Have you ever wondered why certain things offend God? I’ve been wondering about this a lot lately. Why do some particular things appear to bother Him and others don’t?
According to apologists, we should know the things that offend God even if we don’t have “The List”. They argue the case for an imbedded code, a moral law that is hardwired in our psyches. The apostle Paul makes the argument himself in the opening chapter of his Roman letter. For instance, we know that taking things from other people is wrong; it’s built in; we simply know it. If there’s a common thread in the ethics of the world’s great religions, it’s the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, treat people the way you would like to be treated in life. Even as I write that I’m reminded that the Church, myself included, has failed miserably in this simple chief moral imperative. Think respect.
But is that how God did it? Did He choose the things that offend Him because they hurt other people? If that’s the case, then the primal moral code of our brave new world is true: “It doesn’t matter what you do in the privacy of your own home as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” But that’s oddly devoid of the supernatural. What if things we do in our privacy—that seemingly don’t hurt others—hurt God somehow?
The question is: Why? Why would it bother God?
Let me start with an extreme example. Stop here if you’re easily offended. But extremes force us to stretch out thought-boundaries.
Suppose there was a man who enjoyed having sex with a sheep. He lives in the country; the nearest house is a quarter mile down the road. He takes good care of the sheep; feeds it well, grazes it, grooms it. The sheep is well-loved. Periodically, he brings the sheep inside and has sex with it. The sheep doesn’t seem to mind. And the man seems truly happy and never abuses his sheep.
No one knows about his fetish. He lives alone. He’s well-liked, has a disarming sense of humor and volunteers with food drives and charities. He’s a good neighbor.
So what’s the problem?
Though bestiality is condemned by the world’s religions and shunned in society, why? As long as it’s done privately and doesn’t hurt anyone else, why should it matter?
We could say it goes against nature, but again, why? If it’s damaging to the species (though cross-species copulation seems to have a built-in failure mechanism in terms of replication), what if the man practiced safe sex and wore protection? Of course, you could say that if everyone did that, the human species would die out. But is God simply the guardian of species, insuring that we propagate and populate the planet? And even if twenty percent of the population had their personal sheep gigolo, would that be enough to offset the balance of births and deaths? I’ll let the statisticians figure that out.
If God’s rationale for morality is simply evolutionary in scale, if He’s only the guardian of the species, then ethics have only a rational, Darwinian purpose. But what happens when technology yanks the rug out from under that? If children can be produced in a test-tube, then our sheep-loving man could have human children in a variety of ways without ever having contact with another human. Who needs a morality beyond “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else”?
If we say, “That’s just not how God designed the human machine to work”, and we don’t want to think this is all purely naturalistic, then we’re implying there are psychological and social elements to consider as well. But suppose the man was given a barrage of psychological tests and was found to be fairly content and functional, at least no more or less than the rest of his neighbors who wrestle with family dysfunctions, social interaction, personal value and worth and everything else use to measure emotional health.
So why would the man and his sheep offend God’s sensibilities?
Take a more common example: pornography. As long as it’s private, doesn’t affect others, and practiced in moderation, what’s the problem? No problem…until we bring God into the picture and we’re forced back to this question: why would a person viewing pornography offend God?
Or go even less extreme: your very own private thought life. What if you never purchased pornography, never entertained the websites, and never mentioned it to your family…but had an active fantasy life? What’s the problem with that? Apparently it’s a problem for God; Jesus said frankly you’re in trouble if you even look at a woman lustfully. Just reminding ourselves that God knows our thoughts is sobering.
But why do those things offend God?
What if our scales are all wrong…and the current standard of “happiness” is not the plumb line for God’s morality? Face it: none of us want to deny anyone else their happiness as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Right? I mean, isn’t the “pursuit of happiness” built into social fabric? Yes, but how do we define “personal happiness”? Maybe Joseph Goebbels had more happy days than unhappy ones. Ah, then we’re back to “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else” and Joe really dropped the ball on that one. But come on: is “not hurting others” the best definition we can come up with for ethics, let alone happiness?
Take any number of private issues that seemingly don’t hurt others.
What if there is more to the spiritual side of morality that goes beyond the naturalistic or emotional components? And what does that mean? I know it sounds noble to simply say, “That’s what the Bible says so I believe it”, but that won’t work as a cultural apologetic. I think we really need to dig into what a “spiritual ethic” means…and go far deeper than “the Bible says so” or conversely, “whatever makes you happy”. I think it will take some theologian smarter than me to clarify this one.
I was talking about this the other day with my oldest daughter Rachel and her boyfriend Tyler. She suggested the idea that God is like an artist, say, a painter. No artist likes someone else to paint over their creative work in whatever style, colors or technique they want; that would be offensive to the creator-artist. Imagine a graffiti artist adding a personal touch to Seurat’s Grande Jatte…perhaps “Pointillism Sucks” spray-painted across the lawn. Maybe the Ultimate Cosmic Artist has created a picture that reflects His glory and imagination, each brush stroke intentional and well placed. Perhaps it’s even a work in progress, and when we add the colors and tones we prefer, we insult the mind, personality and creativity of the artist. Or at least smudge what He considers a masterpiece.
And maybe that’s why some Christian thinkers are calling “beauty” the New Apologetic.