Ethics – How can I know right and wrong in a world of maybe?
Ecclesiastes 6,12; 7,16-18; 12,13
I moved to Frankfurt about a year ago. And one of the things I wanted to take out of my old room in Gießen where I studied was my IKEA bookshelf. So I took it apart, loaded it with everything else in the truck I rented for that day and when we got to my new apartment, Lily and I had to set it back up. Like the proud guy that I am, I told Lily that I didn’t need to look up the manual. I mean I took it apart how hard can it be to put it back together. So we started to build up the bottom the sides and just when I thought we were ready to put the top on, the whole thing came crashing down. Some pieces got damaged and I don’t quite remember what I shouted but I was tired and furious. After a few minutes Lily said, well shall we look up the manual from IKEA to see how we should do it? Words no man likes to hear. But what choice did I have, and with the help of the manual we got the shelf up just fine.
And when we turn tonight to ethics. To another one of life’s big questions. Solomon tells us we have same choice that I had with that IKEA shelf. We can either try to figure out what is right and wrong ourselves. Find our own answers on which values to work by. Which way to treat our partner, our family right? How to spend my money the right way? Make up a how to live guide by what we learn and experience. Or we read the manual that the creator already wrote. Read the Bible, God’s word where Solomon believes we can find the only true basis to live our lives well.
Before we go into the text to see why Solomon thinks this to be true, I would like to pray. Ask God for his blessing. And if it is possible for you, I would ask you to stand with me for that.
Read with me chapter 6, verse 12:
12 For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?
1. Writing our own manual (6,12)
Solomon starts us off pretty pessimistic and says: since all of us are limited in our experiences, in our knowledge about this life and what comes after us. None of us can know ourselves for sure what is ultimately a right or wrong way to live.
And I think there is hardly any verse in the Bible, that no matter if you believe in God or not, we could all agree with more. I read an article in the Zeit, a big German magazine, the other day. It talked about neuroscientist wanting to find the answer to ethics in the brain of people. After a long description of their findings the article ended with a sentence, that I think sums up perfectly what we think of values today: Man is born to morality – but not to a particular one.
Because we have learned from our past. We have seen especially in Germany what can happen, when the one person proclaims to know what’s best for everyone. What disasters can happen when people just follow those leaders blindly.
And we have also seen that combining the limited knowledge of people to make a whole truth won’t work either. Brought smart people together and allowed them to pass laws for the good of everyone. And as good as some of these laws are, we again didn’t get at the whole truth. Because what seems right to everyone today sometimes turned out to be wrong tomorrow. Values in our time, the laws we come up with might be changed a generation later already. Smoking, which used to be socially accepted and a hip thing to do is looked down upon today and banned from most places. Only 70 years ago homosexual relationships were punished in Great Britain because the government thought them to be harmful to society. Today the same institution protects the rights of homosexual couples. Even by combining our limited views we didn’t find the truth of how to live well.
So we learned to wholeheartedly agree with Solomon when he says: Who can know what is good for a person in life?
And going forward we took the only route left. Knowingly or not we accepted our fate and dropped the thought of finding ultimate truth in ethics altogether. We became generation maybe where nothing is for sure. And with this change, truth about right and wrong, our moral values, now became more like a placebo. Everyone takes what they think is true and as long as they believe in it, it will work for them. Where others once looked for what is true for everyone, we now now ask: What is right in my eyes? What did I see work out well for me and others in my life? Authenticity and tolerance replaced our search for ultimate truth. As long as you try to be the best version of yourself and tolerate others and their way of life. Their sexual preferences, their choice of work, their choice of religion. Then to most people in our society you will be a good, a moral person. Just be aware of your limits and don’t tell others that they have to live the same way.
And this solution would work fine. If there wasn’t this one issue. Because although we want everyone to be authentic and follow their values and lifestyles, we also notice that we can’t accept everything people come up with. That there is a limit to what we can tolerate.
When innocent people get attacked during a war in the middle east. When we see minorities being persecuted because of their religious or political views, or women not treated equally, we feel that something is wrong, something is broken in our world. That we can’t just tolerate this but need to step in and do something about it. So campaigns like the civil rights movements or #metoo arise and gain massive support. Because we instinctively know that hurting people or taking advantage them is not how we should live. Have this hunch that there is something broken that needs fixing.
But here is where our model today runs into problems. Because if we believe that right and wrong really is subjective. If we believe that there is no ultimate truth, then we have no basis to judge anyone either. If our guess is as good as anyone’s, who are we to say that stealing from others is wrong. It might have seemed totally right to the robber, because he needs the money to support his family. How can we tell someone else it’s unethical to treat women different than men, when other cultures have come up with different systems of living together? When we give up any claim to absolute truth about right and wrong, then by that logic we would have to let everyone do what they see fit, without judging them. But our conscience won’t let us do that either.
So we struggle to bring these two realities together: On the one hand we can’t seem to find ultimate truth about right and wrong ourselves but on the other hand feel that something like that must exist. That we have this common conscience that peace is better than war. That people should be treated equally. Know deep down that right and wrong can’t be all relative.
And here Solomon wants to show us a way to deal with both these experiences. Because just like my IKEA-shelf, Solomon says that our lives came with a manual. A manual whose author is not limited by time and space and that can therefore give us the only basis to know wrong from right in our lives.
That’s why Solomon goes on to write in chapter 12, verse 13:
2. Reading God’s manual (12,13)
13 Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.
Solomon says: It’s totally normal that you can’t find more than this hunch at right and wrong in yourself. Because the truth is not here under the sun. Yes, we might find traces of it here and there. But if you and I want to know how to live our lives the right way. How to treat others, our money, our work well without causing it to break like the IKEA-shelf. You and I need to go to God. To the one that as our creator is the only one who can truly know how our lives were meant to look like. That gave us his manual long ago in the form of his word. The Bible and the commandments we find in it.
One objection I hear a lot at this point is: Isn’t what the Bible says pretty outdated? Something that maybe worked back then? But you can’t really think that God’s commandments from 2000 to 3000 years ago can still be relevant today.
I had this situation a few months ago. Until recently I only lived a block away from Lily. And as soon as my landlady heard that she asked me, why Lily and I weren’t living together. I explained to her that we wanted to wait with that and the physical of our relationship until marriage. She could not believe it. I mean it would be cheaper, more convenient. Why would anyone chose to live that way. So from that point on she checked regularly if I would come home when I was at Lily’s for dinner. I never knew that. I only heard about it from a common friend a year later. But she just couldn’t believe that someone could really live in a way that seems so outdated.
In Luke 21,33 Jesus says to this: Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
God promises: What you find in my word will be true, no matter how far and fast science and technology advance. No matter how much the ideals in our society change. What kind of political system we live in. My commandments will still be the best foundation to live for all of these areas. The application might vary, and we will get to that later. But the commandments we find in the Bible are God’s way of showing us how we can experience the beauty that God put in all the different areas of our lives. Can enjoy them without the hurt or disappointment we often have to face, when we try to live by our own rules. Because if God knows and loves us more than even we could. And unlike us, he is not bound by time and space. Who better to trust with our ethics, then this all loving and all-knowing God? The one who created you and me in the first place.
But maybe you sit here tonight and say: Well this all sounds great in theory. But it’s just not that simple in practice. You have tried to live according to these commandments. Not lying, not being envious of others, to love even my enemies. But you noticed it’s too hard. No matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t keep God’s commandments. All they did for you was make you feel like small, like a failure. And you struggle or stopped altogether because you think this can’t be the right way for me to live either. If God really loves and knows me, he would have made a way that I can actually follow. Not a way that crushes me under its expectations.
And if this stands in the way of you and God. In the way of following his commandments. The good news tonight for you and me is that we only looked at half of what Solomon says in verse 13. That we read God’s manual backwards ignoring the most important part. Because God’s law doesn’t start with what we have to do. It doesn’t start with ethics. With how we have to live. But it starts with who we should live with.
That’s why in verse 13 Solomon tells us first to fear God. This fear describes the state of awe that we have, when we meet God in all his glory and power. So what Solomon calls us to do is to come to God, live with him. And only then and out of this relationship keep God’s commandments. This is the only way we can keep the law without it crushing us. And here is why:
On it is true. We can’t keep God’s commandments ourselves. Nobody can. And usually that would have disqualified us from living with God. Would indeed only leave us with the law showing us that we are more flawed that we ever thought possible.
But the reason why we meet here, why we celebrate God and see his commandments as the best advice for our lives is because we are also more loved by God than we could have ever imagined. God made that clear once and for all when he sent his only son Jesus Christ to live the perfect life that we could never live. And when Jesus died on the cross, he took all of our mistakes, all of our shame, all of our shortcomings on himself. Died to offer you and me forgiveness for all the times we couldn’t keep God’s commandments. Just so that we can again enter into a relationship with our creator. He was crushed, so that the load of God’s law wouldn’t have to crush us anymore.
And although we will keep messing up. This doesn’t need to make us feel like a failure anymore. When we keep God’s commandments out of a relationship with him, we can come to him with our fears, with our doubts, with our shortcomings. Knowing that he wants to forgive us and help us to find the right way again.
When we live with God, we can see his commandments as His loving advice on how to live our life the best way again. See how he wants to save from the hurt our shortsighted plans could cause us.
And if you want to receive God’s gift for the first time tonight. Start following him and experience how good his commandments are for you. Then I would encourage you to come to me or any other person you know already lives with God after the service. We would love to answer any questions you might still have and show you how to start you life with this wonderful God.
But maybe you are already living with God. Accepted his idea of right and wrong together with his forgiveness. But then you go into you workplace or spend time with your friends and ask yourself: How am I supposed to follow God and His commandments in a world that still follows the maybe? How can I live out the truth that I have found, when my boss asks me to withhold or lie to my client to close a deal? If my partner wants to have a physical relationship before marriage? What should I do when everyone around me doesn’t believe in the same truth or that there even is something like that?
3. Applying God’s manual (7,16-18)
To this Solomon says:
16 Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise— why destroy yourself? 17 Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool— why die before your time? 18 It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.
We don’t have long for this point, but it is important to me that we at least touch on this subject. Because when we found this ultimate ethics, God’s will in our lives. There are two pitfalls that we can fall into as Christians.
One is what Solomon describes as being overrighteous or overwise. We can start being a Christian know-it-all. Think of us as having the moral high ground and look down on others who don’t. But that would be misunderstanding God’s laws as well. Because although we now have God’s commandments, access to what’s right and wrong. That doesn’t mean we automatically know how to apply it to every situation that we face in this broken world. It’s like being a law student. You have God’s laws but learning to apply them is a process.
And this is where Solomon warns us: Stay humble. With God’s word the world doesn’t automatically become black and white for us. Don’t think as soon as you become a Christian you have it all figured out now. You and I are still limited in our understanding and every day anew it needs us to study God’s will and ask him on how we can apply it to our lives.
But we can also fall into the trap that Solomon describes in verse 17. Do not be overwicked or a fool. Give in to the pressure from the people around you and think that all is relative again. We probably all know the movie Spiderman. And in the beginning the uncle of Peter, the main character, tells him: With great power comes great responsibility. And this is pretty fitting to what Solomon is saying. Since we now have the answer to what is right and wrong. Know that God gave everything to forgive the times we can’t live up to these standards, we cannot treat these gifts lightly. Waste God’s love and grace. Even if people around us might criticize us for it.
Maybe this means for you not doing shady deals but being open with the costumer although it might cost you or your business money. Not evading the taxes by hiring an illicit worker, although everyone around you does it. Being faithful to your partner even in your thoughts although others think it doesn’t matter.
Solomon concludes: 18 It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.
So when you drink your coffee or drive to work tomorrow morning, take a few minutes to ask God about how you can honor his will that day. At your workplace, in your relationships, how generous you are with your money. God wants to be with you and guide you through it.
And although God’s will might confuse others around you. Or sometimes even scares you because God’s will might seem like it will end up hurting you more than it will help. You can ask God for trust in his manual and experience how he will not let our shelf fall apart, but to lead you to a good end. How he can use you as a beautiful witness to others as well when they see how God takes care of you.