A World of Moral Consequences

October 26, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a gothic novel by Oscar Wilde. Dorian Gray is a nineteenth century English gentleman having his portrait painted by artist Basil Hallward. During a sitting for the portrait, Dorian meets Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton. Dorian is such a handsome young man and the portrait captures him so well, that Dorian laments that the picture will stay young, while he will grow old, horrible, and dreadful. He would give anything for it to be the other way.

Henry Wotton befriends Dorian and leads him down a path of hedonism. Wotton’s philosophy is: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” Under this influence, Dorian cruelly breaks a young woman’s heart. Upon returning home, he sees the portrait has changed. He sees cruelty around the mouth that he hadn’t seen before. He hides the portrait because of what it now reveals about himself.

Years pass, and the portrait keeps a record of his soul. Dorian appears young and good, but the rumors about him swirl. The hidden portrait reveals the truth. Basil visits Dorian and learns the terrible secret. In a fit of passion Dorian stabs and kills Basil. In the aftermath, Dorian fears discovery of his crime. The novel states:

It was imagination that set remorse to dog the feet of sin…. In the common world of fact the wicked were not punished, nor the good rewarded. Success was given to the strong, failure thrust upon the weak.

The quote raises the question of whether there are moral consequences in our world. By the way, the wisdom literature of the Bible wrestles with the same thing. Proverbs gives the general truth that it is better to be righteous (Proverbs 4:18), but even the wisdom literature (especially Ecclesiastes) knows that sometimes it appears that the wicked prosper (Ecclesiastes 7:15, 8:10).

We may ask: Why doesn’t God punish us immediately for every sin? Wouldn’t it be fairer and clearer, if like rats in a maze we were zapped at every wrong turn? I suspect that God doesn’t do that because He wants more than people who negotiate moral choices correctly. A constantly zapped people might make the right choices, but would they love the good, and more importantly would they love God?

Interestingly enough, The Picture of Dorian Gray does give an answer to the assertion that the wicked are not punished. It vividly describes the ruin on the inside even if the world does not see the condition of the soul. Moral consequences exist even if they do not seem to work out perfectly in this life. Righteousness produces a different kind of person than wickedness. The general truths of wisdom can be observed in this life, even if we struggle with some exceptions: “The wage of the righteous leads to life, the gain of the wicked to sin” (Proverbs 10:16, ESV). Like it or not, we live in a world of moral consequences.

Eyes to See

February 6, 2009

Does everyone have the same moral sensitivity? Raising the question is to answer it. Disagreements over morality exist. What one person may find acceptable is reprehensible to another. The question isn’t whether I do things that I think are wrong. All of us experience that. The question is actually over defining right and wrong. In his book  Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis observed:

When a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right.*

Isaiah represents a good test case. When confronted with the Holy One of Israel, he cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5, ESV)! When God explains his purpose as a prophet, He turns the tables and actually uses result language:

And he said, “Go, and say to this people: ” ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Isaiah 6:9-10, ESV

God really did want His people to repent, and Isaiah’s task was a call to repentance (see Jeremiah 18:7-10). The switching of purpose for result was cautionary for Isaiah. It was going to be no easy task. He was living among a people who were calling evil good and good evil (Isaiah 5:20). Although Isaiah was morally sensitive, many of his listeners were not.

Conscience is the faculty of moral sensitivity, so guard your conscience. A healthy conscience helps us to choose good and avoid evil. A working conscience may even lead us to the Good—God. But wrong choices can silence the conscience’s alarm. Hit this snooze button enough times, and the alarm may no longer work. If you allow your conscience to become insensitive, dull, and hardened, then in the moral realm, you will no longer have eyes to see.

*C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 93