My son had a really difficult time at AWANA this week dealing with a boy who has been a lot of trouble for him. This kid cheats on the rec yard incessantly and harasses James for being a goody two shoes. His desire to win is so strong that he does whatever it takes, including breaking the rules, to make sure that he is the king of the hill. Winning is the goal, so ethics are all geared around the best way to win! James is very keen on doing the right thing and has a strong sense of justice, so it drives him nuts to have to deal with that kid.
I read a fascinating article on MSNBC on Tax Day titled “Why we cheat on our taxes.” There were lots of great tidbits in the article, but the issue that stood out to me the most were the psychological reasons that people can still feel good about themselves when they cheat, labeling this “moral flexibility”:
- When we cheat just a little bit, so that our cheating is a small transgression and not a major one.
- When a lot of people around us do the same.
- When the act is more hidden.
I was thinking about these motivations today, and they crack me up. Even more, the phrase “moral flexibility” is an intriguing one. Using euphemisms to hide what is really going on just doesn’t help anyone in my opinion! “Moral flexibility” is a nice way of saying “cheating.” We don’t like to think of ourselves as liars (you know, Revelation 21:8 and all), so we find a term that is easier to handle than “lying on our taxes.” Then I thought through the list and tried to remove the euphemisms in it, and it boils down to this:
- As long as my cheating is, in my opinion, less than most people’s then I think it is okay. We grade on a giant bell curve in our minds, with maybe Mother Theresa on the side and Bernie Madoff on the other. So long as we are closer to the (soon to be) saint than the sinner we feel safe, like we’re better than average so we’re okay.
- Ah, groupthink. There is nothing like the idea that as long as everyone is doing it, it’s okay. It must be fair for you to cheat because everyone is cheating. There are the “stated” rules and then there are the “real” rules that everyone actually plays by. Since others cheat, cheating isn’t as bad.
- This one is really the “can I get caught” factor. If the probability of being caught in cheating is low, then we feel safer and better doing it. Since money is a subject that doesn’t get discussed much, and since no one sees my taxes but the evil IRS agent, then it’s okay to cheat since the probability of being caught is low.
While the article really focused on taxes, the application of this mindset is really far broader than that. How many guys have we seen cheat on their wives, with these three ideas behind them? They are on a business trip, the other guys are doing it, and it’s not like they are “pulling a Tiger” right? How many students will look at another student’s paper for help on a test because everyone else is, because it’s not likely that the professor will see, and others do a lot worse. The attitude is contagious; it just comes up more at tax time because we all have to deal with this urge in April.
This month in our online Bible study (find it on Yahoo or join our Facebook group) we are reading Psalm 119:1-88, and time and again the Psalmist talks about this kind of issue. This Psalm is an acrostic, with each letter in the Hebrew Alphabet being used as the first letter of eight successive lines. Psalm 119:1-8 (all starting with the Hebrew letter Aleph) reminds us where true blessing comes from:
1 How blessed are those whose way is blameless,
Who walk in the law of the LORD.
2 How blessed are those who observe His testimonies,
Who seek Him with all their heart.
3 They also do no unrighteousness;
They walk in His ways.
4 You have ordained Your precepts,
That we should keep them diligently.
5 Oh that my ways may be established
To keep Your statutes!
6 Then I shall not be ashamed
When I look upon all Your commandments.
7 I shall give thanks to You with uprightness of heart,
When I learn Your righteous judgments.
8 I shall keep Your statutes;
Do not forsake me utterly!
True happiness and joy from God comes not from financial security, but from obedience. How blessed are those who seek God with their whole heart and are not seduced by the temptation to cheat! Whether it be on their taxes, their spouse, or their employer, a Christian is called to remember their Lord and live for Him and not for the thrill of today. I think that verse 6 is really important to this discussion, as the Psalmist asks God for obedience so that he doesn’t have to look at God’s commandments and be ashamed. How often do we sin in ways like this, then either feel shame when we read Scripture or decide not to pick up our Bible because we know the shame that awaits?
Another part of this issue is the “everyone is doing it” mindset. It’s not hard to repeat the old saw that your mom used on you whenever this mindset reared its ugly head: “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” Even more to the point, in Psalm 119:49-56 the Psalmist addresses the issue of following the crowd when they dishonor the Lord:
49 Remember the word to Your servant,
In which You have made me hope.
50 This is my comfort in my affliction,
That Your word has revived me.
51 The arrogant utterly deride me,
Yet I do not turn aside from Your law.
52 I have remembered Your ordinances from of old, O LORD,
And comfort myself.
53 Burning indignation has seized me because of the wicked,
Who forsake Your law.
54 Your statutes are my songs
In the house of my pilgrimage.
55 O LORD, I remember Your name in the night,
And keep Your law.
56 This has become mine,
That I observe Your precepts.
I love his attitude here. Regardless of what the rest of the people are doing, he wants to honor God and obey Him. Whether everyone else is acting wrongly or not, we need to remember that God is there to strengthen us and help us make the right decisions. Peer pressure can be handled if we remember that the approval of God is more important than the approval of people!
Finally, I am struck in Psalm 119 about the ways that the Lord provides for His people when they follow Him and seek Him rather than the world. Okay, cheating on taxes or pulling the wool over your bosses’ eyes might get you ahead for a moment, but in the grand scheme of things it will only cause pain. We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10-15), and on that day we will not be able to hide. On that day there will be great reward for those who trusted in the faithfulness and provision of God more than their own ability to lie convincingly.
In James’ case, I told him to hang in there with that kid and keep doing things the right way. This kid only comes to church on Wednesday nights for AWANA, and only sporadically. He probably doesn’t know any better, but James certainly does. So I told him this week to keep honoring God with his actions and attitude and keep showing this other kid the right thing to do, knowing that God can see his integrity and is pleased with it.
We are called to be people of integrity who follow the Lord and not our culture. The world cheats because everyone is doing it and they won’t get caught, but for Christians we have a higher calling. Don’t get caught in the trap of cheating, because God is bigger than your tax bill and bigger than today’s temptation. Take Him at His word and serve Him in integrity, knowing that you will reap a harvest of righteousness and hear “well done, good and faithful servant” when your days are done.