Can You Tell Right from Wrong?
DO YOU know the difference between right and wrong? ‘Of course I do,’ you might say. Yet today’s rapidly deteriorating moral standards indicate it is not always so easy to do so.
Even the churches are no longer giving a clear lead. Highlighting the problems many have in this regard, Roman Catholic priest Kevin Madigan said: “Sins aren’t that clear-cut any more. Things are changing so rapidly. What’s on today’s list of sins may not be on tomorrow’s.” Is there anywhere we can look for help to decide what is right and what is wrong?
One authoritative work that has satisfied the hunger of millions of people for reliable moral guidance is the Bible. This book has not changed its basic principles of morality for 2,000 years. It has stability, practicality and, most importantly for the 1980’s, it works.
However, in spite of the fact that the Bible is the world’s all-time best seller, and in some countries nearly every home has a copy, there is still widespread moral confusion. This indicates that merely possessing the Bible—and even reading it—does not guarantee that we have learned to tell right from wrong. Something more is needed.
OUR POWER OF PERCEPTION
The writer of the Bible book of Hebrews spoke about this problem. He said: “Solid food belongs to mature people, to those who through use have their perceptive powers trained to distinguish both right and wrong.” (Heb. 5:14) Here he shows that those who can successfully tell right from wrong are mature people, not inexperienced or childish persons. They have powers of discernment, so that they can see through deceptive appearances or blandishments and can make right decisions. These powers of discernment have been sharpened by experience or “use.” And they are constantly being reinforced by “solid food,” or meaty spiritual information from the Bible.
But there are factors that may make it difficult for a Christian to attain to that kind of mature perception.
The writer of Hebrews says that our “perceptive powers” are employed in differentiating right from wrong. The Greek word translated “perceptive powers” literally refers to our “organs of perception,” or “the perceptive faculties of the mind” (according to Word Studies in the New Testament, by Marvin R. Vincent). But our perception so often has a fatal flaw. What is it?
We are imperfect, prone to sin. (Gen. 8:21; Rom. 5:12) So our senses can be deceived into believing that something is good solely because it is something that we want, or it excites us, while, in fact, it may be lethal.
Hence, we need to train our senses not to be easily deceived, as a child would be. We have to learn to exercise moral discrimination as a discerning adult would.
For example, a very young child, upon being offered two coins, would naturally select the larger, shinier one over the smaller, duller coin, even if the smaller coin was more valuable. Why? Because he has not been trained to distinguish the value of money. To his untrained senses, the bigger and glossier coin is better.
When he gets older, he may understand better the value of money. But then he may have difficulties with food. He may prefer eating ice cream, candies, cookies and cakes instead of things like vegetables and other body-building foods. Why? Because the sweet things taste better to him.
Similarly in the matter of deciding right and wrong, we have to learn that what is pleasant to our senses is not always right. The correct thing may not always be the most exciting or the easiest thing, but it will always be morally right and the most beneficial for us. As the writer of the book of Hebrews indicated, it often takes maturity to discern what it is.
POPULARITY AND GLAMOR OF WRONGDOING
A second factor that makes it difficult to tell right from wrong is the fact that in this world wrong conduct is popularized and even glamorized. Scenes that appear today on television and in movies would have scandalized most decent people a few decades ago. Yet now they pass without censure. Why? Because lower moral standards have been introduced gradually, and people have been subtly trained to accept them. Often, morally bad things are portrayed in a situation that appears innocent or humorous, thus confusing a viewer’s moral judgment.
As an example of this, notice the comments of one television critic about coming programs in the United States. Doubtless the same could be said for many other lands. She stated:
“We’re headed for a sexsational fall season, so you’ll have to be your own censor. Among the subjects to be pondered are:
“Should a young teenager sleep with her boyfriend in the same motel in which her mother is having an affair?—CBS ‘Midland Heights.’
“Will two virile men masquerading as women score in sexual relations in an all-girls hotel?—ABC ‘Bosom Buddies.’
“Those are only samples of what’s ahead in September.
“Television will be operating on the theory that all America lives, breathes and thinks is nothing but sex. Not sex in the normal manner . . . but sex in the embarrassing, stupid, juvenile way designed to titillate viewers.”
Advertising similarly tries to make wrong appear harmless. It is almost impossible to pick up a magazine, look at a billboard or watch a television commercial and not see an advertisement that panders to the baser instincts. Especially are youths a prime target. “There has been an explosion in sexually suggestive commercials using child models and aiming at the prepuberty set,” reports the New York Times.
Additionally, well-known personalities in the sporting, social and political fields reveal secrets of their misconduct that would have shocked their followers years ago. But now such things merely excite their fans into imitating their life-styles.
All this propaganda can result in a dulling of our perception of what is right and wrong. To counteract it, we need to sharpen our perception through regular meditation on the benefits of applying a higher, divine moral standard.—Ps. 119:104.
Another factor is peer pressure. It is natural for us to want to be liked by others. But in this there is a danger. Workmates, schoolmates, neighbors, family members or anyone with whom we associate can exert a strong, persuasive influence on us to distort our discernment of right and wrong. One survey has revealed that only 10 percent of the adult population bases moral decisions upon their conscience guided by chosen ethical principles regardless of what others believe.
The Bible shows that we should resist peer pressure to do wrong, saying: “You went along with the crowd and were just like all the others, full of sin.” (Eph. 2:2, The Living Bible) However, that desire to be liked by others can be harnessed for good, if we associate with those whose moral standards we can respect because they are noble and godly. So, “let us consider one another to incite to love and fine works, not forsaking the gathering of ourselves together, as some have the custom, but encouraging one another, and all the more so as you behold the day drawing near.”—Heb. 10:24, 25.
Yes, Christians can sharpen their moral perceptiveness by regular association at Christian meetings where God’s elevated moral principles are respected. This can be a wholesome type of “peer pressure.”
COMPLEXITY OF MODERN LIVING
A fourth factor is the complexity of modern living. Jesus told us what kind of conduct is wrong, saying: “Out of the heart come wicked reasonings, murders, adulteries, fornications, thieveries, false testimonies, blasphemies.” (Matt. 15:19) These words are not hard to understand.
But what about the so-called gray area where decisions about right and wrong may not be so clear-cut? In matters of recreation, business dealings, music and dancing, styles of dress, and so forth, it is often difficult to say just when a practice becomes a sin.
Suppose a married man happens to see a woman (not his wife) and takes note of the fact that she is good-looking and well-dressed. Is he breaking God’s law? Probably not. But suppose this same man looks at the woman with interest, speculates as to whether she is “available,” if she will pass that way the next day, and so forth. At what point does he pass the invisible line and commit immorality with her “in his heart”—Matt. 5:28.
Similarly, a woman may relax by watching television or reading magazines. Suddenly, she realizes that she is fantasizing romantically with someone on the television screen or on the magazine page. When did she cross that invisible line?
What is the moral boundary between a good business deal and a shrewd, cunning one? Or when does a dance, or a dress, cease to be modest and become seductive or suggestive? When does a drinker of alcoholic beverages become a ‘heavy drinker’? (Prov. 23:20) When does a Christian cease to ask spiritually healthy questions in faith and become a doubter or a skeptic?
In such matters, we need keen “perceptive powers” so as to be able to tell right from wrong. Particularly can youths and newly baptized Christians be deceived in these areas. Inexperienced young persons are not acquainted with the subtle ways of this corrupting world, and newly baptized persons are not always aware of just how Bible principles should be applied. Both need to have their “perceptive powers” further trained, and this can be done only by taking in more “solid food”—firm, reliable truths from God’s Word, the Bible.—Heb. 5:13, 14.
All Christians need to be “stabilized in the faith.” (Col. 2:6, 7) Then the changing winds of the moral philosophies of this world will not deceive or seduce us. Parents and Bible teachers do well to remember that serving Jehovah means more than knowing the doctrines of the Kingdom. It also means understanding and following God’s righteousness.—Matt. 6:33.
As the ‘anything goes’ moral code becomes more entrenched in this world, let us now become more decisive in aligning our way of life with the sure standards of our heavenly Father. And as the world breaks all the rules of godly conduct—thus betraying an “unintelligent heart” and an ‘emptyheadedness in their reasonings’—let us train our “perceptive powers” through regularity in reading the Bible and meditating on it. Let us associate with others of “like precious faith” who can exert a wholesome “peer pressure” on us and can strengthen us against corruption. In the same way, let us help others to “behave in a manner worthy of the good news.”—Rom. 1:21, 28; Phil. 1:27; 2 Pet. 1:1, Authorized Version.
Though confusion rules this world’s moral standards, Christians are trained to distinguish right from wrong. They follow the fine advice: “Whatever things are true, whatever things are of serious concern, whatever things are righteous, whatever things are chaste, whatever things are lovable, whatever things are well spoken of, whatever virtue there is and whatever praiseworthy thing there is, continue considering these things.” If you regularly do this, “the God of peace will be with you.”—Phil. 4:8, 9.
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Do you know how to judge values? What is shiny or sugary sweet may appeal most to the young