A conservative radio talk show out of Atlanta caught my ear one day as a discussion developed about the moral and ethical standards of youth today. Callers, young and old, gave their wisdom or the lack thereof. At one particular time, the subject matter had narrowed down to how young adults and teenagers evaluate what makes a person good or bad.
The next caller was Natalie, a 17-year-old girl who lives in an upper-middle-class neighborhood and achieves a B+ average in school. As her comments continued, it became clear that Natalie judged her own life by what others around her were doing and saying. Her moral and ethical standards did not come from the Bible or from standards taught to her by her parents. Her standards were based solely upon what was acceptable to her peers—those "wise" counselors who encourage individualism but all dress, act, and speak the same.
As Natalie vainly described her lifestyle, it was amazing to realize her total removal from reality and moral responsibility. She said she did not sleep around—she only has sex with her boyfriend (whoever that is that particular week). She does not drink alcohol—except at parties (which she attends several times a week). She defensively sighed, "I'm not bad, not like the others."
She claims she only smokes pot about two times during the school week and occasionally before school in the morning—but not as much as most kids. When she goes to school stoned, the teachers know it, but no one mentions it. According to Natalie, most kids in her high school smoke pot mixed with LSD "because they go together so well." She has tried it, but does not smoke it regularly (only a few times a month). Natalie admits, "Pot definitely affects my memory, definitely. There's a lot I can't remember. But everybody does it! I don't do it like the others. Not as often."
Natalie justified herself by saying, "I'm not bad, not like the others. I think I'm a pretty good person, I haven't killed anybody. I know it's wrong to do drugs, but it's the only thing I do wrong. I'm a pretty good person. I haven't killed anybody yet!"
The announcer was stunned, "Are you telling me, because you haven't killed anyone—yet—that makes you a good person?"
In a matter-of-fact way Natalie replied, "Well, yes!"
What a sad indictment of the society in which we live that children have descended to the level of moral bankruptcy. Natalie is a typical product of this society. She is the fruit of a nation that has rejected the way of the righteous God. As the children of Israel did throughout most of their history, Natalie does whatever seems right in her own eyes (Judges 17:6; 21:25).
A Variable Standard
Wise Solomon writes in Proverbs 14:12, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death." We can see the truth of his statement in our society, which engages in situation ethics rather than morality. Our news—local, state and national—is full of examples. When asked why she still supported President Clinton after his immorality hit television, radio and newsstands, a middle-aged woman replied, "Because he stands for social and political diversification." She was willing to "forgive" his dalliance in the Oval Office with an intern half his age because he supported a political agenda she also espoused!
Diversification means "engaging in assorted operations or producing variety." Synonyms are "variation," "multiplicity" and "mixture." As a basis for ethics, diversification implies variation from a fixed standard. Clinton's own actions—now regarded as acceptable by much of the public—illustrate that his ethical "standard" varies with his mood, desires and aims. His ethic can plainly be stated as "the end justifies the means."
Moreover, many of the politicians who criticized him for his infidelity, impropriety and deceit are guilty of the same sins. President Clinton's sins became public knowledge when the media reported every graphic detail. Many of those who reported these things hide similar skeletons in their closets, but until their indiscretions see the light of day, they will continue to make a public mockery of him.
The apostle Paul comments in Romans 2:1 on the hypocrisy that often occurs when judging others: "Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things." This is a clear explanation of Jesus' illustration of a man with a plank in his eye critically pointing out the speck in someone else's (Matthew 7:3-5)!
In the original Greek, "inexcusable" in Romans 2:1 is literally "defenseless." In the spiritual court of law, there is no defense for the actions of a person who commits the same sin of which he accuses another. An interesting aspect of this appears when we understand a more thorough meaning of the word "practice" (prassoo) that occurs later in the verse. It means to perform repeatedly or habitually, to do exactly. We can infer from this that Paul means these accusers have not only committed the particular sin before but are also continuing to commit it!
We cannot properly assess what a righteous standard is if we use others or ourselves—fallible human beings—as the standard. True judgment is according to the truth of God. Paul makes this very point in the next verse: "But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things" (Romans 2:2).
God's righteous judgment is based on truth. This means that His decisions are reached based on reality, on the facts of the case, not on appearances or intentions. It also means He judges without partiality to rank, wealth, station, or position. Finally, it means that He judges against an authoritative and unchanging standard: His own character as revealed in His Word.
Judging our lives according to how others live is a sure way to neglect and ignore serious problems in our own lives. Continuing in verse 3, Paul writes, "And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?" God pronounces judgment on those who make a practice of indulging in sin. The apostle makes it quite certain that all sin will be judged. No one will "get away with it."
Some, indulging in self-praise, write their own testimonials to promote themselves because they are full of impatient pride, unable to wait for the acknowledgment and praise of others for their accomplishments. In their own foolishness, these people try to establish their own conduct as the norm and then find great satisfaction in always measuring up to the standard that they have set.
Paul describes intruders in the church the same way in II Corinthians 10:12: "For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise." Apparently, the Corinthians to whom Paul was writing commonly compared themselves with each other. They not only made false ministers the standard to follow, but they also made themselves and their peers standards of righteousness.
Many of the Corinthians were graphic examples of pride and complacency. Occasionally, we also suffer the pride that causes us to compare ourselves among ourselves because it is so deeply ingrained in our human nature to evaluate ourselves by human standards.
A professing Christian who, in his own eyes, sets himself up as the standard of righteousness, will compare himself to others who appear to him to be less spiritual than himself. His views are the standard of righteousness, and his ways of worship are the models of proper devotion. His habits and customs are—in his own estimation—perfect. He looks on himself as the true measure of spirituality, humility and zeal, and he condemns others for failing to rise to his level. He judges everything by his own benchmark: himself.
Each of us lives under a unique set of circumstances. We are working on different problems, growing at various rates on diverse character traits. We experience dissimilar trials and have been influenced by our environment in distinctive ways. A true and accurate comparison is impossible by another human being. It misses the mark of perfection according to the truth of God. Only God can truly judge a person, for only He can judge the heart and observe the entire picture.
We know that it is our responsibility to examine ourselves intensely before Passover, and the Days of Unleavened Bread teach that we must rid our lives of the leaven of sin. However, comparing ourselves among ourselves does not accomplish the goal God has in mind for us, that is, the total renewing of our minds. Individual comparisons deter us from overcoming our problems because it causes us to aim too low and in the wrong direction. It deceitfully provides us with self-justification for the way we are. The result is no change and no growth. This is judgment according to our own standards and the standards of the created rather than the Creator.
In athletics, it is commonly understood that, if a person competes only with athletes of equal or lesser ability and skill, he cannot improve his ability and skill above theirs because he will not strive to improve. This is the principle of Proverbs 27:17: "iron sharpens iron." Whether it is an individual sport like tennis or a team sport like volleyball or basketball, skills are sharpened by pushing oneself to exceed the skill of the other person or team. This principle works just as effectively in spiritual matters. Only if we set our sights higher than mere humanity (Colossians 3:1-2) will we ever attain godly character.
Even Secret Sins
We often cannot see our own sins and lack of righteous character unless God reveals them to us. King David records in Psalm 19:12-13 how he wrestled with the problem of his own concealed faults: "Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; blameless, and I shall be innocent of great transgression."
Secret faults are sins that we commit that we do not see or recognize as sins. We commit them not knowing we have committed sin. Nevertheless, we are still held accountable for our actions, and we will eventually pay the penalty. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Presumptuous sins are willful sins, ones we do knowing that they are sin before we commit them. Such willful sins, depending on one's attitude, can be spiritually very dangerous.
The godly man is not only concerned about avoiding committing sins willfully, but also with extracting those hidden sins that are committed unknowingly. Because we so often allow our carnal natures to dominate us, we remain blind to many of our sins and character flaws until God reveals them to us through the Holy Spirit. Paul writes in Romans 8:5-9:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. . . .
God delivers us from the power of the flesh by the indwelling of His Holy Spirit. One of our chief tasks as Christians is to "live according to the Spirit" more consistently and fully, making no room for the destructive efforts of our natural, carnal nature.
Paul adds in I Corinthians 2:11: "For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God." Notice the contrast in verse 14, "But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." The "natural man"—as opposed to the spiritual man—is one who is governed and influenced by natural instincts and drives. His senses and lusts motivate his behavior and choices in opposition to godly reason, conscience and obedience to God's law.
Natalie, the girl from the radio talk show, has no clue as to the magnitude of the decadence of her life. God has not revealed her sin to her. She continues to compare herself with others, never improving but sadly degenerating into the darkness of sin that leads to death. In this life, without the truth of God and the revelation of what life should be like, she has no hope of living a truly abundant life.
As we ask God to keep us from committing presumptuous sins and to reveal our hidden sins to us with the help of the Holy Spirit, we have to evaluate ourselves according to God's standard of truth, not how we fare with others—as Paul so memorably says, not comparing ourselves among ourselves. Because comparing ourselves to others is rooted in pride, it takes diligent prayer and a humble attitude to acknowledge that we sin and to desire to search out and overcome our sins, whether known or hidden.
In Psalm 139:23-24, David writes, "Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." Until we come to have a similar attitude to David's, our self-evaluation will be flawed, but once we compare ourselves to a pure and righteous standard, overcoming and growth can begin in earnest!