This is the seventh lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live the Bible series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
[Special note… see Mel Lawrenz’s “A Prayer for the Christmas Season” in text, printable PDF, or audio.]
It is hard not to be utterly dismayed by the lack of basic morality in society today. It is a crisis within the lives of individuals, in groups and organizations, and in institutions. And at the highest levels of leadership it is challenging to find men and women of unassailable moral character—not sinlessness, but basic integrity.
Even making this observation runs the risk of drawing ridicule from those who think morality is a quaint notion of a bygone era, or worse, a rigid and repressive self-righteousness, almost always hypocritical.
Yet morality is one of the most essential and highest human characteristics. The belief that there is a difference between right and wrong, between ought and ought-not, or between good, better, and best, is the only thing stopping us from destroying each other. If there is no distinction between what is moral and what is immoral then there is no fundamental difference between nurturing your child and abusing your child. No reason not to rob your sibling. Nothing holding us back from spitting out one lie after another to manipulate, deceive, or dominate.
C. S. Lewis said the sense of morality in the human race—uneven though it is—may be the strongest “proof” for the existence of God. There just is no reason men and women would have any sense of ought and ought-not unless there was a Creator whose essential character is moral.
We are naturally disappointed when long-standing Christians or even leaders in the church are exposed in scandals of gross immorality. We ought to be disappointed when leaders relinquish their moral standards in order to support someone on their side who is guilty of scandal. We ought to ask: How can this be? How can things get so twisted? What hope is there for any of us to have integrity?
We might be tempted to think that if we knew the texts of the Bible better such things would not happen. But biblical illiteracy is not the core problem here. Most people with any Christian background know the Ten Commandments prohibit adultery, thievery, and murder—yet that knowledge does not prevent moral failure.
Living the Bible means being able to hold to standards of basic morality and ethics, but this shaping of character happens over a lifetime and through many processes. Paul describes one person of notable character, the young Timothy, when he wrote to him:
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:14-17).
The core idea is this: the “sacred writings” are able to make us wise for the rescue and preservation of our lives. “Faith in Christ Jesus” is the power. The process takes a lifetime (for Timothy, “from childhood,” but it can begin at any time). The truth of Scripture is taught by people who are living it themselves (for Timothy, it was his grandmother and mother; see 2 Tim. 1:5). Living the Bible means to “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed”—in other words, a lifetime commitment based on an informed and firm faith.
Paul is specific in how the Scriptures shape a life. The word of God, “breathed out” by God himself (not merely a human book), is profitable in four ways:
- For “teaching”—so Scripture shows us what it true.
- For “reproof”—so it convicts us when we fall short, which is merciful, not cruel.
- For “correction”—meaning that Scripture shows us how to recover.
- And for “training in righteousness”—which means gaining the skills and patterns that keep us in a right relationship with God.
And that leads to moral character. When we come under the “teaching,” “reproof,” “correction,” and “training” of Scripture as a lifestyle, we will be shaped by it. Along the way we experience suffering in its many forms, and that too shapes character, driving us back to the breath of God.
Morality is not really the highest goal in life. Being in a right relationship with God is. Keeping our focus there makes true morality possible and keeps us humble, which is our only protection against flaunting morality which is like wearing a thin mask that will inevitably fall off one day.
[Get Christmas Joy–A Devotional by Mel Lawrenz to read in December]
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Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, including How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.