“Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.” – Psalm 143:8 –
When it comes to making our way in life, few things are more important than our values, our faith, and our morals. These three influence our choices and determine the paths we take. So how do values, faith, and morals develop? First, let’s explore some terms. What are values? What exactly is faith? What do we mean by morals?
Several years ago, I spent a few weeks training Sunday School teachers in Kenya. On the first day of class, as I was greeting the teachers, one of them leaned in as he shook my hand and said, “We are a Christian nation. But, you see, there are Christians and there are Christians. You understand.” And I did. He was saying that many people called themselves Christians but did not live like followers of Christ. The fact is, even though Kenya is considered a Christian nation, it’s listed among the most corrupt nations in the world. So is a person a Christian or a Christian? It all boils down to what their values are.
Robert Coles, in The Moral Intelligence of Children, wrote, “It is one thing to lay claim to values, to espouse them, and quite another to try to live them out, enact them over time with others.” It’s not always easy to reconcile what we claim as our values with what we actually do and how we actually live. Claiming one set of values and living another is an age-old challenge that Jesus addressed. His harshest words were addressed to leaders who were not who they professed to be. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” he said. “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:28, 28, NIV). There was a mismatch between what they claimed as their values and what they actually valued.
We often talk about values as if they’re simply a worldview, a set of ideals that represent perfection. But values are more down-to-earth than that. Simply put, our true values are . . . what we value. And what we value drives our choices. Values are revealed by what we do and say each day.
Our values often show up most clearly when we are under pressure. During the Y2K scare before 1999 turned into 2000, many of us worried that all the computers were going to malfunction because of the date change. Would we be able to buy food? Get gasoline? Access medical help? Many people, my family included, prepared for the worst by stocking up on non- perishable food, water, and medicines we might need. I envisioned the crisis bringing neighbors together to share whatever they had with whoever needed it. But then I heard a man at church claim that he was fortifying his home. He said he had a gun and would defend his family’s stockpile of goods against anyone who might come for it. He was revealing his values.
Fortunately, the century changed without a hitch. Even now, I’m not sure any of us knows what we would have actually done if the crisis had materialized. But I suspect our true values would have been on full display.
Recently, as I watched news reports of people being evacuated from rapidly-spreading wildfires in California, I wondered: What if I had to escape my house as flames approached? I envisioned myself rushing out the door, knowing my house was in danger of burning to the ground. What would I have grabbed to take with me? Family and pets, of course, but what else? What do I value most? Phone. Meds. Irreplaceable photographs. Important papers and identity documents. A thumb drive containing records, backup files, or journal entries. I might grab a ring I inherited from my grandmother who died when I was twelve. I’d definitely try to take my computer, where so much of my writing and photos are stored.
What would you grab? What do you value so much that you would put it on your rescue list? Until we find ourselves in such a pressured situation, I’m not sure we can say exactly how we would respond. I suspect that we would discover what we truly care most about.
Barring disaster, there’s a simpler way to find out what I value most. I can look at my credit card statements, the entries in my checkbook, and my budget history. How much did I spend? For what? Where? Why? And what’s on my calendar? Where do I spend my time, money, and energy – physical and mental? My calendar shows what I value. If I say I value family but spend no time with family, then either I’m not being honest, or I’m struggling to overcome some obstacle that’s keeping me from living out my true values.
Our values are inextricably linked to our faith, because faith is all about what we consider to be of ultimate value in life. The Christian’s go-to scripture to define faith is usually Hebrews 11:1. The Marshall translation of the original Greek puts it this way: “Now faith is the reality of things being hoped, the proof of things not being seen.” I’ve always found that verse – in any translation – to be a hard one to fully comprehend in a practical way. I think that’s because it’s not really a definition of faith but a description of one way that faith functions.
So how does faith function? The word reality in Hebrews 11:1 is a translation of the Greek word hypostasis, which literally means “that which supports from below.” Faith functions as a support for our higher nature (our imago dei), for our hopes and dreams. Faith also functions as proof that what we value most is unseen: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, balance, self-control, grace, mercy . . . in short, God. Faith is:
– our spiritual attitude toward what we value most in life. – our viewpoint about what we consider to be life’s ultimate purpose and meaning.
– the inner spiritual orientation that governs our lives.
Since everyone is made in the image of God, everyone has a place – a space – in their souls for God. That means everyone has a faith of some sort, an inner spiritual attitude toward what they value most and what they consider to be life’s ultimate purpose and meaning. Faith is part of each human being simply because of imago dei in each person. Since we humans are alive and changing, faith is alive and changeable. Faith ranges from weak to strong, stunted to growing, stagnant to fresh, shrunken to full, blind to open-eyed. We can welcome faith or deny it. We can nurture it or ignore it. Either way, it’s an essential part of our being. So when we talk about “coming to faith,” we’re not talking about a one-time event but a process. Faith is not an end-point but a state of being, full of beginnings and possibilities. It’s not boxed and finite but unboxed and infinite.
We often mask the true nature of faith by using the word faith when we really mean belief. The dictionary does say that both faith and belief can refer to trust and confidence, but there are important differences between the two words. My beliefs affect my faith, but my faith is not simply the sum of my beliefs. Neither are my beliefs the whole of my faith.
Beliefs are claims that we accept as true. They may or may not be true, they may or may not be based on proof, and, like faith, they may or may not relate to anything spiritual. What’s more, beliefs can be listed and codified, and they often are. Beliefs can be mental or visceral, of the intellect or the gut. Where beliefs are concerned, we can choose to let someone else do the thinking for us. All we have to do is buy in.
But faith is different. It’s as alive as our spirits. It’s active. No one can do faith for us. As comparative religionist Wilfred Cantwell Smith says, belief is simply “the holding of certain ideas” while faith is “a quality of human living.” Beliefs are the docks we build out into the river; faith is the river. We can tear down docks, move them, or build new ones without draining the river, just as we can change our beliefs without losing our faith. The opposite is true as well. The river can change course and leave docks high and dry, just as a living, growing faith can change course, leaving blind beliefs behind. As many people have discovered, it’s possible for a change of beliefs to broaden, deepen, and strengthen faith.
If faith is our spiritual attitude toward what we value most in life, then morality is our faith on display. “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works,'” wrote James. “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (James 2:18). Morality is the way we live out our faith. It shows up in how we interact with people and how we treat our environment.
Basically, morality is respect, which comes from the Latin word respectus and means “the act of looking back.” (Its root specere, “to look at,” is where we get our word spy.) Respect means to give attention to, “to consider worthy of high regard, to esteem.” Michele Borba, in her book Building Moral Intelligence, says, “Civility and common courtesy are traditional hallmarks of respect.” Notice too that civility and common courtesy are ways of acting and speaking. Morality is active, not passive. It’s not simply claiming a set of beliefs or assenting to a certain lifestyle; it’s a way of actually living from day to day.
The psychologists Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, and John C. Gibbs speculated that, like the principles of math, the fundamental principles of morality are cosmic, built into the way the world works. In their research, they call basic morality “Ideal Normative Reciprocity,” which simply means a balance in relationship, treating each other as respected equals. In other words, it’s the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31). Since ancient times, most religions have taught some form of the Golden Rule. Plato taught it around 350 BCE, long before Jesus’s time: “[M]ay I be of a sound mind, and do to others as I would that they should do to me.”
As the Golden Rule indicates, respect is intended to be mutual. Reciprocal. In reality, as someone recently pointed out, people in positions of power, authority, or influence often think of respect as “respect my authority.” But people who are not in power, who have little influence, or who are marginalized in some way often view respect differently. They, too, want respect, but to them, respect means “respect my humanity.” That second viewpoint is what morality is about: respecting the humanity of every person. All of us deserve a basic level of respect and honor simply because we are all created in God’s image.
We’re born into the world with a feel for morality, but it’s lopsided, focused only on one side of the Golden Rule equation: getting others to treat us as we want to be treated. For infants and young children, that self-centered focus is totally normal. But for an adult, that self-centered focus is totally immoral. So between infancy and adulthood, we need to accumulate some moral wisdom.
Several years ago, I met once a week for a Bible study with a friend who was a new Christian. One evening we were reading through one of Paul’s letters, when she paused, sighed, and said, “I wish he had just listed the rules.”
I’ve felt that way myself. Wouldn’t it be easier to simply have a checklist of rules? Yes, just as it’s easier to paint by number than to create an original piece of artwork. But life is not paint-by-numbers. Each life is an original work of art. We continually learn, experience, and discover. And because our faith and morals are an integral part of us, as we grow, they grow. As a consequence, we have to recalibrate our moral compass from time to time so that it reliably points the right direction. And there is a right direction. In morality as in wayfinding, there is a True North.
adapted from The Gift of an Inner Moral Compass © Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.