Do the Right Thing: Biblical Help for Decision-Making, Part One

As followers of Christ, we want to live in a way that pleases our King. We want to do the right thing. The problem is, the "right thing" isn't always so easy to discern. In fact, in all my years of Christian ministry, this has been the practical question I have seen people wrestle with more than any other: How do I know what the right thing is? While I acknowledge this can be a difficult question to answer, I have also found two pieces of guidance in Scripture that have freed me from the stress and fear of choosing the wrong thing. In fact, they have made decision-making in the moment easier than I could have ever imagined. The first piece of guidance is based on our role as image-bearers. 

@@We want to do the right thing. The problem is, we don't always know what the right thing is.@@

God’s Word teaches us that human beings are intended to reflect God’s image. Genesis 1:26 shows that this was God’s intent in the original act of creation when he declared, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). This is also God’s intention in the new creation. Though God’s image has been distorted in humanity as the result of human sin, he promises to restore his image in his people. He does this through the person and work of Jesus Christ, the true and perfect image-bearer, who is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and the “exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3). Those who are in Christ have been “predestined to be conformed to the image of his [God the Father’s] Son” (Romans 8:28). This restoration of God’s image in his people is not instantaneous, but gradual. They “are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). God promises that the process will be fully realized when Jesus returns. At that time “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). In short, we were created, and recreated, for the purpose of reflecting God’s image as we move toward the consummation of all things, where we reflect him perfectly. As such, our decisions ought to be made on the basis of how well they reflect God’s image and whether or not they move us further toward our ultimate goal.

@@Our decisions ought to be made on the basis of how well they reflect God's image@@

This is clearly the basis for Paul’s ethics. For example, he commands the Philippians to “value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others…” because this is “…the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had” (Philippians 2:3-5). Similarly, when encouraging the Corinthian church to give generously, Paul explains they ought to do this because it accurately reflects the image of God. He explains, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Peter bases his ethics on the same principle. Peter commands Christians to live holy lives because “he who called you [God] is holy” (1 Peter 1:15). He likewise tells Christians to submit to authority, even if it brings suffering. He justifies this potentially controversial command on the basis that Jesus did the same, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23). The Apostles present image-bearing as the basis for their ethic because Jesus, their Master, did the same. For instance, Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies and pray for them so that they may be children of their Father in heaven. In other words, they are to do this so they will reflect the image of God who causes “his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Jesus’ followers are not only to love their enemies as a reflection of God’s image. They are also to love each other on the same basis. Jesus commands, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35, emphasis mine).

In addition to making decisions that most accurately reflect God’s image, we are also to avoid those decisions which contradict God’s nature and character. We are to avoid lying because it does not accurately reflect the image of God, who is the personification of truth. Paul writes, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:9-10). We are to avoid adultery and divorce because they contradict God’s nature of covenant-keeping faithfulness. “I hate divorce,” God declares through Malachi (Malachi 2:17). For that reason, Malachi marvels that people created in the image of God could so distort his image through adultery and divorce. “Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another?” (Malachi 2:10). Even idolatry is to be avoided on the basis that it is inconsistent with God’s nature and image. “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols” (Isaiah 42:8). Because God will put no god before himself we must not put any gods before him (Exodus 20:2-3).

(You can't title your blog Do the Right Thing and not expect us to throw this in there. -HB) Image credit to Universal Pictures.

(You can't title your blog Do the Right Thing and not expect us to throw this in there. -HB) Image credit to Universal Pictures.

An action is right or wrong on the basis of whether or not that action reflects who God is and what God is like. Thus, the better we know God through Scripture, as well as our experience, the more likely we are to rightly assess what moral choices are good and what moral choices are bad. We do this using reason and wisdom, both of which are gifts from God, to apply Scripture to our daily decisions. Of course, image-bearing requires more than just right action. It also requires right motivation. Thus, we are most ethical when we are most reflecting God’s image in both our action and our motivation. Everything that God does he does for the glory of his name (Isaiah 43:7, 25) and for the good of his creation (Romans 8:28). Consequently, the glory of God and the good of our neighbors are the ethical motivations for our ethical actions. This is what Jesus teaches us in saying that all of his commandments are fulfilled by us loving God and loving our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). Thus, while it is ethical to tell the truth it is unethical to tell the truth because of a self-righteous desire to be admired by self or others for truth-telling. Instead, we are to tell the truth for the glory of the God who made us, to reflect his truthful nature, and for the good of our neighbor, for whom it would be unloving for us to deceive.

This is not to say that one can never be concerned for oneself. While self-interest should not be the guiding principle of ethics, self-interest is not in and of itself unethical. Jesus, the perfect image-bearer, modeled this for us in his time on earth. He cared for himself spiritually when he “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16) and cared for himself physically in assuring he had adequate rest (Mark 4:35-38) and asking for another to provide him with water to drink (John 4:7). Though this often meant that Jesus was essentially saying “no” to many who wanted his attention and help, it was necessary in order for him to bring the most glory to God and the most good to others. Thus, we can know that self-care is the right thing to do when it is approached with the ethical, teleological motivation of bringing glory to God and good to others. This is the consequence we ought to consider when making ethical decisions. As Paul instructs, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17).

When faced with a decision, therefore, our first response ought to be “How can I best reflect the image of God in this situation?” In numerous cases, asking this question will be enough. Of course, in other cases, it won't be. There are many times in which the options before us are equally good, in a relative sense, or equally indifferent. How do we know what the right thing is in those cases? This is the question we will address in part two.

Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He is the founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-ethnic church in Portland, and now serves as a missionary helping plant churches in Mexico City, Mexico. Connect with him on twitter or facebook