Why Moralism Doesn’t Work

People like to be right and like to get it right. I’m that way and I’m guessing I am not alone. I remember back in high school and college the standard question was asked, “Will this be on the test?” I certainly asked the question as well as others. Truth be told, we were more focused on “getting it right” than on learning.

I went back to school a few years ago in pursuit of a doctorate in education. It was one of the best learning experiences of my life. I honestly think I was beginning to toggle over from “getting it right” to purely wanting to learn. My (much) younger cohort were always referring to the course rubrics when writing papers. I found myself writing first, based on the assignment prompts, and periodically consulting the rubrics to see if I had some glaring misses. When I was satisfied with what I was learning, grades become secondary.

The more I dig into the adverse effects of moralism, the more I realize that we naturally tend to focus on the rubrics and miss the intent of the prompts, especially Jesus’ prompts.

Moralism doesn’t work for a variety of reason, primary of which is a natural tenancy toward law and legalism. If we have a bent toward wanting to “get it right,” then we naturally want to know what the rules are, the rubric which defines right living. God provided a rubric for his people, the Israelites, which we know as the Law. However, the law was not to be an end in itself. The purpose of the law was to provide a framework for people who were learning to live in a covenant relationship with the one true God. When the law, especially the 10 commandments, were given to the people, living in a covenant relationship with any god was foreign to their ears and lives. Prior to leaving Egypt, their religious understanding was of many deities, none of which desired a covenant relationship with their subjects.

The law was a framework, a rubric, for learning – learning how to live in a covenant relationship with God and with each other. God didn’t desire the law to become an end in itself. It was to lead to something more. In learning to live in a covenant relationship with God and each other, the rescued Israelites could then become the good news (blessing) to the rest of the world, as intended. Love of God and neighbor was embedded in the law (see Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18). The law, seen as an end in itself, actually kills love.

Good parents develop a rubric for how their family can live in a covenant relationship. “We clean up our messes, we do our chores diligently, we treat each other with respect, etc.” If the family members simply see the rubric as an end in itself, then it becomes a checklist that leads nowhere, however they might have the cleanest house and the most (seemingly) polite kids. Yet the house may lack evidence of a loving, covenant relationship. Love is learned and simply keeping the law doesn’t get us there.

Can you see where this leads? The purpose of a rubric is to facilitate learning. I can write a paper to the letter of the rubric (law), get an “A” and miss out on all there is to learn. If moralism is my de facto understanding of the Christian faith, I can look good on the outside and miss all that Jesus is saying about living in a covenant relationship with the one true God and with those around me. And worse, I will only hear Jesus’ prompts and parables as law – checklists that I should try to perform – and never quite learn and become someone who can naturally….

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus

Hesed and Emet

Circa summer 1984. I participated in the most influential course of my life to date – Old Testament Survey. It was my first graduate-level course as I began the long journey toward a masters degree. The course was offered by Fuller Seminary, in partnership with Young Life’s Institute in Youth Ministry. IYM attendees, professors, and their respective families all lived in community at Hope College in Holland, MI, with classes held at Western Theological Seminary. We attended classes in the morning, all had lunch together, then hit the library to study for about 8 hours.

The course was taught by Dr. Terry McGonigal. He started our journey together by reminding us that everything we would discuss in the Old Testament pointed to Jesus. Theoretically I knew the truth of this statement, but never had anyone who could explain it to me.

Dr. McGonigal, another professor, and I went for long runs every evening around 9:00 pm. Terry could run the 6+ miles at a sub-7:00 minute/mile pace, a little faster than my norm. The solution? I would ask Terry questions that surfaced from class or my readings to which he was more than willing to expound, slowing him down and providing me with amazing tutorials. I learned more from that course than a typical three credit class. During the coursework, I was introduced to a couple Hebrew words that have impacted my reading and life the past 35 years – hesed and emet. Let’s look at hesed

The Hebrew word hesed (sometimes transliterated as chesed) is translated into English as either steadfast love, lovingkindness, mercy, love, or unfailing love, depending on the translation of the Bible. Looking at Psalm 85:10, we see the treatment of hesed by various translations:

  • Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. (NIV)
  • Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other. (ESV)
  • Lovingkindness and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other. (NASB)
  • Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed. (NKJV)

Hesed is such a rich and robust term that no single English word (or two words, in the case of “steadfast love”) captures its essence. Hesed is not just mercy, but covenant loyalty and relational fidelity. It is freely given, often unexpectedly, without requiring anything in return. Even though hesed stems from covenant (contract) loyalty, there is a sense that the loyalty surpasses the letter of the law. In Hosea, God said that he desires mercy (hesed), not sacrifice (law), which Jesus reiterated (Matthew 9:13). Jesus further reinforced this thought when addressing the Roman law forcing locals to carry soldiers’ packs for a mile; Jesus suggested going an extra mile (Matthew 5:41).

Hesed, you can see, describes the rich and robust depth of God’s character.

Though hesed is usually directional in its Old Testament usage – from God to his people – there is a sense that it was to be practiced ethically in the the way people treated each other, be it relatives, friends, or foreigners. Boaz recognized hesed (kindness) in Ruth’s character (Ruth 3:10). One also thinks of God’s desire that his people not seek vengeance, but show love toward their neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) which Jesus reinforced, as part of “Great Commandments” (Mark 12:30-31). The author of Mark used the term agape (love), the Greek equivalent of hesed. Again, think “go the extra mile.”

Hesed is used 248 times in the Old Testament, 50% of its usage is in the Psalms, so it isn’t difficult to spot. As you read, be looking for it. Pay attention to the context in which it is used. I find myself translating the English back to Hebrew, knowing the richness and robustness of the word. I recently read Psalm 85 (above) and wrote in my journal, “Hesed and emet meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” As in Psalm 85, hesed and emet are often found together, increasing the richness and robustness of the description of God’s character. May you experience the hesed of God as you spend time with Him in Scripture.

Next time, we’ll look at emet.