St Stephen's Lewisham

Sunday, 15th July 2001


This is the second of four sermons intended for The Man in the Pew, and it will answer the question, Does it matter how I behave? – a question more often asked today than it was, say, fifty years ago:

Let's begin with something we discovered as a result of last Sunday's question: Does it matter what I believe? – something which has a bearing on this week's one in three different ways.

Remember what we learnt from the lemonade-bottle example? First, if you believe a bottle contains lemonade because that’s what the label says, when it actually contains weedkiller, it matters: whatever the label may say, it’s the real content of the bottle which is important.

Next, we saw that the critical point, the moment when a belief becomes a matter of life and death only comes when we actually puts our beliefs into practice. We may have seen that lemonade bottle standing on the shelf a thousand times over, and wrongly believe that the label on the bottle is telling the truth and suffer no harm from that mistaken belief. It's only when we act upon that mistaken belief that the full horror of believing in a falsehood becomes apparent.

Thirdly we recognized that, no matter how many other people share our false belief, it doesn't make the slightest difference to the contents of the bottle Whether it's one other person or a thousand and one who share our conviction that the bottle contains lemonade will make not the slightest difference to its actual contents or the consequence of drinking them.

It's the same with behaviour. It's the real nature of our beliefs and actions which matters, whether they're right or wrong, good or bad, harmful or benevolent and not how we choose to label or describe them. If, like most people today, we fail to examine our beliefs frequently and regularly, then it's only when we act upon our beliefs that we really discover whether they are right or wrong, and by then it may be too late to do anything about it. The fact that thousands, or millions of others believe the same as we do is no guarantee of being right:. thousands and millions of people may be, and have been, and will continue to be mistaken in their beliefs, particularly if they never give any thought to them from one year's end to the next.

Right behaviour, then, is related to right belief in a way that few people understand. If you and I are going to understand this relationship we should begin by examining why one hears people today asking the question "does it matter how I behave?" so much more often today than they used to.

Fifty years ago very few grown-up people would have asked whether good and bad behaviour mattered. We all knew, or thought we knew, that the answer was a resounding "Yes, of course". Schools and universities saw it as part of their job to help young people to differentiate between right and wrong. Teachers and parents saw it as their duty to "train up their children in the way they should go", not least by setting a good example to them, using the same moral principles which they themselves had learnt at home and school. It all just seemed so obvious that few people asked themselves the question Why does it matter? – or if they did ask, they got no more satisfactory reply than "Because I say so!"

That was why things went started to go morally pear-shaped. The principles were there to be taught and learnt, but because children weren't encouraged, or were positively discouraged, from working out why some things are right and others wrong, it meant that when they themselves became parents and teachers were faced with the question "Why?" they hadn't a clue what to say! The best answer they could do was to teach their pupils to avoid the question "Is it right or wrong?", and to ask themselves instead "will this be harmful?" and "does it feel right to me?". Then, if the answers to these questions were, "No, it won't do harm" and "Yes, it feels all right to me", they'd be told to "give it a try".

There are three serious drawbacks to this way of making moral choices. The first is obvious: how we feel about anything at one moment may change quite dramatically the next. Going back to our lemonade/weedkiller example feeling thirsty prompts us to drink from that bottle labelled "lemonade" – with disastrous results: in other words, we need something more reliable than our feelings if we are to make the right decisions.

The second drawback is a little more subtle, but even more important. People who believe that "not doing harm" is a working principle should be encouraged to ask themselves the question "do harm to whom?" To ourselves? To our family? To our friends? To Society as a whole? If they did so , they would quickly find that we simply cannot know how harmful this or that action is to these people. Moreover, experience suggests that the full extent of the damage done by wrongdoing only becomes apparent months, or even years after it has taken place. So as a practical test of right or wrong, asking how much harm something will do is all but useless.

But the third drawback is, in the end, the most fatal of all: you can go on juggling with phrases like "I would be well advised to… " or "it wouldn't be in my best interests to…" or "everybody's doing it now" and never be able to arrive at the conclusion "do this" or "stop doing that!" Why not? Because the first group are statements and the second are commands and it's wholly impossible to travel logically from the one to the other. How much simpler to say "well, I don't know what harm it will do, but it's wrong (or right)" and give an intelligent reason why this is so.

We can see this working out in practice when our children come back at us with answers like "it's my life and I can do what I like with it" or "you only say that because you're old-fashioned" or "it may be wrong for you but it feels all right to me"

Now if we really believed that our lives are our own to do what we like with for good or ill; or that morals and fashions are one and the same thing, or that Right and Wrong were invariably different for different people then their case would be unanswerable. Our only response would be "take care!" In fact, of course, no intelligent person really holds any of these three false beliefs. People like that are always found enthusiastically laying down the law about what other people should or shouldn't do, but at the same time kicking like mad if their own behaviour attracts unfavourable criticism.. "It's different for you," they wail, "I bet you never felt the way I do about it"

Perhaps we didn't. But we were well aware that God, in his purposes for the world, has given us certain rules to keep, and that, with very few exceptions, these rules apply everywhere, always and to everyone. Individuals, societies and nations ignore them at their peril. If you want a quick summary of them you have only to look up Exodus chapter 20 and you'll find them set out in black and white. They're known as the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments. In many churches one goes into these are painted on boards which hang behind the altar to remind people of their existence every time they come into church. Time was when every educated person knew them off by heart; nowadays it's quite rare to find anyone. Such widespread ignorance leads in the end to irreversible degeneration.

These aren't simply arbitrary rules pulled out of the blue, so to speak, by a God who wants to curtail our freedom. They're a Code of Practice or an Instruction manual to enable people to become the sort of creatures they were intended by their Creator to be. "For Best Results follow the Maker's Instructions" applies equally to us as it does to our mobile phones. Since at least half of these commandments refer to our relationship with him, it's hardly surprising if those who for practical purposes ignore his existence altogether find themselves living very different sort of lives from those who take them seriously.

Next Sunday we shall be answering the question How can we know what God is like? Which follows on rather conveniently from where I shall end this morning.

But you can be sure of one thing. There is bound to be a whole wide world's difference between the behaviour of someone who believes that "the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life" and someone else who says "it's my life to do as I want with it".

If we believe that we were created by an all-seeing God, and that his plan is to turn us into creatures like himself, we shall find ourselves behaving very differently from those who choose to believe that achievement in this life is the only thing that matters. Those who believe what we do will find themselves being "transformed into the image of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, from glory into glory as by the Spirit of the Lord", as St Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

By contrast, those who turn their back upon their Maker will find themselves becoming transformed into something quite different: something much less attractive to themselves, to their colleagues and to their Creator! Holding mistaken beliefs about the purpose for which God created us, especially when those beliefs are put into practice, is an even more deadly mistake than confusing weedkiller with lemonade!

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