Encouraging Our Better Angels? January 19 2018

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

In my rare reading of the Wall Street Journal on a recent airline flight, I came across an article in the Book Review section titled “We Can Encourage Our Better Angels.”  The article was based on a book by Dr. Christian B. Miller titled: The Character Gap: How Good Are We?

My first thought was, “Hmmm, it’s nice to see that someone is trying to give messages to the financial industry, which has not always been known for its virtue.” (The September 30, 2016 blog on the Wells Fargo scandal is a commentary on what happens when emphasis on the bottom line overtakes ethical treatment of one’s customers.)  Reading further, I found that the WSJ article was directed at a general audience, encouraging all of us to aspire to acting ethically and honestly in our businesses and personal lives.  Here is an excerpt:

“The broad categories of virtue and vice don’t describe most of us very well.  While there may be some outliers on either end, most of us fall somewhere in the middle, in that great bulging center of the classic bell curve.  Given our mixed characters, we tend to be neither good enough to count as virtuous nor bad enough to count as vicious.
“Hence, we are confronted with what I call the character gap.  There is the virtuous person we should be.  There is who we actually are.  And there is a big difference between the two.  The good news is that our characters are not carved in stone.  Social science suggests several ways that we can all become better people, not overnight, but slowly and gradually.”

This is a fairly common assessment of human nature – from a secular perspective.  The article goes on to describe three examples of how we can “become better people:” 1) moral reminders, 2) role models, and 3) education in self-awareness.

Regarding moral reminders, the article describes an experiment that was conducted with three groups of about 35 student participants.  The first group took a 20-question test (with the questions being very difficult) and had to submit it to the person in charge after they were done.  The test was graded, and each student was to receive 50 cents for every correct answer.  The second group took the same test, but subjects were allowed to grade it themselves and report on how many they got “correct.”  The same reward applied.  This group reported getting an average of 6.1 problems right, almost double the score of group 1.   It was very evident that some were lying to earn more money, since there was no penalty for cheating.  A third group took the same test, and got to grade it themselves, but had to sign an honor code before they started.  The average score was back down to 3.1, suggesting that signing the code had influenced them not to cheat.

When we leave God out of the picture, this is the kind of guidance we are left with.  Interesting, but not transformative.   Approaches like this fall far, far short of the power and hope we have from the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit.   On one hand, it is wonderful that people are concerned about moral character.  I am encouraged that ethics are taken seriously within many parts of the business community.  On the other hand, the secular approach is a diversion from the power and hope of transformed lives through God’s plan of salvation.  While I would not expect banks and software companies to include the Gospel as part of their ethics training any time soon, at least some companies recognize the importance of the character of their employees.  A construction company I am familiar with puts the bumper sticker “Character Matters” on its pickup trucks – a pretty good reminder for their employees to be honest and gracious in their dealings with others.

Our propensity to sin has been well-documented since Adam and Eve.  The Ten Commandments were given in recognition of the reality of how sinful man is.  The Apostle Paul, himself, was completely aware of the pull of the flesh and the temptations he had toward sin, even after his salvation:

“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.  For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.  But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.  I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.” (Romans 7:18-21)

We can all relate to this. Like Paul, we are painfully aware of our weaknesses (or at least we should be). The Bible reminds us that we all came into this world as sinners.  As evidence, all we have to do is look at small children. They are so cute! But one thing we don’t have to do is train them in how to sin. They figure that out on their own quite well, thank you. And they can be so creative in the ways they try to hide it, or excuse it, or flaunt it.  Our propensity, from the very beginning of life, is to sin.

It is also interesting to see how Paul described himself as his life progressed.  In I Corinthians 15:9, toward the beginning of his ministry, he described himself as “the least of the apostles.”  Further into his ministry, in Ephesians 3:8, he described himself as “the very least of all saints.”  And later in his life, in I Timothy 1:15, Paul described himself as “the foremost of all sinners.”

This is the same Paul that wrote in Romans 6:6-7 “knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.”  In other words, Paul knew that he was no longer compelled to sin, but he was now free to choose righteousness.  But the daily struggle with sin he described in Chapter 7 was still there.  It was not that Paul was sinning more; rather, he was increasingly aware of (i.e. became more sensitive to) his sin.  The more he matured, the more he recognized the depths of his sin.  This helped him to increasingly appreciate the grace and mercy of the Lord.  It was a sign of his spiritual maturity.

This should be a great encouragement to us.  While the secular world may have devised methods to try to “encourage our better angels,” God’s message is that we needed much more than that – a life transformation.  We do not have the ability to be consistently good on our own.  Romans 5:6 says “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”  The one who is drowning needs someone else to save him.  Acknowledging the need for salvation is humbling, but out of it comes a deep gratitude to the One who has saved him.  This is a much deeper and more enduring motivation toward righteousness than the secular approach of “encouraging our better angels.”  We would be deeply indebted to the person who kept us from drowning.  How much more are we indebted to the God who gave up His Son to save us?

This takes the focus off of ourselves about how clever or great we think we can be.  The Pharisees became very skilled at that.  Instead, we give the credit to the One who did the saving and who continues to help us, as we rely on Him.  This is why we have the Holy Spirit, who not only convicts us of sin (John 16:8), but comes along side us to help us through it: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My (Jesus’) name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26).

The believer’s personal and business ethics should be way beyond anything the Human Resources Department can teach.  Prone to sin though we may be, our character should be a living bumper sticker that says to our employer, our customers, and our acquaintances, “here is a man or a woman who can be trusted.”  May God help us to be this testimony of His grace to a needy world!

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Steve Smith