Moral Decision Making and the Fear of the Lord

In his book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, Roman Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says this about making moral decisions, “Participants in deliberation [about means to attaining goods] must make their decision because of how their practical reasoning went and not from fear or as a result of fraud or because they were bribed or seduced.”1MacIntyre, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, Apple Books, 230. MacIntyre’s point here is that the morally responsible human being, when seeking to pursue an individual or common good, must make their moral decisions not based on fear, or fraud (deception), or because they “sold out,” or because they fell into temptation to pursue a merely perceived good. Rather, any decision to pursue any good (e.g. a marital relationship, children, an occupation, a skill), or make any moral decision (disciplining a child as opposed to letting her off the hook), must be born out of a careful application of prudential thinking. Prudence, of course, being the classical virtue which, according to Karen Swallow Prior, “measures the other virtues and determines ‘what makes an action good.’”2 Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well, 34-35.

Biblically speaking, prudence is what the Jewish or Christian man or woman might call proverbial wisdom— that wisdom about human affairs which we find in those books often referred to as “the Wisdom literature”: Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, and, yes, even Song of Songs. This special revelation of Scripture affirms the use of practical reasoning in the process of making good, moral decisions. While the Holy Spirit can directly transmit knowledge to us regarding particular moral decisions or judgments, most of the time God allows us to learn to make good decisions through a process of indirect, spiritual formation— meaning that He is not telling us at every moment, in entirely certain terms, everything we should do and how to do it. Instead he is allowing us, like Jesus in His human nature, to grow in wisdom and stature (Lk 2:52). Growing requires learning however, and learning requires us to make mistakes. Learning from our mistakes helps us become more prudent thinkers.

However, this kind of practical or prudential reasoning, according to the Bible, also has a fundamental starting point, one we dare not neglect. That starting point is this: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). Thus, the act of rational thinking about what concrete goods to pursue in life, how to evaluate the process of attaining those goods, and why they should even be considered “good,” are all things that must be informed first and foremost by our understanding of, and relationship to, God. For any moral decision that is made apart from the “fear of the Lord” will indelibly contain an error. To not begin our practical decision making about a moral action with this fear of God is to inevitably wind up “missing the mark,” which is, in some real sense, just what sin is—morally irresponsible actions.

In this same passage, MacIntyre also alludes to four common, initial conditions from which we often do start our practical decision making; four conditions that are antithetical to the biblical starting point of “fear of the Lord.” They are: fear (human fear), fraud, bribery and seduction. If we do not start our moral deliberations with a consideration of the nature and will of God, then it is likely we will start from one of these four places. However, if we start from one of these places, our decisions will probably result in more human damage, even if that damage may be mitigated by other factors (e.g. the seriousness of the action taken, the simple grace of God, or maybe even the grace of an offended party). Nevertheless, it is worth considering each of these false starting points in order to train ourselves to think more prudentially, and more theologically, before taking any particular, moral action.

Acting From Fear

Possibly the most damaging starting point for any moral decision, especially a decision made by someone who claims faith in Christ, is that of fear. Fear is not a neutral starting point, even if a natural one. Biblically speaking fear is starting from a place of doubt, which is equivalent to a place of unfaithfulness. Doubt too may be natural to us, but for the Christian man or woman it entails a questioning of God’s Providence or of His Power (or possibly His existence). This is not to say that one, even the most mature and stalwart among us, will not have fears or experience doubt. After all, one cannot be rightly called “courageous” if there are no instances of fear to overcome. It is however to say that those fears cannot be what ultimately determines our moral decisions, and certainly it is to say that we should not start our process of decision making from a place of fearfulness, even if it is sometimes difficult not to start there.

There will be all kinds of practical concerns one has to weigh in life, many of them frightening to us: fears about death or injury, fears about loss of relationship, fears about loss of financial stability, etc. However, the final decision we make about a moral action cannot be based on the fear itself. One should not say simplistically then: “I am not going to do action X, because I am afraid I will die,” for example. For it very well could be the case that the moral action under consideration may warrant the risk to one’s physical existence, or, in special cases, the risk to the physical safety of another (that would be to say simplistically, “I am not going to do action X, because it may cause him or her to die.”).

For an example of the former think of a mother who is hemorrhaging during labor. She refrains from receiving medical treatment that might be necessary for her survival because it puts the life of her baby at risk. She may be afraid to die, but at the same time know that that fear cannot be what determines her decision about receiving the medical aid she needs. Hopefully, long prior to the labor and delivery, she has already contemplated deeply the intrinsic value of human life, and come to understand that if her starting point is “the fear of the Lord,” she may indeed be called to sacrifice her own life for the sake of another at some point. She may have come to understand, at the deepest level of her spiritual formation, that “greater love has no one than this: to lay down his [or her] life for his [or her] friends” is not simply a sentiment to be parroted on Sunday mornings, but an actual way of existing; an expression of ultimate reality, a divine command of God. If the mother’s prior starting point in her moral decision making, even before becoming pregnant, was “the fear of the Lord” then her action in the middle of trauma, i.e. her sacrificing medical treatment for the sake of the child, is one not born out of human fear, but one born out of moral goodness and Christ-like faithfulness. It becomes therefore an act of unconditional love, which is itself the greatest of the theological virtues (1 Cor 13:13).

For an example of the latter, however, now think of the mother who has natural fears for her older child. The mother fears intuitively for the safety of the child, and is often hovering to ensure that the child is not in any kind of immediate danger, danger either to their physical, or emotional, well-being. She stays close while the child does monkey bars on the playground; she teaches the child to look both ways, several times, before crossing the road; she makes sure the child always has their safety helmet on, perhaps even when on his tricycle. These are all fears that are in many ways justified. However, if the mother’s care for the child, and the daily moral decisions that go into that care, have as their starting point mere human fear, and not fear of the Lord, then the following kinds of sins can begin to emerge: the hovering over the child like a mother hen slowly transforms into a controlling act, one more suited to a Communist dictator than a caring mother. The child is stifled in their personal development, both in their physical development– never being allowed to challenge themselves by climbing the big tree at the park, the child’s muscles stay soft; and in their emotional and moral development– never being permitted to date, the child fails to grasp relational complexity and remains emotionally naive.

Even intellectual development can be stifled out of fear when challenges to the truth of the Christian worldview are barred entry into the life of the Christian family. This phenomena has been well documented recently: adults who have been Christians their entire life, even leaders in the Church, yet been kept in intellectual ignorance. The result is finding themselves intellectually shook to the core when first presented with even the mildest critiques of biblical truth or the Christian worldview. This has been a disturbing trend among so-called “celebrity Christians.

Further, and deeper still, is the hindering of spiritual development. If the now controlling mother, who operates out of human fear, keeps the child in a therapeutically sealed, existential bubble, then how, if not through real trials and struggles, can the child learn to become reliant on the Lord— on His goodness, His providence, and His strength? What, after all, would it have looked like if Rachel had prevented Jacob from allowing Joseph to go out and tend the sheep with his brothers? Joseph may have been spared much personal pain and sorrow, but at what cost to himself, his family, the nation of Egypt, and the people and plan of God? It seems incalculable.

In sum, life is full of problems, many of which cannot be avoided. As Christian psychiatrist M. Scott Peck once pointed out, it is the fear of problems, and the emotional pain they might cause, that preclude people from not only from becoming wise, but that facilitates mental illness:

“It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn….It is for this reason that wise people learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems and actually to welcome the pain of problems. [However] Most of us are not wise. Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems….This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness.”

M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, 16-17.

Acting from Fraud

Fraud is deceit. To act from fraud may not be as egregious as acting from fear, because it assumes a more passive role by the moral decision maker. They are not acting intentionally out of a place of deception, rather they have been deceived and therefore are basing their moral decisions on false premises. However, while persons acting from fraud as their starting point for a moral decision may be somewhat less liable for their actions, this is not to say they are entirely without responsibility. After all, we have the prior, moral responsibility to do what we can to ensure we are not taken hold of by false beliefs, or given over to bad information. We are called to be watchful, careful, and discerning. Jesus said “Behold I am sending out as sheep among wolves, so be wise as serpents and gentle as doves” (Matt 10:16), knowing full well what kind of sin-fallen world He was sending His apostles into, and the kind of resistance that would meet the bearer of “Good News.”

Thus, it becomes incumbent on the Christian, especially in a day and age where dis- and misinformation abound, to be diligent in their collection of data, in their interpretation of that data, and in their decision making based off of relevant information. This information could be testimony about any kind of cultural issue: political, economic, educational, and yes, even scientific. Therefore, the Christian must avoid simplistic or reductionist thinking that simply grants authority to any “talking head” on TV, radio, or the internet, regardless of that person’s popularity, or the popular narrative that has been spun around them. It also means that as Christians we must have a healthy, but not exaggerated, skepticism about so-called “experts.” We must understand that human reason is flawed and that there is no such thing as “the science” that tells us anything, rather, there are “scientists” who interpret data and then tell us some things.

The Devil’s Role in Fraud

Behind any of these false starting points it is also worth realizing that there are other forces at work than simply our own sinful nature; there are spiritual forces seeking to deceive and destroy us through that deception. Yes, Virginia, there is a Devil!, and he is no simple metaphor, he is metaphysical. He is also said to be “like a roaring lion” looking to devour believers. Jesus makes it crystal clear that the Devil is a murderer, and has been from the beginning. But, how can a conscious, yet immaterial entity murder a physical being like us? The answer since Genesis 3 has always been the same: through deceit, “He [Satan] was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44). Since the Devil only in very rare occasions touches our physical nature (our bodies), his main weapon of choice is the lie, and lies come through words, and words are grasped cognitively. The battlefield of the mind, where truth is either recognized or repressed, is where the Christian must take “every thought captive to Christ” lest we be led down a path of making moral choices destructive both to our own person, and to others. Adam and Eve’s originating sin may have included an aspect of creaturely pride, as Augustine pointed out, but that pride was awakened by Satan’s deception. As Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms, Satan is, in his very nature, fraudulent. He is the great fraud, and his lies know no boundaries.

The counter to Satan’s lies has always been, and will be until Christ’s return, the Word of God, delivered to us both in the Person and work of Christ and in the words of the Holy Scriptures. For it is the Word of God that is sharper than any two-edged sword and that cuts between bone and marrow, soul and spirit, and discerns the thoughts and intentions of human hearts. To avoid fraud as our moral starting point, this is where we must turn. For it is the Word of God that judges the truth of statements that may appear morally correct, statements like “love is love,” but which ultimately are false. After all, it is God who is love, not human love that is god (1 John 4:8).

Ultimately, however, the devil’s best strategy is to stay away from questions of truth or falsehood entirely, and to misguide the moral decision maker by making all claims relative to something other than reason (something like human emotion or experience). C.S. Lewis alludes to this in his magnum opus on spiritual warfare, The Screwtape Letters:

“The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy’s [God] own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He [God] has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father Below [Satan]. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s [the Christian man] reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences.”

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter 1

In our current social climate, human emotions or personal experience have become the default starting point for most of our moral decision making. This places many of our moral actions on very unstable and shifting ground, a ground that the devil loves to play on. It should be no surprise then when we see dedications to him in books like Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, a manuscript very popular with many political and social elitists.

Acting from Personal Gain (Bribery)

You cannot love both God and mammon, or so it has been said by, well, by God. One of Jesus’ earliest followers was inspired to write it this way, “love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10). The historical record is replete with man’s greediness for material wealth and voracious appetite for monetary gain. Nations have literally risen and fallen over the decadence of their rulers, just as local communities have suffered from corruption in their county and state governments. Households fall apart as well, as the thirst for money and luxury drive families to extremes which enslave them to the act of ‘money making.’

It is not money itself, however, that is evil. Rather, it is the disordered love of wealth that, if taken as one’s moral starting point, will inevitably lead to all kinds of evils. This love of money corrupts all aspirations to moral goodness, regardless of whether it be couched in a religious context, e.g. the Papacy of the Borgias or the Prosperity Gospel of today, or in a secular one, e.g. political cronyism or marketplace corruption. Christians should have no fear of earning money, even a lot of money, so long as the desire for it is rightly ordered and that, in their moral deliberations, the making of it or the keeping of it, is not the primary concern or ultimate goal. Money in the hands of the wise man can produce all kinds of social and even spiritual goods, and wealth in the possession of the righteous steward can serve many of God’s purposes on earth.

The love of money in the church however is a special kind of atrocity. Throughout its history money has bankrupted many a congregation. In Luther’s day doctrine was abused for the sake of sending riches to Rome for the building of St. Peter’s. While God ultimately used this abuse of indulgences to motivate a young Luther to nail his reformational theses to the Wittenberg door, the damage to human souls was nevertheless real, and the manipulation of doctrine tragic to the life and reputation of God’s Church. In recent times what was once a covert sin of Protestant churches (the pastoral love for money), has been made shamelessly explicit as “prosperity” and “health and wealth” preaching of a false christ, a christ who enters into the world not to suffer and die for the sins of mankind, but who pays sinners’ debt so they might become materially rich, now permeates the culture.

While there are practical concerns about money, and while any good steward of the material wealth God affords us will take those into consideration, to start with money, or comfort, as the impetus for moral decision making is to start from a place of inherent sinfulness. Fear of the Lord and the love of money (or fear of not having money) are, as Jesus warned us, mutually incompatible orientations of the soul. If the latter takes precedent over the former, only evil can ensue.

Acting from Seduction

No good moral choices can start from the desire to satisfy our flesh, especially in the form of our sexual appetites. That is not to say that sexual appetites are the only kind of bodily seduction: food and other substances (drugs, alcohol) can often be as destructive to ourselves, our families, and our community as the unfettered drive to satisfy sexual longings. However, that sexual lust assumes a fundamental role in the striving of human beings has been rather obvious, even long before Freud. What Freud would later describe anthropologically, Paul had already explained theologically:

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Romans 1:24-27

Making choices motivated by the desire to satisfy sexual longings has never gone well for God’s people, as the stories of men like Judah and King David clearly attest. The scene of Absalom raping David’s concubines from the very spot where his father fell into lust for Bathsheeba (2 Sam 16:20-22), should also serve as a warning that the sexual sins of the father, like so many other sins, are often passed down to the sons (and perhaps even daughters). Pursuing sensual pleasure leads to decisions that not only harm the body and soul of the decision maker, but also those closest to him or her—their progeny. For the male of the species especially, to start the process of moral reasoning at the point of libidinal urges is a very dangerous proposal. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most common starting points. One could plausibly argue that many who seem to have money as their starting point for making moral decisions, actually have sexual pleasure as their starting point; money being merely the instrument by which they can attain more of the latter.

That said, if the starting point for a moral decision is grounded in the Fear of the Lord first, then subsequent desires to fulfill sexual longings could very well lead to one of life’s most profound gestures of moral goodness, namely, the mutual self-giving of sexual pleasure within a loving and exclusive marital relationship. The act of fulfilling sexual desire in the appropriate, God-ordained context of marriage is commended to us by Scripture, both for the sake of the pleasure it brings our bodies (see Song of Songs), and for the Christ-like self-giving that it occasions (Ephesians 5:25-28). The moment of “transcendence” that comes when two lovers unite in sexual experience is something that God has clearly designed for the sake of His glory and our good. To spend those moments with anyone other than an exclusive confidant, friend, and spouse is to do an injustice to that design, an injustice that can engender a radical kind of evil to occur. Again, Peck points out how powerful the role of sex is to the human person:

“In itself, making love is not an act of love. Nonetheless the experience of sexual intercourse, and particularly of orgasm…is an experience also associated with a greater or lesser degree of collapse of ego boundaries and attendant ecstasy. It is because of this collapse of ego boundaries that we may shout at the moment of climax “I love you” or “Oh, God” to a prostitute for whom moments later, after the ego boundaries have snapped back into place, the may feel no shred of affection, liking, or investment.”

Peck, 96.

To make seduction our starting point for moral decisions is to put ourselves in the position of using others for the sake of experiencing something which is deeply relational and spiritual: the act of sex. It is perhaps the most powerful drive we have in this life outside of the longing of our heart for God Himself. It is also the one that is most abused in the course of human events, and that quickly devolves into the most wicked and vile forms of human behavior: rape, incest, polygamy, abortion, and child abuse.

Conclusion: The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom

Our prudential thinking, i.e. our moral decision making process, mirrors the pursuit of wisdom as found especially in the Wisdom books of the Bible. If we begin our moral decision making anywhere other than with “the Fear of the Lord” then we are bound to neglect God’s design for us and consequently, to some degree, fall into immoral activity. Beginning our moral decision making from other initial conditions, conditions like fear, fraud, love of money, or sexual seduction, breaks fellowship with God, and ultimately causes great damage to our selves, our relations, and our communities. To be prudent and to act wisely, we must be grounded in the Word and the will of God.

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