On February 18, 2013, Terry Gross, whose voice carries the wispy sensation of Fresh Air that names the National Public Radio (NPR) show she hosts, was interviewing Richard Blanco “the first immigrant, Latino and openly gay poet” chosen to read his poem at a presidential inauguration, President Obama’s second.
When I dropped in the conversation after dropping my granddaughter off, Blanco was discussing a poem he had written about his grandmother. It was clear, from the smug self-righteous confidence that some people exude when they are sure their perspective is right, that he had sized up his grandmother as “wrong.”
Despite his condescending attitude, a lot of the interview intrigued me, but one comment stood out in particular. Referring to the surprising hold that his grandmother’s influence still has on him, Blanco recounted a conversation with a friend in which he, Blanco, said he ‘ought’ to do something. The friend wanted to know why Blanco often said, “I ought …” instead of “I want …”
This comment and the conversation that followed left no doubt that the poet believed “ought” is wrong and “want” is right. In other words we ought never to say, “I ought.” We ought only to say, “I want.”
That discussion brought me to these three questions:
- Who’s in charge of the “oughts”?
- For the Christian believer, is “ought” contrary to “want”? Can “ought” and “want” be the same thing?
- Can we say, “ought,” without saying it from a smug and self-righteous heart?
1. Who’s in charge of the oughts?
God is. Perhaps that sounds simplistic and smug to you, and you are thinking that maybe I’m coming from the same attitude I just disapproved of, but bear with me.
The Christian believer believes that God exists, that he created the world, that he controls the world, and that he relates to people in the world. He has authority over his creation because he is the author of it. The believer accepts that God thinks and speaks authentically and, therefore, consistently (God never changes) from who he is – so that his revelation of himself through nature, word (as well as dreams, visions, and theophanies – all found in Scripture), and, ultimately, in Christ is consistent with his character. And the believer believes that God judges the world according to God’s own standard. So, for the believer, God determines what we “ought” to be, think, say, and do.
2. For the believer, is “ought” contrary to “want”? Can “ought” and “want” be the same thing?
In order to answer this question, it seems helpful to establish, why we do what we do. I’m thankful for Dr. John M. Frame’s more in-depth discussion on ethics in his online article, Perspectives on the Word of God, Part 3 and in his chapter on ethics in The Doctrine of God for his help with this answer.
Why do we do what we do?
From Secular Ethics: We do what we do because we should – because it is moral law. Certain universal values are intrinsically wrong or right. Moral absolutes are intuitive.
From the Bible: For the believer God’s moral law, that is consistent with his moral character, is the basis of what is right and what is wrong (Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Peter 1:14-16; 1 John 4:7-8).
From Secular Ethics: We do what we do because of who we are. Said another way, who we are (our character and the motives that flow from it) determines what we do. We are true to ourselves.
From the Bible: Out of the heart comes …
– the issues of life (Proverbs 4:23; 29:13).
– what we say (Matthew 12:34).
– forgiveness (Matthew 18:35).
– genuine love (Mark 12:30, 33).
– good and evil (Matthew 15:19; Luke 6:45; 8:15; 16:15; Acts 5:3).
From Secular Ethics: We do what we do because of the consequences we expect to result from our behavior. We expect our behavior to achieve a goal such as personal happiness, or group happiness, or pleasure, or power.
From the Bible: Believers do believe in and expect consequence of what we do. We believe God, as author and creator, determines what is real – what is really good and right and really bad and wrong – and, therefore, his consequences are sure (Psalm 93:5; 111:7; Hosea 14:9). We believe God is the judge of what is right and wrong and the rewarder of both good and bad (Ecclesiastes 3:17; Matthew 16:27; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 2:6-11; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10; Hebrews 11:6). But we believe that our consequences will be based (in the end), not on what we did right, but on what Christ did right (Romans 4:4-8; Romans 9:11; Ephesians 2:8-10). His right doing is transferred to us. However, we also believe that our right doing is a fruit of faith in Christ – good works are a result of resting secure in the right doing of Christ (James 2:14-18).
Pulling it All Together
So, here’s my summary to the question,
that I think is right based on the biblical ethical perspectives above. For the believer, God determines the oughts, the moral law that we ought to follow. He transforms us from the inside out so that, as we progress through the Christian life, we become more and more like him so that more and more we want to do what we ought to do. God’s oughts become our wants. This is true freedom from sin – another discussion. And to top it all off, we expect to get the rewards God promises – ultimately eternal life with him – not by earning them by doing what we ought but from becoming, by the power of the Spirit at work within us, who God has created us to be (people who want to do what we ought to do, Jeremiah 24:7, Jeremiah 32: 39-41; Ezekiel 36:26-27).
3. Can we say, “ought,” without saying it from a smug and self-righteous heart?
Yes. We can and must say “ought” in humility because the “oughts” we are taking about are not based on any arbitrary human standard, nor on human reasoning, nor our own prerogative, (all of which flow from and lead to prideful attitudes) but on God’s word. As Dr. Frame puts it in his The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, our knowledge is “servant-knowledge” so that when we want to know what we “ought” to do, we look not to ourselves or to some other arbitrary standard, but to God’s word to discover what our Lord says, and then we agree with him.
Oughts and God’s Glory
Since the oughts proceed from God and reflect his character, our obedience to them – to God – shows that we value who he is and what he has said. Our obedience shows that we think God is worth obeying. So we glorify God by attributing value and worth to him. Furthermore, our obedience from the heart glorifies God since it displays God’s character in our own lives – God glorifies himself through his work in us.
Praying that God’s oughts are your wants.
Frame, John M., The Doctrine of God: A Theology of Lordship, “Ethics,” vol. 2, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002, pp. 119-159, 185-198.
Frame, John M., The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: A Theology of Lordship, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987, pp. 45.
Frame, John M., Perspectives on the Word of God, Part 3 of 3: “The Word of God and Christian Ethics,” published in IIIM Magazine Online, (thirdmill.org) vol. 1, (18), June 20 to July 4, 1999, accessed February 26, 2013 from http://www.thirdmill.org/files/english/html/th/th.h.frame.perspectives.word.3.html
You might also be interested in Frame & Polythress, Do We Need God to Be Moral?: “A Debate between John Frame and Paul Kurtz,” accessed February 26, 2013 from http://www.frame-poythress.org/do-we-need-god-to-be-moral/