“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20, NIV84).
It’s not the most pleasant way to start a column, but it is an important truth we must explore.
The idea of woe here is an experience that will certainly befall people who act in certain ways, a sorrow that they end up bringing upon themselves. Isaiah is warning the people of his day, and by extension, every generation the follows this practice, that eventually the bill will come due and the piper will need to be paid.
All one has to do to understand the principle of this warning is look at all the major civilizations that have existed in our world since recorded time. Nations rose to power and then fell primarily from moral decay from within: people simply got what was moral and what was immoral confused.
Make no mistake about it, just because something may be legal, it doesn’t mean it is moral.
In our own time, one only has to look to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or Mao-Tse-Tung’s China to understand that to which I refer. In each of these cases, their actions were legal, but I think few would argue that what they did was moral.
When our idea of right and wrong becomes cloudy, when we begin to think we have the right to set the standards for the rules we want, that we can define what is good and what is evil, woe (sorrow and destruction) lurks just around the corner.
A number of years ago now, a young man confronted a speaker with the idea that everyone had the right to decide for themselves right from wrong, that there were really no cosmic rules to bind us.
The speaker asked the young man, “So you are saying I have the right to set my own rules?” “Oh, yes sir!” was the young man’s enthusiastic answer.” He wasn’t quite as prepared for what was going to come next.
The speaker said, “OK, I see people like you as dangerous, and if I can get enough people to agree with me, people like you will be put to death.”
The young man was startled. He said, “Oh, no sir! You can’t do that!”
“Why not?” pressed the speaker, “You said I could set my own rules.”
The young man responded, “Well that wouldn’t be right!”
But why not? What basis was this young man basing his argument on? Some cultures love their enemies; other’s eat them. Whose to say which is the moral high road if our views of right and wrong become reversed?
Indeed, once we accept the idea that we get to define good from evil based on our own whims, we have bought our own tickets to repression.
Here’s what I know: we always call for tolerance when we are trying to force our views upon others; but the minute our view gains ground, then we become very intolerant of anyone whose views are different or disagree with our own view. The end result is a totalitarian regime that can make even the most wicked of acts look acceptable as we declare them legal.
The prophet was right: get your good and bad confused, and woe is sure to follow.
Dr. John Pearrell is pastor of Gateway Community Church in Covington. For more information, visit the Gateway website at www.gatewaycommunity.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.