The headlines today are full again of people who have done ‘the wrong thing’. They have misled, abused, cheated, used power for selfish gain, and caused hurt, harm, and offence, and we know that this is not right. When watching news reports or reading people’s comments online it becomes clear, very quickly, that we have a strong sense of what is wrong in the world, especially when it comes to the actions of others. This sense has been called our ‘moral compass’, a deeply held collection of ideas and ideals that define for each one of us what is okay and what is not.
While watching someone else’s life the conviction that they have made some bad decisions and got it wrong this time, comes quite easily, yet the ability to make good choices ourselves and to plot our own path through life’s trickier situations certainly does not. I suspect that you, as I too, have often struggled to settle on what we should do to solve an issue or to respond to the actions of someone else. Our own preferences, desires, and needs, fight for our attention alongside conflicting priorities, and motives which we like to assume are good, but on closer inspection are often mixed. Sometimes we hope to act for the good of others but discover our actions are guided more by how we think others will think of us.
We may not be comfortable then, with the suggestion that maybe we make as many mistakes as those who fill our headlines. Perhaps we also make similar decisions as they do too, and it’s only because they have more wealth, or power, or popularity than us that their lives make the headlines, and ours do not. Because ultimately living well and doing the right thing, is no easy task for anyone of us.
This world is complex, and people are complex too. There is so much we don’t know, let alone fully understand. Sometimes things go well for us and yet at other times when we experience hardships, uncertainties, and heartache, we question the things we were once certain of. Perhaps, you like me, have faced decisions that seem to have no positive outcomes, and the hoped-for ‘win-win’ solution becomes a ‘lose-lose’ for everyone involved. There are often times, I know when knowing what the right thing to do is much harder than I ever thought it could be.
Sometimes, ‘doing the right thing’ comes as a choice of how we should respond to others who have made poor choices. Their actions and the difficult consequences that come from them may suggest to us that they should accept what they deserve, and we are free to watch them spiral down. But how can this be right, or good, or a loving thing to do? If it was us who had made the mistake, surely we would want someone to see us, distinct from our decisions, see us as someone who is loved and of value, simply because we are human too.
It is probably true to say that we are all moved by the stories we hear of when someone, who deserves to be condemned is shown love and compassion instead. The ‘lose-lose’ situation they face becomes a ‘win-win’, as they are altered by their encounter with goodness, and they choose the opportunity to change and put things right. This is grace, a gift of loving kindness in a dark place, a decision made in a place of hurt to show compassion to the one who has hurt us. Not an easy thing, but the right thing.
I am not suggesting here, however, that we should, or can, avoid the reality of the situation we face. Those who do the wrong thing, almost always choose to conceal their actions by blaming others or constructing new versions of reality in which they don’t look so bad. Often it seems to me that we struggle to be honest with others because we find it even harder to be honest with ourselves about our own failures and mistakes. Perhaps the one thing that would help us most is that which is, most sadly lacking, and that is the truth of reality. If we are honest with the facts of how things really are, and we share what we know of this truth with others, then together we stand a much better chance of discerning what the right thing to do might be.
None of this is easy, however. To speak the truth harshly is often to cause hurt and harm, and to care with no concern for the truth of reality is neither kind nor helpful. Today, some fear that to claim the truth of anything is the first step on a path that leads to extremism and violence but appear unconcerned that this notion in itself is a claim of truth. Their alternative perspective, where truth becomes whatever we individually want it to be, falls apart when we consider the libraries of learning amassed over millennia, our technological advances, and generations of scientific discovery. The sun is hot, and the earth still spins whether we wish to believe it or not.
Humanity has always struggled with doing the right thing. After we have considered the greatest existential questions of, “Who am I?” and, “Why am I here?” we must surely ponder the one that follows, “How should I then live?” Many, like me, have found answers to this question in the life, example, and words of someone who consistently and amazingly managed to ‘do the right thing’ however costly and painful that was. Jesus always chose to do things that benefitted the other person, he gave away more than he ever received and loved and lived compassionately regardless of how badly he was treated by others. He is described by the writer, John, as being “full of grace and truth”, and he invites us to follow after him, and to become like him ourselves.
Does this mean that I always do the right thing? No! Does it even mean that I always know what the right thing to do in every situation is? Absolutely not. But following Jesus, and looking to him for help, constantly reminds me that in every situation trying to speak the truth lovingly, is always a good place to start. He also demonstrates that grace, the act of undeserved kindness in the place of pain, has a power for good that is hard to comprehend, and this power is in our hands and mouths when we choose to follow his example and try to do the right thing.