I once heard a seminary professor say something along the lines of “I hope I never find myself extracting principles from the Bible.” I was admittedly shocked and appalled. Was not the Bible the hallmark for establishing Christian principles?
Over time, I have reflected on his comment and continued to strive after understanding. I think it finally came as I contemplated 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “pray without ceasing” (NAS). This verse has been one that I have tried to think on since the early days of my Christian walk nearly two decades ago. What does it mean to “pray without ceasing”?
As I reflect, I see two ways to embrace Scripture. In one sense, it is a guidebook, a means to know what behavior is acceptable and what is not, hence it creates an opportunity for me to establish a set of guidelines, a moral checklist, so to speak, by which I will know daily if I am a good person, a holy one, or an evil, unholy one. This is a principles-based religion, the essence of the Mosaic Law.
The other option is to embrace Scripture as a story revealing God and His character, and me and mine, juxtaposed to each other. It also reveals what God has done to alleviate the shortcomings I find in my own character. Rather than a principles-based understanding, I find myself confronted with a relational understanding of what the Bible is all about.
There is a deep philosophic question pertaining to character and behavior as to which precedes the other. Do we act out of behavior or into it? The problem arises in the Western mind by applying an undue bifurcation. Why do we insist that it is a question of Option A or Option B? In truth, we see that character on-display (ethic or behavior) is a product of mindset (belief or morality) and, at the same time, mindset is a product of character (moral determination). And both involve willful choices, choosing both what to believe and what to do.
The first, that our mindset determines our behavior is seen in that we base many decisions on what we believe already to be true, especially as concerns moral issues. The story of Jesus teaches us we should be compassionate and since I am a follower of Jesus that is the ethical response to the world I should embody. And from that mindset we tend to practice compassion even sometimes when we do not feel particularly compassionate, or even feel nothing at all. This is a principles-based response.
At the same time, we form the character of children, or disciples, by teaching and directing them to think and act in particular ways and, much like practicing the piano, the behavior is learned and improved by practice and correction for misbehaving. Receiving moral instruction begins to establish neural links that are then reinforced or undermined by ongoing behavior and events. At the same time, being fundamentally pragmatic creatures bent on survival and a desire to thrive, we sometimes act, assess the results of our actions, then determine beliefs based on the corresponding relationships between the events.
As becomes apparent, the conundrum appears in that we are not always able to discern which came first, the proper order of things, such as the classic chicken and egg paradox. So, how then should we anticipate engaging Scripture?
The fundamental issue lies in the heart of our beliefs about the God of the Bible, and the nature of our relationship to Him. Is God disconnected from us, having simply handed down directives to inform our behavior, or is God vibrantly relational, speaking into every situation? The Bible is limited by the reality of being a set number of words and sentences. Some will be put off by that but I ask that they consider we are talking about an infinite God. No number of books could contain all about God nor would our limited human capacity allow us to know and retain all about Him.
But let’s put the “pray without ceasing” into another analogy. Psalm 150:6 says “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” If we understand that all of creation exists from the impetus of God and that God’s will holds creation in suspension. In a very real way, as we live and breathe we are interacting either within or outside the will of God. As our heart pumps blood through our bodies, we rely on God’s favor to keep it beating. In this sense, we are always connected to or communicating with the reality of God. Hence, by becoming aware of that and practicing a continuing awareness of it, we start to understand how “praying without ceasing” is bringing the core of our being into relationship with God.
If I believe that God supplies every breath and ensures each heart thump, and think on it intentionally, I begin to realize that God’s voice, the voice that spoke creation into being and sustains it now, never stops speaking. It is an eternal voice. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are always in contact with the divine. But if we are aware, then we have the opportunity to bring our will into alignment with God’s will. Our “praying without ceasing” gives us opportunity to examine what our appeals to God are saying as we pursue knowing God, as we would any other with which we have relationship.
The relational nature of the Bible is meant to help us know God as His character is stated and demonstrated. Knowing His character will help us in learning to hear His voice, to recognize that voice as it speaks through others, through the Bible itself, or as it speaks through circumstances and opportunities. The three persons of the godhead—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are just that: persons. As we look to know God we discover how God acts and responds to us and we measure persons by character. Are they trustworthy? Are they consistent? Are they just? And we respond, we relate, to the character.
We do not live our earthly social relationships consciously according to principles lest we miss the subtle nuances of relationships and the importance of give and take within them. We live human relationships according to how we see and anticipate the other parties we engage. If we act only according to principles, we become complex automatons guided by an increasingly complex set of rules. The complexity of the number of circumstances we face through time, given the extent and varied experience of the entire human family, is beyond quantifying. Hence, “principles” must remain fluid for the purposes of adaptability and they tend to lose their fixed-ness as we must adapt to changing social and cultural constructs. The farther we go in life, the more difficult it is to predict how we should or will react in every possible circumstance.
In the end, a principles-based approach, whether it be to how we practice business, how we play team sports, or how we relate to our spouses, children, or church families, must become overly legalistic on the one hand if we try to keep it simple enough to manage, or pointless on the other hand if we leave it flexible enough to adapt to every circumstance and it become unmanageable.
A major tenet of Christian faith is that we are being “reconstituted,” being transformed and taking on the divine character. As this process occurs, generally labeled sanctification, who we are is redefined, most especially as to how we relate to God, others, and ourselves. Our responses to God, people, and circumstances then should be assessed according to character rather than principle, and we act out of who we are (or desire to become) rather than principles which are, in effect, a catalog of do’s and don’t’s.
As the article title intimates, there is an inherent pitfall in trying to approach business (or any endeavor, in fact) with a principles-based mindset. The pitfall is that it puts us in charge of determining what is good and evil, exactly the downfall that led to Adam and Eve being put out of the Garden of Eden. We establish a set of moral tests that determine outcomes but hit a wall when confronted by circumstances that do not fit our model. Our behavior might be assessable by a principled review but trying too much to be led by principles will either not allow us the flexibility to adapt to unforeseen possibilities or our system will be undermined, under constant revision and increasingly fluid, as we realize the rigidity of that approach.
As said, trying to “be Christian” is a chicken and egg conundrum. Jesus and the other models of holiness in the Bible show us what holy behaviors looks like and we should set out to emulate them. We will find ourselves unable and frustrated when we fail because, at given points in time, our character has not yet been transformed such that righteousness is as natural as breathing. Principles are a good tool for assessing ourselves and others, inspecting the fruit of our lives as evidence of character. But being in vital relationship with God, praying without ceasing, will guide every circumstance and situation without the burden of Law.