I’m reading through the Psalms this summer, as I’m apt to do. There’s no wrong time to read the Psalms, but somehow summertime feels like an especially good time for Psalms.
Some of the earlier Psalms focus on justice versus injustice, integrity versus deceit, moral depravity versus purity and blamelessness. These are among the many instances in which the Scriptures draw contrast between good and evil, in their many forms. In one example David, the sweet psalmist of Israel, declares before the Lord,
Though you probe my heart,
though you examine me at night and test me,
you will find that I have planned no evil;
my mouth has not transgressed.
Though people tried to bribe me,
I have kept myself from the ways of the violent
through what your lips have commanded.
My steps have held to your paths;
my feet have not stumbled. (Psalm 17:3-5, NIV)
These declarations bring me back to my psychology studies, and a rather brilliant theory of moral development advanced by a man named Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg’s theory emerged from a research study in which he told subjects of all ages stories of people facing difficult moral dilemmas, and then asked them a series of questions to ascertain their moral decision-making processes.
Kohlberg observed that like physical, cognitive, sexual, and psychosocial growth in individuals, moral development occurs gradually, in a series of discernible stages. His theory states that the early “preconventional” stages root moral decision-making in the fear of punishment. Young children or underdeveloped adults may choose to do what is right because they fear the consequences of breaking the rules. They don’t want to risk the pain and humiliation of being punished for their actions, so they make moral choices they believe will keep them out of trouble.
The middle stages, which Kohlberg calls “conventional,” are rooted in conformity to social norms. People at this level choose to follow the rules because of the fear of being rejected or cast out of the social group they depend upon for their sense of security and normalcy. Moral choices are geared toward keeping the approval of others.
At the top of the scale of moral development, which Kohlberg labeled postconventional, is the determination to respond to the inner voice of conscience and places concern for others over concern for self. People who have a highly developed moral compass do what they believe is right based on eternal principles and moral integrity that comes from the inside–from the heart, where the Bible locates it. This is an insistence on maintaining a pattern of righteousness regardless of risk of punishment, rejection, persecution, or death. This is the level of Jesus.
This is blamelessness, and there are very few who fully achieve it. But as Christ followers, we are freed from sin so that we are enabled to pursue it, to become “blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world” (Phil 2:15).
If we get to this level, we don’t lie, but not because we’re afraid of punishment or being shamed. No, we don’t lie because we’re not liars. We don’t steal because we’re not thieves. We don’t kill because we’re not murderers. Evil is not in there, so it doesn’t work itself out. At this level of development that only Jesus makes possible through his redemptive life within us, we can fearlessly live in love, grace, and peace, no matter how others choose to treat us. Oswald Chambers wrote, “From the Lord’s standpoint it does not matter whether I am defrauded or not; what does matter is that I do not defraud.”
We can be blameless, causing no harm to others, or to the testimony of the goodness and holiness of God. Does this seem like too great an expectation of ourselves? I don’t think so, or God wouldn’t require it. He wants us pure and clean and blameless, the spotless bride he gives as a gift to his Son.