In every generation, Moralism manages to move Jesus and morality out of the way, presenting the world instead with a false religious impostor that claims His name. And, given Moralism’s innate hypocrisies, it makes Christianity the stuff of late night ridicule and secularist wrath.
If you listen, you’ll hear when it shows up. Every time a preacher or writer demands obedience, encourages ‘self-help,’ or spiritual growth as goals instead of fruit, beware. Every time you hear a TV God-peddlar promise health and wealth as reciprocation for the check you send in, look out. Whenever the message is focused on doing better, getting more, trying harder, praying louder… listen carefully. When you feel guilty, shamed, or useless, pay attention: Moralism is probably lurking nearby.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Jesus taught morality, just like the Scriptures that previewed his coming. Indeed, morality is an essential virtue consisting of wise, godly guidance toward peaceful, even joyful living. The problem is, morality was never intended to be the goal of our lives: union with Jesus Christ is. Morality follows this union as naturally as the sprouting of a watered seed in sunshine. Jesus said as much when he observed, ‘If you love me, you’ll keep my commandments.’ Which is why Luther recommended that we love God with all our hearts and do as we please. Yes…I know, but read that again. If we love God, what we want will be consistent with what God wants for us…true morality.
But Moralism gets in the way of union with Jesus Christ. It is an unwitting distraction, a false temptation to focus on something other than Christ. The purpose of Moralism is to demand obedience to a Code of Conduct for its own sake. Moralism serves the Code, even worships the Code, yet it never quite reveals itself that way. Moralism points its adherents back into itself. Moralism is idolatry masked in religion. It feeds judgement of others and pride of self. Religious leaders love it because it controls others with fear or seduces them with false hope, but some quite honestly believe that the Code IS the faith.
Morality, on the other hand, is Divine virtue expressed in ‘loving God, and others as oneself.’ Yes, morality can be taught through patterns of conduct, but this kind of instruction was never intended to be the end game of living in the Kingdom of God. Instead, such ‘codes’ are to be guideposts…important, transcendent markers to ways in which others and ourselves can live healthy, happy lives. Jesus invited us to step beyond a slavish and often prideful attachment to rule-keeping in favor of something far greater. Love of God through union with Jesus is the Gospel message and Jesus’ promised life of abundance is found in the morality of love that follows.
Those of us who consider ourselves Followers of Jesus need to pause from time to time, and listen. All of us fall prey to Moralism, usually unwittingly; Moralism is a tempting alternative to morality because it sounds so ‘right.’ That makes it a very dangerous enemy, indeed.