Despite this profound influence on history, Jesus rarely focused on accumulating power and prestige for himself. Instead of articulating ways to gain worldly fame, Jesus valued outsiders and the poor as he preached about the importance of the soul. He closely examined the inner beings of every person he interacted with, and in many cases Jesus exposed previously hidden motivations for their actions. As a result he taught his followers to value people, places, and things in a manner very different than the rest of the world.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus’ interpretation of a poor widow’s offering (Mark 12 and Luke 21). The gospels claim that Jesus was at the temple of Jerusalem when he observed an unnamed widow giving two small copper coins to the offering. Instead of dismissing this negligible offering as worthless, Jesus prized it and praised the woman’s sacrifice. He specifically contrasted this seemingly minuscule gift with the large sums of money donated by other temple-goers. Jesus claimed that the widow’s offering was worth more than theirs as he boasted that she had “put in more than all the others.”
This story exemplifies the central place that Jesus gave to inner conviction and steadfast virtue. As Christ explained, the widow exhibited faith not because of the monetary impact of her gift but because she was giving from poverty and trusting God with her livelihood. In this story Jesus showed that true virtue could be found in an unlikely person having seemingly little to no effect on the larger world.
The ethics that Jesus taught in this story were profound but not unprecedented; in fact many previous scriptures had demonstrated God’s value of intention, belief, and virtue. The Bible as a whole exudes the same focus, as the passages below make clear:
“All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, But the LORD weights the motives.” – Proverbs 16:2
“I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.” – Jeremiah 17:10
“…for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." – 1 Samuel 16:7
What the attentive reader finds throughout the Bible, then, is a God who desires to move past the exterior and into the very center or spirit of human beings. While He does acknowledge the importance of results, the God of the Bible makes it clear that what He values most is the intention to do what is right, both in ends as well as in means.
This notion of soul-centered ethics is particularly important because so much of our contemporary lives seem to be dominated by alternative considerations. In American politics especially, effects-centric ethics seem to reign supreme. Leading political networks preach a message that casts inner motivation, mindset, and methodology as worthless if they don’t produce the desired effect. A “wasted” action in their estimation is one that doesn’t produce result in their goal. Accordingly our modern mindset would likely be the first to argue against the widow in Matthew and Luke; our worldview would claim that her paltry contribution had a negligible impact on the temple’s budget and did little good for anyone including herself.
The problem with Christians falling into this type of thinking is that it can easily lead us to compromise our moral standards. We can become so focused on achieving a desired end state that we become willing to adopt any kinds of means to get there. We will soon find ourselves justifying decisions we would never make otherwise, as we use non-Biblical moral justifications like “the ends justify the means” or “we must choose the lesser of two evils.” Such decision-making leads us away from the virtue to which Christ calls us and into a moral calculus of vice, something the Bible specifically warns against.
The decay of morality along these lines is evident in the modern Christian left as many liberal Christians continually disregard scandal after scandal from Hillary Clinton. Despite her repeated lies, distortions of the truth, and willful manipulation of the political process, Clinton’s defenders continue to look past her disqualifications. The most common argument they offer is that her mistakes pale in comparison to Donald Trump’s equally glaring weaknesses. In many liberal Christians’ minds, offering support to a corrupt candidate is justified because of the effect it will have in preventing the Republican from winning the White House.
Unfortunately, this election season many Christian members of the right have been equally guilty. Despite observing ethical failings that would cause them to immediately decry a Democratic opponent as unqualified, many Christian leaders have twisted their ethical centers into pretzels to try and justify voting for Trump. Their argument is always the same: the effect of not voting for Trump outweighs the suspect decision of aligning American Christianity with a morally deficient candidate. Whether it’s to secure conservative Supreme Court justices or prevent another Clinton White House, the same Christian leaders who long emphasized the importance of character in politics now seem to be the quickest to dismiss it for the sake of a potential victory.
Christian ethics, we must remember, involves a wholesale rejection of these effects-centric calculations and compromised standards. As evident in the case of the widow, Jesus believed that the value of our decisions could not be judged solely by results. In the widow’s case it was her faith and commitment to do what was right, regardless of worldly value, which gave her offering its value. As Jeremiah 17:10 makes clear, God looks not only at the end state of our goals but the entire process of our decision-making in judging us. He considers the “results of the deed” only after “searching the heart,” “testing the mind,” and giving “according to [a person’s] ways.” To focus exclusively on a desired effect, and accept any means necessary in the process, is to invite vice into the equation.
In the coming weeks many God-fearing, devout Christians will be casting their votes in the US presidential election. My hope and prayer is that every one of us would examine our innermost selves and deepest convictions before we make our decision. I pray that we would each take time to consider the morality of the candidates in addition to the effects we want to achieve by electing them. Ultimately, I pray that we would each consider the example we are setting for others, and ask ourselves questions such as these:
Is it courage or fear that motivates me to choose a candidate?
Am I calculating my vote based on what others might do, or am I following my conscience regardless of the election’s results?
Am I maintaining steadfast virtue and integrity, or am I compromising my standards in the hopes of winning an election?
Am I allying myself with someone shameful in the hope of achieving something good?
In examining our souls in this way, I pray that we as Christians will rediscover the truth that the methodology of our decisions matters just as much as their effects. As our Savior teaches us, a truly Christian ethics leads us to do what is morally right no matter the cost.