Faith is not just a set of beliefs – which we shall talk about in the next lecture – but also a way of life. In fact all belief systems present us with a way of life. In a faith for the 21st century, this way of life must be seen as conforming to a pattern which is beyond culture; an absolute standard grounded in the way of the universe and in the fundamental nature of every man. This entire subject is called “ethics” in classical Western philosophy.
There are different concepts of the Way: For example,
Stoicism, the most popular philosophy of the ancient Greeks and Romans, said that we must accept Fate, and live according to it, without complaining. Our mind should control the body and emotions, and it should guide us to practice the four major virtues: Prudence, temperance, courage, and wisdom. If, however, life became too difficult, and one found it impossible to live a virtuous life, then one could commit suicide.
Daoism speaks of the Way and of Virtue. We should follow what is natural; lead a quiet life without ambition or desires for material things; and avoid aggression. Daoism does not advocate taking part in society, nor does it have detailed ethical teaching. Indeed, Daoism a basically relativistic philosophy, so it does not hold to an absolute moral code.
Buddhism believes that all suffering comes from desire, which is caused by the illusion that this life is real. We should try to extinguish our passions, by following the eight-fold path: Right views; right views, that is, good motives; right speech; right conduct; right living; right effort; right thought; and right concentration. To avoid the chains of sin, one should engage in meditation, and think especially about love, compassion, joy, and peace.
Islam imposes five obligations upon its followers: Reciting each day their basic creed that Allah is the only God and Mohammed is his prophet ; reciting daily prayers five times a day; observing the fast during the month of Ramadan; giving of alls to the needy; undertaking a pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslim believers must also abstain from a variety of sins, such as murder, adultery, disobedience to parents, drunkenness, gambling, saving one’s beard, and avoiding taking part in a holy war. Islam forbids using alcohol, dancing, and the use of idols. It permits polygamy and divorce by the man, but punishes an unfaithful woman with death. It also forbids one to change his religion.
Communism has been influential in the 20th century, and is still the official faith of Mainland China. Though the communists are relativists, believing that there are no absolute standards of right and wrong, they do advocate living for the good of society, and giving total obedience to the government.
Secular humanism is perhaps the most common form of ethical belief in Western society, and among educated people all over the world, including Asia. Secular humanists do not believe that there is any God or absolute standards of right and wrong. Instead, they think that we should live according to the current values of society. The main one of these now is tolerance. That is, we must never say that anyone else’s faith is wrong, and we must not judge their actions. Care for the environment is also very important environment, as are the progress of science and of democracy.
Hedonism follows from secular humanism, and is the actual code by which most people seem to live. Hedonists believe in self-fulfillment; self-actualization; self-gratification. The self – that is, my self – is at the center of their thoughts and actions. Whatever seems to make me feel good at the moment must be done, even if others disapprove or if it will hurt other people. A belief in hedonism leads to the use of drugs; addiction to entertainment; fulfillment of sexual desires outside of marriage; and many divorces.
Confucianism has been the main source for Chinese ethics for more than two thousand years. Confucius believed that there was a Heaven, which was just, and which had a will that we must follow. The way of heaven is also the way of man. For Confucianism, the main virtues are ren; li; yi; xiao; chengshr. The most important one is ren, which resembles love in the Christian system. Confucius believed that our fist obligation is to the family, where the wife must submit to the husband, the children to their father, and younger siblings to older siblings. Within society, students much respect teachers, elders should be honored and obeyed, and political leaders have almost total authority. Diligence in school and at work is a fundamental virtue also. The current government of China is promoting Confucianism because it wants people to work hard and obey the communist party leaders.
In order to serve one’s family and make a contribution to society, we should engage in personal cultivation to overcome our faults and improve our moral character. Within the Confucian ethical system, which does not focus on a transcendent God, social harmony is of supreme importance. For the sake of not offending others, one may be allowed to do some things that might otherwise be considered “wrong.”
You will notice that all these ethical systems are man-centered. They are focused on either individuals or on the group (like communism and some aspects of Confucianism). They assume that we can be good people on our strength, and that we should do so. Some of them emphasize the needs of others around us, while others, especially Daoism, secular humanism, and hedonism are concerned solely with our own individual happiness. Except for Islam and some aspects of Confucianism, they all focus on our social responsibility, not our responsibility to a heavenly being.
Furthermore, only Confucianism and Islam deal extensively with social ethics. Confucianism, however, mostly focused on the broad category of submission to authority and the rule of virtuous men. Islam imposes a very strict and detailed law upon all citizens, but this generally has led to dictatorship, suppression of all freedoms, and great restrictions upon women.
Jesus said, “I am the Way.” This has at least two meanings: His life provides the pattern for ours, and his teachings provide instruction for his disciples. When he was asked which commandment was the most important, he quoted the Old Testament, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind. This is the first and foremost command.”
This answer by Jesus shows that Christianity teaches that our primary responsibility is to God our heavenly Father. In some ways this is a bit similar to the teaching on filial piety in Confucianism, except that here our heavenly Father is the object of our total allegiance and entire obedience. We are to seek to know him, to love him, to serve him, to imitate him, and to find our hope and happiness in him alone. Our chief goal is not to be happy on earth, in this life, but to glorify God and enjoy him forever. This is very different from other ethical systems.
Jesus continued his response to that question of what commandment was greatest when he said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Notice that he assumed that we care for ourselves; this is just a fact of life. Confucius said that we should not do to others what we don’t want them to do to us, but Jesus puts this more positively by saying, “Whatever you want others to do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12).
This is further described in the Bible in many ways. For example, children should obey their parents, but parents ought to treat their children fairly and kindly; wives should respect and submit to their husbands, but husbands should love their wives as much as they love themselves. If we don’t want others to judge us, we should not judge them. If we want others to forgive us, we should forgive them. This is a very high standard!
But Jesus then fixed an even higher standard, toward the end of his life, when he told his disciples that they must love each other as Jesus himself has loved us. And how did Jesus love his followers? He died for them, giving up his life so that they could have their sins forgiven, escape the wrath of God, and enjoy eternal life with him in a new heaven and anew earth at the end of this age.
So, husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, sacrificing their own pleasures and ambitions for the good of their wife. When we speak, it should not be just to express ourselves, but to build others up and encourage them or to help them to understand the truth better. Those who have more than enough money should not spend it on themselves, but share it with others who are in need, especially other believes in Christ.
You may read more about Christian ethics in my book, Confucius and Jesus, as well as in The Switzerland of the New Testament. You will find examples of how Chinese Christians have served society in the book by my colleague, Salt & Light.
Christianity also has implications for society. The U.S. Constitution, for example, is heavily influenced by Christian ideas, even though it is not a “Christian” document. Two major assumptions are that each person is created in God’s image, and must thus be treated with respect, and that we are all also fallen and sinful, so that no one person or group should have too much power over others. The problem of the relationship of the individual to the group can be solved, at least in theory, by acknowledging the value of each person, as created in the image of God; and the importance of the group.
The problem of balancing freedom and order can also be met by allowing individuals to have enough freedom to express their inner abilities, but not so much freedom that they harm the group or overturn social order. Thus, the American government has three branches; two houses of Congress; a Bill of Rights; and division of power between the central government and state governments. For a long time, most laws in America were also based on biblical principles of justice, thought that has changed greatly in recent years.
Problem: No one can live like this! (Except Jesus)
Now, what is the problem with all ethical systems? No one can live up to any of these standards! Even if we don’t kill anybody or set anyone’s house on fire, we are still basically self-centered. We may seem to be respectable people, but inside, where no one can see us, we cherish awful thoughts. We are filled with ambition, pride, greed, lust, envy, resentment.
Sometimes our thoughts break out into the open. Our words do not express the truth out of a heart of love. Instead, we lie, or boast, or say things that hurt others. We steal, or do not fulfill our obligations. In today’s society, marriage is breaking down, as people have sexual relations before and outside of marriage, and divorce is rampant. Even in the home, violence is widespread. In society we see the results of all these inner faults – not only business people, but journalists and politicians are corrupt, while all the rest of us suffer. In some countries, the leaders are tyrants who oppress their people.
I have not even mentioned our lack of respect for God. Instead of worshiping him with all our heart, we neglect him, forget him, ignore him, or even disobey his clear commands. We do not honor him as our heavenly father; we are filial children. One of the results of this alienation from God is that we worry about the future, especially in times of financial and social instability.
The result is that we are alienated from God and from others. We know we are guilty, but don’t know how to make up for our wrongdoing. We feel alone in this universe, far from our Creator. Not only that, but we feel distant from others, too. Some say that the worst problem in society today is loneliness, and I believe it. But there is also the pain we experience because our relationships with others are not only shallow, but broken because of lack of love. Beginning with our parents and siblings, other people have failed to treat us as we would like, and we have done the same to them. Even if we are polite to those around us, that doesn’t remove the resentment and fear that keeps us from real intimacy.
We know we should be different, but we are frustrated with ourselves because we can’t change. Most ethical systems say we should just try harder to be different, but it doesn’t work for us.
Of course, various religions and worldviews have suggestions for resolving these problem. Buddhism says we should engage in meditation, perhaps call on bodhisattvas to pray for us. Islam tells us to give more alms to the poor, and do more good works. Roman Catholicism teaches that we should rely on the prayers of the saints; confess our sins to the priest and receive forgiveness from him; and do more good works. These, of course, are not good enough to meet God’s demands or pay for our sins, so after we did we shall spend thousands of years in Purgatory.
Secular humanism teaches that we should try to improve ourselves. In bookstores in America and the West and most airports, you can find huge numbers of self-help books. If those don’t work for you, you can go to a psychiatrist or counselor. The government engages in social engineering to try to change behavior. Perhaps most common is the use of various medications to keep people from feeling too unhappy.
Hedonism, of course, advocates anything that makes you feel good at the moment, like drugs, alcohol, sex, and the accumulation of material goods. Other things to which people turn for temporary pleasure include eating, music, dance, and especially entertainment. Private use of computer games, pornography on the Web, and video games consume vast amounts of time, while public entertainment at movies and shows earns large amounts of money for the entertainers. Perhaps at no time in history have so many people been so addicted to entertainment.
Confucianism seeks moral improvement by self-cultivation. By meditation, reading, study, and self-discipline, one tries to overcome bad habits and build good ones.
The reality is, however, that none of these ways of overcoming our inward faults really works. They don’t provide personal improvement, and they don’t furnish us with personal peace. That is why millions of people have to take more drugs, drink more alcohol, watch more movies, listen to more music, read more self-help books, go to more counselors, take more medications, do more things to keep themselves busy. Nothing is filling the hungry soul. Our interpersonal conflicts remain unsolved. Social problems get bigger and bigger, despite all government efforts. The governments themselves grow more and more corrupt, as they have more power and more money at their disposal. There is less and less political freedom in more and more nations now than there was 20 years ago. Tensions between ethnic groups continue to fester, and sometimes break into open violence or even war.
Jesus is the way
When Jesus said, “I am the Way,” he meant several things:
1. His teachings give us clear guidance for daily living.
2. His example provides a pattern for us to follow.
3. His death takes away our guilt, so that our sins can be forgiven and we can be reconciled to God.
4. His resurrection from the makes available to us power to overcome our moral weaknesses.
Jesus begins with the existence of an all-powerful God who created the entire universe. He believes in the supreme sovereignty of God, who is Great King over all individuals and all nations. He is the only God, and we must give total allegiance to him alone – not to any other so-called “gods,” or to Caesar, or to important people in our lives.
Furthermore, God is not only great, but also good. He is kind to all people, sending rain on the just and the unjust. He is just, and righteous, and holy. Therefore, we should love him above all, as I have said before. That is, we should seek to know him, serve him, live with him forever.
Thus, rather than building up treasures on earth, we should seek to acquire treasure in heaven, by doing good works and giving to others. Instead of worrying about food and drink and clothing, we should seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, trusting him to give us all that we really need. He will reward us for all that we have done in the next life.
Rather than believing that any other person can make us truly happy, we should seek happiness in God’s love and care for us. No lover, no spouse, no friend, no government can satisfy our soul’s desire for love and respect. Only God can do that. Jesus called himself the “bread of life,” and promised that those who trust in him shall not hunger. He offered living water to fill our thirsty soul and light for daily guidance. He told us to seek to give, not to get; to forgive and even love those who have injured us; to remain faithful to our marriage vows, and to avoid sexual sins of all kinds.
How happy we would be if we followed these teachings! We would be content instead of unhappy. We would not wait for others to love us before we reached out to love them. Instead of harboring resentment, we would forgive others, pray for them, and do good to them. Our hearts would not be filled with envy and rage, nor would we spend all our time trying to obtain material wealth or even security. Our work would be done in the confidence that God would supply all our material needs.
Because everyone is created in the image of God, each individual has worth. That is why Christians have been pioneers in opposing all forms of exploitation, including slavery, oppressive working conditions for laborers in factories, child labor, prostitution, foot-binding of girls in China, and other social evils. The financial crisis today was caused by widespread violation of God’s laws, including his commandments not to lie, to steal, to speak falsely, and to covet. This could only happen in America on such a large scale because the elite members of the population have abandoned the teachings of the Bible.
Jesus also taught us about the power of sin. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin,” he said (John 8:34) That is why we cannot change ourselves by our own strength, and why we can’t force others, including our family members, to change their behavior. It also explains why government programs, and even laws, cannot cure the fundamental ills of society. Government leaders who promise to “save” the nation and build an ideal and just society show that they overestimate their own power, and under-estimate the power of the selfishness that resides in the heart of every man, woman, and child.
As we said before, the example of Jesus also shows us the way to live. He did not pursue material prosperity or even comfort. He did not seek to advance his “career” or make a name for himself in society. He kept all the laws of the country and obeyed all the commandments of God. For example, he always spoke the truth, even when it would displease others or expose him to rejection and danger. He honored his parents and maintained completely pure relationships with women.
He came not to be served, but to serve. Jesus went around doing good. He healed the sick, fed people who had followed him into the wilderness, delivered those who were possessed by demons, and taught everyone the truth. He could have made a lot of money doing all this, but he lived like a poor man, with no place to lay his head. Of course, Christians also believe that Jesus is also the eternal Son of God, who gave up his glory in heaven to come down to earth and live among us. In the end, he was willing to suffer terrible pain and torture, in order that we might not have to suffer eternal pain in hell.
The root of this life of love was his total submission to God the Father. As Son of God, he was equal to the Father in glory and power and honor, but he chose to submit to the father’s plan of salvation for mankind – that is why he became a man and lived among us. Throughout his life, he listened to what God the Father was saying to him, spoke to him in prayer, sought the honor of the Father and not his own glory, and obeyed all the commandments in the Old Testament Scriptures.
The final purpose of his coming was to “save his people from their sins” by dying for them upon the cross as a sin offering, so that we would not have to pay the penalty for our disobedience to God.
By dying for us, Jesus became the bridge connecting us with God the Father. Because of our transgressions, we were alienated from God and subject to the wrath of God. There was a huge chasm between us and God as a result of our sins. Nothing we can do will enable us to cross that great distance – not our good works, not our belief in other gods, not our good intentions.
But, as we have seen the death of Jesus means that we don’t have to pay the penalty for not keeping God’s commands. Furthermore, his righteous conduct is credited to all who believe in him, so that we are counted righteous and holy by God. In this way, he provides access for us to God the Father, to whom we can pray. We can call upon God at any time for forgiveness of sins and for strength to do what is right.
After he died, Jesus rose again from the dead and spent more than a month with his disciples. Then they saw him ascend to heaven, where he sits at the right hand of the Father, praying for us. His first prayer was to ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit upon all who had repented of their sins and put their full confidence in Christ as Savior. When the Spirit enters a person, he receives a new heart; he is born again – not in the Buddhist sense of reincarnation, but in the sense of starting life afresh. The Spirit gives power to do what is right and to overcome the selfish impulses that move us to do wrong. He provides the power for performance. We shall talk more about this in the fourth lecture.
Of course, we still aren’t good enough. That is why Christians have to rely on Jesus as priest to supply us constantly with God’s mercy. In this manner, also, he is the “Way” to the Father, for if we trust in his name we can enjoy constant access to God. As we shall see also oin the final lecture, Jesus is the “Way” to our eternal home. He has promised to return againa to this world. At that time, he will raise all people from the dead. Everyone will be judged according to their works, and all will be found unworthy to enter eternal life with God. But those who have itn Jesus as savior will be forgiven, because Jesus died for them, and they will live with him forever in a new world of joy and peace and love.
That is when Jesus will finally take us home to be with our Father and our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Before concluding this lecture, I want to talk about three things: The difference between the way of Jesus and other religions; the universal nature of the way of Jesus; and my own experience, the way Jesus helped me to gain freedom from resentment.
Are all religions the same?
You frequently hear it said that “All religions are the same; they all urge people to do good.” Of course, that is correct in one sense. Most belief systems do include teachings about ethics. Communism tells people to hate and struggle against people of another class, and Islam teaches that killing innocent people in a holy war is one way to go to heaven, but even these two faiths advocate good works to benefit others.
But the way of Jesus is different in several fundamental aspects: Jesus gives us example of humility, obedience, and self-sacrifice that no other religious teacher does. The teachings of Jesus and his apostles and prophets are more comprehensive than any other ethical system: They speak to family life, sexuality, economics, government. The Bible gives instructions about how to behave when we are alone, and when new are with others; how to act in the home, and how to benefit the larger society. It does not call us to leave the world, but to enter it, with love and service.
Jesus supplies us with different motives as well: His own example is a powerful incentive to sacrifice oneself for the good of others; his forgiveness of us moves us to forgive others; and he promises that we shall be rewarded in heaven for good works that we do on earth. By giving his followers the Holy Spirit, Jesus also endows them the power to change in a way that no other religion offers. Jesus’ teaching is realistic about our limits of changing in this life, and yet it holds out hope for the future life. And, of course, only Jesus deals with the guilt of our sins by offering a propitiation for our sins in order that we may be forgiven.
The universal nature of the way of Jesus
In this pluralistic and post-modern age, for any one religion to claim to have universal validity is considered arrogant. We shall deal with this view in the next lecture, which is about the truth of Christianity, but here I just want to say three things:
(1) We already have a universal ethical standard. In general, around the world, people agree that we should honor our parents, be faithful to our spouse; we should not hate other people or injure them, or steal from them, or lie. Most people consider greed to be wrong, and citizens of all nations don’t like it when political leaders take bribes. Furthermore, love is held in high esteem everywhere.
(2) Systems of ethics do differ, however, and it is legitimate to ask whether all are equally true, or whether there is one that surpasses all the others. It is interesting to me that Christian teaching about moral conduct wins respect almost everywhere, even if Christians do not live up to the standards of the Bible. Many Chinese, for example, are deeply moved by the example of Christ, though perhaps they do not believe in him as savior. I met one professor from China a few months ago who is not a believer in the resurrection of Christ, but who thinks that China needs a culture that has been influenced by Christianity.
In the face of social injustice, Jesus spoke out boldly to rebuke those who did wrong, but he humbly submitted to unjust political leaders and indeed sacrificed himself for the benefit of others. This example had a profound impact on Mahatma Gandhi in India; Martin Luther King in America; and a number of Chinese writers in the 20th century. African bishops of the Anglican Church opposed American and English leaders who had approved of homosexual behavior.
Although it seems very strict, the commandment not to have sex with anyone outside of marriage actually has been shown to make possible better health and happier homes. The biblical teaching about sex has impressed many, because it protects women and children, as well as keeping everyone from contracting sexually-transmitted diseases like AIDS. On the other hand, engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage not only brings the risk of disease, but also creates anxiety, resentment, depression, and even violence.
Jesus also taught that we should not divorce our spouse and marry another. For more than forty years, Americans have experimented with easy divorce, and it has torn the heart out of our society. The same is happening in Asia as well. Maybe Jesus was right after all!
(3) From what I have said above, you can see why I think that the Bible provides the most comprehensive and useful ethical teaching, as well as giving us motives for Christian living and the power to change for the better. Furthermore, it tells us that there is only one God and that we must worship him alone. Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, equal with the Father, and able to give the Holy Spirit to those who trust in him. I few do not accept him as Lord of the universe, we are saying that the most important part of the Bible is wrong.
But people of all races and nations over the past two thousand years have put their trust in Christ as the only Way to the Father. As I said in my first lecture, I have been to several countries and have seen how the Bible is accepted as the Word of God, and I have seen that those who believe in Christ become one large family with similar faith, hope, and love. The ethical teachings of the Bible apply to all people at all times. To me, this is a strong reason for thinking that Jesus is the Way for all mankind.
In 2001, I had an emotional and physical breakdown, and had to take several months off to recover. Actually, I had had a chronic illness for more than twenty years, and this was just the climax of it. When I went to my doctor, he said that many of my symptoms could be caused by mild depression. I began to see several Christian counselors, one of whom reminded me that resentment can be a factor in depression. She asked whether I had any grudges against anyone, and I remembered that I had had major conflicts with two people that year. But that didn’t seem to explain my condition, so she asked, “Do you have any resentment against your wife?”
“I don’t think so,” I responded. “She and I are pretty good about communicating with each other when we are upset. We never have a “cold war,” but always talk about our conflicts until we have resolved them, which we usually do before the day is over.”
“Well, I still think that perhaps you do have some unconscious resentment against her,” she replied.
“How would I know?” I asked.
“Go home and pray about it; ask God to show you what is in your heart.”
So I went home and prayed, “Lord, I don’t think I have any resentment against Dori, but if I did, for what sort of things might I be holding a grudge?”
Immediately, twenty-one different things came to mind! Some were minor, other were very painful to remember. I had buried these in my heart so deeply that I didn’t know they were there, but they were eating away at me and sapping my energy, as well as causing me to feel low.
What could I do? Then I remembered the teaching of Jesus, “Judge not, lest you be judged… Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1, 3)
So, one by one, I asked God to show me where I had done something like what my wife had done to offend me. Sometimes it took a while, since I thought I was not guilty of the same fault that she was, but when I prayed for God to give me insight, he answered that prayer, and I saw that I, too, was at fault.
But then I had to realize that I not only had “speck” in my eye like hers, but a “beam” that was even more serious than hers. That took much longer! I tended to think that my offenses were less serious than hers, but after a while, I realized that I had disobeyed God by not loving my wife as I should. This is a very serious matter, so slowly I came to focus more on my errors than on Dori’s.
At the same time, I began to ask God to forgive me; to change me; to forgive Dori; and to change her. After six months, I was ready to talk with her about these things. When I did, it was not to criticize her, but to inform her of how she had hurt me without knowing it. She is a very godly woman, and her response was very humble.
I have applied this teaching of Jesus to other situations, as well, and have found that it works. For example, one day I was angry with my daughter because her room was messy. But rather than scolding her, I asked God to give me patience, and went downstairs to my office. What did I find there? My desk was really a mess! So, when I talked to her, I said, “You and I have a problem: We are both messy. I need to clean up my desk, and you need to clean up your room; let’s pray for God to help us both be neater.” She took that much better than she would have responded to a harsh scolding.
Now, whenever I am angry with someone, I ask God to show me the “beam” in my own eye. He always answers that prayer! It helps me to calm down quickly. The other person may still be wrong, but my attitude improves.
I think you will agree with me that this is a good way to deal with anger and to resolve conflicts between people, especially in the family, but also in larger groups. What if the American president said to the president of China, “We have some injustices and corruption in our country which I know are of concern to you. We are working on these and hope to improve. We are also concerned about the human rights situation in your country. Can we talk together about this? Perhaps we can learn from each other.”
In fact, the American Civil War would not have happened if both North and South had been willing to admit their wrongs and work together on a common solution to the problem of slavery and other things which were causing conflict between them. You can read more about this in my book, Hope Deferred.
Jesus taught that all of us are so corrupted in our inner nature that we are actually “slaves” to sin. When he said, “I am the Way,” he meant many things: His teachings provide principle for living; his example gives us a perfect pattern; his death pays the penalty for our sins against God; and his resurrection offers power to live a more loving life.
In the next lecture, we shall ask, “Is Jesus speaking the truth?”