It is well known that the illusion of secrecy tends to strengthen the will to do evil. That is, we are more likely to do what we know we shouldn’t do if no one is looking, or liable to find out. The Apostle John pointed this out when he said, “Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19). Turns out nobody had to teach us this. We learned it early in life, and the first time we tried to steal something, we looked around to make sure no one was watching.
The trouble is, someone is always looking. Certainly for those who believe as I do that God sees everything, and knows everything, this can and should provide a great deterrent to acting wickedly. And while I have no desire to downplay the role God should play in the life, the truth is that, even for the atheist or irreligious person, someone is always looking at you … and that someone is you.
I remember sitting in a college auditorium listening to a successful businessman as he came to lecture us about how to win in life. Along the path of his speech he showed us the usual steps to success like goal setting, diligence, creativity and perseverance. And just as I was starting to nod off, he asked a very penetrating question: Who do you want to live with? Of course, we all laughed nervously because we thought he was talking about marriage.
But we stopped laughing as he went on to say there is only one person you can never escape: yourself. “Do you want to live with a thief? Do you want to live with a loser? Do you want to live with a cheat or a liar, or a slob? If not, then pick up your socks, tell the truth even when it hurts, honor other people and their property, play by the rules and change the ones that no longer make sense, but whatever you do, don’t become a person you’d hate to live with, because we have to live with you too!”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that speaker succinctly shaped my box of practical, daily ethics by indelibly printing on my memory the dictum that whatever I do, whatever I become, whatever I allow myself to think, feel, and say will ultimately define the person I am, and that’s the one person I can never escape.
Personal accountability is the foundation of a consistent ethical system, and certainly it is the best and most cost-effective means of maintaining a thoughtful, compassionate and righteously ordered society. Internal control is always better than external compulsion.
Yet, today the idea of individuals being asked to take responsibility for their own actions and be accountable to improve themselves for the betterment of society is regularly mocked, and even described as an infringement on their rights to do as they please. We are becoming a society that believes unless there is a law against it, I am free to do it. Yet, much that freedom allows is actually harmful to the person doing it, and to those in their sphere of influence. And the greater problem for us is that, in the absence of individual control and accountability, our legislatures feel called upon to stack up more and more laws to cover more and more of the things in life that used to be covered by common sense, civic pride and the belief that we all were responsible to be the best people we could be for the common good.
In the auditorium that day it became clear to me I didn’t want to live with a thief, or a liar, or a greedy person, or a person who thought the world revolved around him. I wanted to live with someone who was a lifelong learner, who appreciated beauty, who believed that God existed and knew best how this life should be lived. I know who I wanted to live with, and I’ve been diligent to become that person since that day.
My question for you today is this: Who do you want to live with? And my hope is your answer also describes someone we all want to live with, and who will be a positive influence in our neighborhood.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.