Higher Vision: Why Jesus’s Morality Is Better Than Ours

Photo by hermaion
Photo by hermaion

“Morality is the herd-instinct in the individual,” Friedrich Nietzche wrote. Einstein said, “A man’s ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs.”

Morality, in other words, is determined by our surroundings: by the needs, expectations, and ties of the people around us.


Nietzche and Einstein got it right, partly. The word morality derives from the idea of mores, “the customs, values, and behaviors” that govern a society, whether through law or simply through cultural pressure. Every society has cultural mores by which we judge behavior, set expectations for another, and separate those who are acceptable from those who are not.

That’s why nonconformity is such a crime against society and why shame is such a significant part of traditional morality: shame is what happens when our behavior doesn’t conform to social expectations and we are put out of the tribe. In our society as in every other, shame is one of the primary ways we keep one another in line. Just ask Twitter.

In our age of moral relativism, many voices cry out that traditional morals are just a cover for control, for manipulation, for the shameless shaming of one another. Traditional morals are there to force us to conform, and so they are evil.

The Bible’s unique claim is a morality that isn’t based in society’s needs and expectations but in the character of a transcendent God. That’s why Judeo-Christian thinking has always insisted that morality is absolute, not relative.


At this point in Matthew 5 we’ve reached the beginning of Jesus’s moral teachings: a set of six teachings that are rooted in the morality of the Mosaic Covenant but transcend it. Jesus, like Moses, relates a vision of morality that goes deeper and higher than the mores of society, and this time he leaves shame behind completely.

Because here’s the thing: a lot of human morality—traditional, postmodern, and every other kind—IS about control, manipulation, and shame.

We do reward conformity and punish nonconformity. That’s how the human race survives with sin in the camp. We control and shame people so they don’t become murderers, so they don’t act out every twisted fantasy they have, so there are social consequences to keep them cowed. Yes, sometimes it backfires on us and the “misfits” go on a killing spree, but for the most part it works.

The fear of shame probably averts a lot more evil than strength of conscience does.

That’s why certain sins suddenly become rampant as soon as the media, the government, and the entertainment industry approve them. They’re no longer shamed, so a lot more people suddenly feel free to carry them out. It’s not that people are worse than they used to be; “young people” haven’t come loose from their moorings. We’ve just changed the moorings as a society. That’s what morality is.

So yes, people who feel that morality is all about control are feeling something true, to an extent. I’m not bashing morality. We need it. But I am saying that human morality, based on “sympathy, education, and social ties and needs,” is a poor substitute for the real thing—for morality that is not only based in the character of God but sourced in our hearts.


Jesus’s vision is not about conforming to social norms. It has nothing to do with living up to societal expectations or even creating new expectations, as many social reformers have done.

The William Wilberforces of history go after laws and culture, creating new norms which people must heed if they wish to be seen as decent and respectable. This is not a bad thing, but Jesus didn’t do it. He didn’t bother with externals at all. Instead he went straight for the heart.

We’ve already dealt with this at length: the righteousness Jesus taught was righteousness of the heart, coming out of a heart reconstituted after the good law of God.

It was also a positional righteousness: that of a child of God. So it is in a sense more stringent than any external law can be: you don’t just modify your behavior but transform your inner self.

And at the same time, and for the same reason, it is exponentially more freeing.

When our hearts get reconstituted after the law of God, when we actually change on the inside and become like the one who is Good and who is Love, we don’t need society to control us. Shame has no place in our lives.

We don’t act in order to conform but in order to be true to our deepest nature, to the deepest wellsprings of our heart. We don’t have to be manipulated or controlled. We’re free to be free and to express everything that we truly are, because everything that we truly are is of God.

The first principle of Jesus’s kind of morality is that it’s absolute because it’s transcendent: it’s based in the unchanging nature of God, not in the culture around it.

The second principle is that it’s internal. It’s not about our surroundings. It’s about our source.


The third principle of Jesus’s kind of morality is that it’s individual.

Let me rephrase that: Jesus’s kind of morality requires us to take total responsibility for ourselves. We cannot blame our behavior on anyone or anything else. In order to live from our source and walk out the righteousness of God, we have to give up blaming and take complete responsibility for our own words, thoughts, and actions.

That’s the foundation of repentance, after all. We can’t repent and move forward in a new direction as long as we are pointing fingers and crying victim.

This is not at all popular in our culture. I’m not sure if there’s ever been a generation so good at blaming our problems on everyone and everything else. Every time someone commits a horrendous crime, an abundance of talking heads will take to the airwaves to pick apart his or her childhood, neighborhood, race, mental health, diet, you name it … it has to be somebody’s fault, and we are very loath to ever blame the person who actually pulled the trigger.

Maybe this is because we realize that if we hold other people responsible for their sins, we also have to hold ourselves responsible for ours.

(I also think it’s a misguided offshoot of genuine compassion and desire for understanding. Many North Americans have these wonderful qualities in spades, and I commend that. Compassion, empathy, and desire for understanding are good. But sometimes they make us a little blind to the obvious and difficult truth.)

This principle is on full display when Jesus begins his moral teachings, because he doesn’t begin by addressing stealing, or vandalism, or swearing, or recycling your garbage. He begins by addressing anger and lust: probably the two sins we are most prone to blaming on the other person.

With his words “You have heard that it was said to the ancients … but I say to you,” Jesus calls us out of the realm of social responsibility and hits us with personal responsibility before the God who knows our hearts, minds, and motivations.

Jesus’s teaching on morality is relatively simple—on the surface. But its principles of transcendence (and therefore absoluteness), internality, and individualism make it deeply profound and practically life-changing.

Next week, we’ll go on to look at Jesus’s instruction concerning anger in greater depth.

(This is Part 40 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)



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2 responses to “Higher Vision: Why Jesus’s Morality Is Better Than Ours”

  1. Jim Cheshire Avatar
    Jim Cheshire

    Thanks Rachel. You have given me lots to chew on today. It’s time to go for a long walk, and talk this over with Jesus.

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Thanks, Jim! Have a blessed walk :).

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