There are lots of decisions people have to make every day that have to do with morality. Should I lie to spare her feelings? Do I really have to report every bit of income on my tax form? Does it really matter if I use that kind of language? Is it necessary to endure a loveless marriage? Must I forgive even that? Should I say something that goes against the grain? Is this thing I want to do really just giving up on the last thing?
I think it’s helpful to realize that there are different ways people make up their minds about such things. One person looks for a specific rule about it because she thinks it’s all about following rules. Another person thinks God has freed us from the rules and feels free to follow her heart, to be true to herself. She thinks the first person is a legalist, and the first person thinks the second is an anything-goes relativist.
N. T. Wright’s book, After You Believe, charts a third course. Maybe it isn’t all about the rules, he says. After all, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day tried to follow the rules, but Jesus rebuked them for having their hearts in the wrong place (Matthew 23). On the other hand, maybe it isn’t simply a matter of following your heart. Jesus said, “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19 NIV).
The third way Wright sets forth is not new, just lost in the shuffle. It’s character-development. He explains, “Character–the transforming, shaping, and marking of a life and its habits–will generate the sort of behavior that rules might have pointed toward but which a ‘rule-keeping’ mentality can never achieve. The rules (commandments) of Scripture come from God, but even Old Testament prophets said they needed to be written on the heart of people renewed by the Holy Spirit (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:25-27; see 2 Corinthians 3:18) And it will produce the sort of life which will in fact be true to itself–though the ‘self’ to which it will at last be true is the redeemed self, the transformed self, not the merely ‘discovered’ self of popular thought” (N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. NY: HarperOne, 2010, 7).
God made humans to rule the earth under Him, to represent Him and bring His creation to a state of completion. He planted the Garden of Eden and put humans there to work it and take care of it. He said ‘fill the earth and bring it into order’ (Genesis 1:28, Wright’s translation in After You Believe, 73). Reflect God’s glory into the earth and the creation’s worship back to its wise Creator.
The gospel describes the method by which God is getting this creation plan back on track after humanity foolishly rebelled against Him. That rebellion has resulted in widespread destruction on this planet. He is reclaiming His creation for Himself and all those who will willingly become His daughters and sons, His vice-regents. He will renew His creation and us when He raises our dead bodies immortal (Romans 8:18-24).
Between now and then we should be training up for that reign by the power of the Holy Spirit, who lives within us. To take care of creation and its creatures, we will need virtues like wisdom, courage, selfless love, moderation, industriousness, self-control, kindness, and patience with people (see, e.g., Galatians 5:22-23, 2 Peter 1:3-11). And all of these virtues will help you flourish, bringing more joy and effectiveness.
Acquiring such virtues isn’t quick or easy. Rome wasn’t built in a day. An action repeated often enough forms a habit. Habits form character, and character shapes destiny.