceive us (Jeremiah 17:9), we are all con artists, gifted in the art of distorting moral truth to our own advantage. And the principle victim of our cons are ourselves. In the immortal words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Which means that the path through the moral fogs of life is not better education in ethics or more public service appeals against drinking and driving or better incentives or harsher laws.
The Apostle Paul long ago realized that the problem of finding our way through the moral fogs of life cries out for a spiritual solution.
But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. …
I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?
Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. … So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to Him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. — Romans 7:16 – 8:2, NLT (The Apostle Paul speaking)
Sin creates the moral fog that tempts us off course. Sin is that innate narcissism, that destructive selfishness and hubris that drives so much of what we do. These inner forces tell us to spurn our moral compass — they’d rather we drifted on the currents.
Paul’s claim is that we who “belong to Christ Jesus” are able to stand against those self-serving desires through “the power of the life-giving Spirit.” The answer to moral living isn’t found in ourselves, but in the power of Jesus Christ who comes to live within us. He is our compass. He points true even in the deepest fog.
Photo credit: Nikolay Okhitin of StockXpert