19 September 1999

St Stephen's, Lewisham

God's thoughts and ours

Isaiah 55: 6-9; Phil 1: 20-24, 27; Matt 20 1-16


My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your says it is the Lord who speaks. Yes, the heavens are as high above earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts

Isaiah 55

It's not unusual to hear people discussing the latest atrocities in East Timor or Northern Ireland and saying something like the following:

"You'd have thought that human beings would have learnt by now not to go round killing each other and driving their fellow-men out of their homes. Why can't people just live together peacefully?"

Now, behind this deeply heartfelt complaint, there lies an equally deeply-held misunderstanding.

It is this:

So far from it being the case that moral values and civilized behaviour are something which one generation passes naturally on to the next in the way in which it passes on genetic features like blue eyes or dark skins or red hair which are all things which a baby acquires the moment he or she is conceived, every single moral principle, every shred of goodness that we possess has to be learnt the hard way one at a time, little by little, with many a stumble in between. It's rather like a baby learning to walk in other words.

A baby is a creature as near value-free as it is possible to be. What kind of person any baby turns into will depend entirely on how much or how little it learns, and what values it acquires, during the first twenty or so years of life.

And of course what those values are, and how many or how few of them any particular baby, infant, child or adolescent manages to acquire will depend upon two things, both largely outside the baby's control: firstly, what the values are that his parents, brothers, sisters and teachers try to instil into him; and secondly, what values he can see them actually trying to practise themselves in their everyday lives.

Let's take a simple example. If a child isn't taught from a very early age that being truthful really does matter, there's no way that he'll work that out for himself in later life that "Honesty is the best policy" if only because, superficially anyway, it obviously isn't.

But even if a child has been taught that "Honesty is the Best Policy", that child won't go on believing that for very long if he discovers that, his mother or his father or sister or brother is an habitual liar. The most likely lesson they'll derive from that is that lying pays off "so long as you can get away with it".

There are three truths about permanent values (as I will call them) which once we have grasped them, and even if we are only partially successful in practising them and passing them on to our children will inevitably turn people like us into quite different people from what we would have otherwise become, and different also from those people who have never grasped them. And these three truths are as follows:


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