Pilots, archaeologists, moving companies, farmers, civil engineers, surveyors, mining companies and Navy SEALs all use compasses to travel in the right direction with confidence. What kind of compass can help Christians do the same?
All sorts of bad things can happen when you’re without navigational equipment. You might not realize how much you rely on a compass or a GPS signal — until you find yourself in Kansas City, Mo., instead of Denver, Colo. (This actually happened, in case you’re wondering.)
Mokoluaniu, a blogger on a drone website, almost hit a tree while flying his drone. He encountered compass interference and a loss of GPS control. Flying your drone without GPS is not recommended. He writes, “I just bypassed the GPS connection because I was a noob and didn’t realize how important it was. I was trying to get a quick shot of my hotel balcony and was surrounded by tall buildings with Wi-Fi interference.” This is when he nearly hit a tree.
You don’t have to fly drones or hike in the woods to need a compass to augment your orienteering skills. If you travel at all, you’re using navigational equipment without being aware of it. Your vehicle, especially if it’s relatively new, probably has a screen with a map option. So, as you drive through Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on I-95 and have a hankering for Jamba Juice, you can ask for directions to the closest franchise.
Pilots, archaeologists, moving companies, farmers, loggers, civil engineers, surveyors, geologists, mining companies and Navy SEALs all use a compass or a sophisticated form of one in their work.
We know what compasses are. Maybe we remember the little hand-held compass we used as kids in scouting or at summer camp. It was round, and there was a little needle under the glass bouncing around on a pin, and it sort of pointed north. This is a magnetic compass, and you can build a basic one with a needle and a cork in a bowl of water.
Another type is a gyrocompass. This compass does not use the Earth’s magnetism to show direction. Instead, a spinning gyroscope works in conjunction with the Earth’s axis of rotation to point to true north. This type of compass is often used on ships and aircraft.
The solar compass uses the sun as a navigational tool.
And then there is the moral compass. You might say that this compass uses the Son — the Son of God — as a directional tool. It is a compass that points to our True North and keeps our steps on a good and trustworthy path. A compass helps us travel with confidence in the right direction. If it doesn’t, you need a new compass.
A Compass for the New Year
A new year is before us. We’re optimistic. We’ve probably already made some tentative travel plans. We might hope to see friends and family we’ve not been able to see in the past year. We have professional dreams and goals we’re eager to achieve.
This is a year when we plan to blow things wide open — to realize our potential. This year is going to be big!
But we had better check our navigational tools and the skill set we have for using them. A review might be in order, and one place to start is by considering the points on a compass.
According to one definition, the points of a compass are “the vectors by which planet-based directions are conventionally defined.” There are four principal points of the compass — north, east, south, and west. These are called the cardinal points. Between these cardinal points are the intercardinal points — northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest. These can be divided as well, until you have a compass with as many as 32 points, even 128!
Let’s regard the text before us as a compass with four cardinal points that guide us as we navigate through life.
Four Cardinal Points
Although there are many points of the Ephesian compass, the cardinal points, as you will see, help us understand our place in the world and in our relationship with God. We need not be confused as to who we are, and who is directing our steps. The apostle Paul immediately provides what we could say are the north-south points on our compass: chosen and children. The Earth’s axis is formed by the north and south poles. The planet rotates on this axis. It is not a stretch to suggest that being chosen and being children of God are pivotal points on our moral and theological compass.
First, we are chosen. Note that we were chosen “in Christ before the foundation of the world” (v. 4). Let’s not fuss about predestination and issues of free will when we linger over this amazing verse.
The apostle’s intention is to remind the Ephesian church that Gentiles, not just Jews, were chosen. While the Jews referred to themselves as the “chosen people,” now, in Jesus Christ, the circle has widened, the boat is bigger, and the tent has been expanded. We, too, are chosen.
Paul reminds his primarily Gentile audience that God has a sweeping and expansive plan for the unfolding history of the world, and that they — and we today — occupy a central role in this plan.
So where do we stand at the beginning of this year? We face an unknown future as someone who was chosen in the mind of God and according to the will of God before continents were formed, oceans came into being or before the stars were thrown into the dark tapestry of the heavens.
In developing this theme, you might note the intercardinal points the apostle Paul identifies here. We were chosen in Christ “to be holy and blameless before him in love” (v. 4). The two words might sound like synonyms, but they’re quite different in meaning.
We were chosen to be holy, that is, morally pure, without blemishes or fault lines. The word includes the idea of “separation.” The instruments of worship in ancient Judaism (and even today) were separated or singled out for use in the rituals of tabernacle worship. The sanctuary was a holy place because it was designated solely for worship purposes.
We, too, are set apart in that same sense as instruments for the glory of God. Our bodies, Paul says to the Corinthian church, are temples of God, and we should treat them as holy (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). This is an important biblical vector. We strive to live a lifestyle that conforms to the highest possible moral standard.
Blameless, however, is a juridical term. It means that we were chosen to live in justice and fairness. The path we walk in the coming year will be wide enough for others to walk with us without fear of being misused or abused. No earthly court will touch us, nor will the heavenly one. We have no rap sheet, no record. We will continue to live a spotless life.
It’s an interesting concept, especially if we reference the “Me Too” movement, during which scores of individuals, hitherto believed to be blameless, have been exposed. They have not been morally pure, nor blameless.
Second, we are not only chosen people of God, but children of God. This appellation is more personal. We are not children by nature, but by adoption, the apostle says. This dovetails with the concept of being chosen. All children are special, but an adopted child is even more special. They were chosen.
Look out over the unknown terrain of the coming year. Now remember that you are a child of God. Why is this important?
Do children with loving parents worry about their future? Do they wonder how they will survive? Do they even bother themselves with these types of adult concerns? No! They have complete and utter confidence that their earthly parents will provide for their needs.
Jesus references this concept in the “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus says, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:31-32).
(Note: You may want to comment on the intercardinal points on this part of the Ephesian compass: “according to the good pleasure of his will” and “to the praise of his glorious grace” (vv. 5-6).)
Now to what might be called the east-west cardinal points. We are redeemed, and we are forgiven. Both of these words, fraught with theological and salvific meaning, are possible only because of the grace of God that has been freely bestowed on us in Christ Jesus (vv. 6-8; see also 2:8-10).
These are east-west compass points, based on what the psalmist says in Psalm 103: “As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us” (v. 12).
We are redeemed. Although in ruin because of sin, and although broken and dysfunctional, through Christ we have been made new and usable again.
We are forgiven. Everything ugly and unsightly has been blotted out. Our offenses against a holy God have been removed and forgotten. At the start of a new year, we are a tabula rosa. By God’s amazing grace, it is never too soon to begin again as redeemed and forgiven, chosen children of God!
And here’s an intercardinal point. All of this means that we have a purpose for the coming year: To bring glory and praise to God (v. 12).
To review: The four cardinal points of the Ephesian compass are the north-south vectors of our status as chosen/children of God. The east-west points of redemption and forgiveness locate us squarely within God’s vast plan of extravagant grace and salvation. Everything we are and hope to be falls within these four vectors, which in themselves encompass God’s eternal plan for us.
Using the Compass
A compass can’t help you if it’s buried in your backpack or gathering dust on a bookshelf. Here are some important reminders about using your compass.
Always trust the compass. The compass will not lie to you. Trust it, even when your instincts or preferences are suggesting a different path. You have a compass for a reason. If you do not trust the compass, it’s just taking up space. Your compass is a guidance device that ensures you have the correct heading and that you’re in the place you need to be. As a traveler and sojourner through life, you want to arrive safely at your destination. As with most commercial airlines (“Here at Delta Airlines, safety is our most important priority.”), so too, God wants us to arrive safely — as the liturgy expresses it — in the “joy of our true eternal home.” Trust the compass.
Consult it frequently. This is a crazy, upside-down, topsy-turvy, goofy and dangerous world. Boundaries, fault lines, mile posts, and road conditions are always changing. Consult your moral and biblical compass frequently to make certain you are where you think you are.
Be aware of variations and deviations. The magnetic north of a compass is not true north. Professional navigators have the means and knowledge to adjust for this variation. Moreover, shifts and irregularities of the Earth’s magnetic field can alter the position of the magnetic north. Ships and trucks that have enormous amounts of ferrous metals in their construction can cause deviations when navigating across oceans and over roads.
These deviations and variations can be recognized, and adjustments can be made. Responding to these irregularities is something Christians do all the time, and it means that we cannot be too judgmental of others who seem to be following a path different than ours. They may be headed in the right general direction but on a path that differs theologically or politically from our path. We must be mindful of our own steps and tone down our rhetoric about the paths of others.
On the other hand, we must remember that it is easy to think we’re on the right path when, in reality, we’re not even headed on a magnetic north heading, let alone a true north heading. We have fooled ourselves. We have put false idols, false images and attractive destinations ahead of the righteous path on which we should be traveling.
The prophet Jeremiah addresses this: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse — who can understand it?” (17:9). The answer comes immediately: “I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings” (17:10).
This brings us to the final note about using our compass: Always be aware of our True North, Jesus Christ. It is no coincidence that Jesus Christ is mentioned directly or indirectly (pronouns) as many as 16 times in this passage. He is our True North — north according to the Earth’s axis, not magnetic north. There is nothing truer than Jesus. If we are following in the shadow of the Son, we need not worry about directional issues. He is leading us home.
The apostle Paul writes a pastoral letter to the church at Ephesus, and he begins this fascinating epistle by lifting up Jesus Christ as the center of all things. He takes this approach in his letter to the Colossians as well. In fact, Jesus Christ is Paul’s True North. His passion for Jesus, his desire to follow Jesus, and his need to be obedient and to know the will of the Lord is his overriding concern.
In Paul’s message to the church, we hear him suggesting that we will go through experiences and troubles when we feel utterly lost. We’ll be in a soupy fog that brings us to a standstill. We might be in a sandstorm of confusion and despair. We won’t have a clue as to which way is north.
The beautiful thing about being in a meaningful relationship with Christ is that we will never lose our compass, nor can anyone take it from us. Seriously, our compass, properly defined, is our faith. The points of our faith have brought millions of pilgrims over millennia safely into harbor.
In even the most confusing of times, it will do the same for us!
—Timothy Merrill and Carl Wilton contributed to this material.
“Compass.” National Geographic website, nationalgeographic.org. Retrieved July 8, 2021.
Dolan, Steve. “Using a compass could save your life.” EzineArticles.com, March 26, 2007.
Hutchison, Cathel. “The benefits of a compass.” Gone Outdoors website, goneoutdoors.com. Retrieved July 8, 2021.
Click here to download a ZIP file of the January-February 2022 issue as Word Docs.
What Does the Text Say?
Jeremiah was prophet to a nation on the edge of a cataclysmic change, a nation that stood on the brink of an abyss, and at the bottom lay the end of their history as an independent nation. All they could do was stand on the walls of Jerusalem and look to the horizon for the conquering armies that stood poised to sweep them off their land and into exile. Our text is the one bright spot in an otherwise depressing book. Jeremiah 30:1−31:40 is called the “Book of Consolations” because within these chapters the prophet holds out the eternal hope that no matter how bad things get for Israel and Judah, God will still keep the covenant. God will turn back to the people with compassion, and the people can and will be restored to God’s good graces. The passage speaks of restoration — salvation brought by the Lord, the return of exiles from the farthest corner of the Earth, even the most fragile and helpless of society sheltered and protected — all at the hands of a loving and forgiving God. Everyone shall be forgiven and brought home again. Verses 10-14 speak of a total restoration of the people. Their reputation among the nations will be restored, and God will be their “shepherd” once again (v. 10).
What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?
And Now for the Good News. This text reads like the second half of a terrible joke. “What do you want? The good news or the bad news?” Jeremiah has already delivered the bad news. In this text, however, Jeremiah springs the good news. And it is good news indeed! It’s totally amazing! Almost unbelievable. So, as a pastor/preacher, you are thinking of the people in the congregation who have weathered through some bad news, difficult years and hard times. They need good news. The good news is that there’s always hope. We may need to work with the Lord a little bit to make the good times roll again, but there’s always hope. That’s one emphasis to pound home for a while. The second suggestion is to encourage people to be the hope and good news that other people need right now in their lives. People need hope. They need love. They need good news. Why don’t we give it to them? There is no greater gift that we can give a person than the gift of hope.
What Does the Text Say?
The English liturgical exclamation, “Hallelujah!” is derived from the opening and closing words of the last five psalms in the OT — hallelu-yah — translated by NRSV as “Praise the Lord!” The Hebrew phrase is a plural imperative of the verbal root h-l-l, which means “to praise,” plus Yah, a poetic shortened form of Yahweh. This collection of psalms, sometimes called Hallels by biblical scholars, closes ancient Israel’s theologically and emotionally variegated hymnbook on a sustained note of praise. Today’s psalm, Psalm 147, is part of this collection. The psalm can be divided nicely into three sections (vv. 1-6, 7-11, 12-20), each of which begins with an exhortation to praise the Lord and is then followed by reasons to do so. “Extol the Lord, O Jerusalem,” (v.12, NIV). Why? “For he strengthens the bars of your gates …” (v. 13, NIV). The psalm concludes with a reference to the special privileges of Israel, the people who have received God’s word in the form of “statutes and ordinances.”
What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?
Singing Your Praises. Kids have cute ways of saying, “I love you.” But how do parents tell their children that they are loved? Parents, too, have creative ways to say, “I love you.” Katie McLaughlin’s website, pickanytwo.net, is a forum for discussing parenting ideas. In one post, she offers 36 ways to say “I love you” to children. Some of these expressions simply sing the praises of the child, offering support and love. The psalmist does something similar in this passage. Think of it as a blog post in which the writer offers ideas about how to let God know that we’re aware of the awesomeness of God. Note that there is very little in the text that is personal. The psalmist is not extolling the greatness of God because of anything that God has done for him personally. The psalmist stands apart from his life, as though he’s positioned on an observation deck atop a mountain. He has stopped at the “scenic turnout” to look at the view. It has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the One who created the view.
John 1:1-9, 10-18
What Does the Text Say?
Verses 10-18 form the second half of the prologue for the gospel of John and highlight two key realities. First, the One who was the Word and created the world didn’t remain distant from his creation. On the contrary, “He was in the world” so people could become “children of God.” Even though “the world came into being through him,” inexplicably, “the world did not know him” (v. 10). This paradox concerning the world’s ignorance is further magnified given that “he came to what was his own [eiV ta idia hlqen], and his own people did not accept him [oi idioi auton ou parelabon]” (v. 11). After describing the relationship between the Word and the world in verses 10-13, the final portion of John’s prologue considers a second decisive reality. The narrative recounts specifically how the Word was present in the world: “And the Word became flesh [sarx] and lived among us [eskhnwsen en hmin; more literally, ‘pitched his tent with us’].” Not only that, John also passes on the collective testimony of the community when he states, “And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (v. 14). Having examined the relationship between the Word and the world and enumerated three attributes of Jesus Christ —glory, grace and truth — John closes the prologue with a most profound and magisterial assertion, “No one has ever seen God” (not even Moses, as great as he was). But Jesus Christ, who “is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart [o wn eiV ton klopon tou patroV] … has made him known” (v. 18).
What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?
John the Evangelist Explains What Happened on Christmas Day. Of the four gospel writers, Matthew and especially Luke offer the most detailed accounts of the birth of the Christ child. These accounts have given us what we called “the Christmas story,” which itself is full of cultural mythologies (including the date for Jesus’ birth) and cultural observances. Mark ignores the birth of Jesus completely. It is John who tells us what really happened — the back story. And so, on the second Sunday after Christmas, and just before Epiphany, the preacher has an opportunity to explain. “Okay, the tree is probably down by now. If not, it will surely come down next weekend. The presents have been unwrapped, returned or set aside for re-gifting next year. Let’s talk about what really was going on December 25. What happened was that God, the Ineffable, Transcendent Deity, robed himself in human flesh and materialized before our very eyes. God entered the human dimension. Oddly, he was rejected by the very cultural and ethnic tribe through which he chose to reveal himself. How, then, will we respond to the good news that we are the children of God?”
Leader 1: Let the biblical story be the story of our service in the world ...
Leader 2: God said to Jacob: “Your offspring will spread to the four corners of the earth.”
People: May the good news of God spread throughout the world; let us carry the gospel to the north, south, east and west.
Leader 1: God said, “All the families of the earth shall be blessed through your offspring.”
People: May all that we say and all that we do be a blessing, through the grace of God.
Leader 2: And God said, “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised.”
People: Let us venture forth in joy and confidence, knowing that God is with us; God is before us; God is among us; God is behind us; God is beyond us; God is within us. Amen!
— Based on Genesis 28.
Holy and merciful God, your Word is a lamp to our feet, illumining the way of salvation and life. We are grateful for its powerful beam that guides us to safety when we lose our way. We trust it to correct our direction when we drift dangerously close to the shoals of life. We rely on it as a faithful compass as we traverse the complex world in which we live. We receive it as a gift and a revelation and ask that you continue to use it to speak, invite, admonish and woo us with the message of your profound, unfathomable love. For the sake of Christ we pray. Amen.
Leader: We gather as God's people:
All: To seek direction in the living of our lives.
Leader: We gather as God's people:
All: To be still and hear what God would have us do.
Leader: We gather as God's people:
All: To be renewed, restored and recreated.
Leader: We rejoice that we are God's people:
All: To serve, to love and to sing God's praise.
Sing We Now of Christmas
We Three Kings
O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee
Worship and PraiseW
The King Has Come (Pardo, Stanfill)
Come Thou Fount, Come Thou King (Traditional; Robinson, Miller)
My Lighthouse (Rend Collective)
WFor licensing and permission to reprint or display these songs on screen, go to ccli.com. The worship and praise songs suggested by Homiletics can be found in most cases on Google by using the title as the search term.
on Ephesians 1:3-14
Right from the start, the letter to the Ephesians sounds like the work of Paul ... but something strange is going on. The opening greeting and declaration of blessedness are quite familiar, but the text never takes on the personal, pointed trajectory common to other Pauline letters. There are no personal greetings, and no associates or fellow Christians are mentioned as co-senders. The recipients do not seem to be personally known by the apostle (“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus,” v. 15), which sounds strange since Paul spent considerable time in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-22), and he wrote to the Corinthians from that spot. And yet, the Ephesians clearly owe a great debt to Paul, as Gentiles who have now been brought into the people of God (2:11-13). Perhaps their familiarity with the apostle has come through his writings, rather than through his personal presence.
Although debate continues, there is considerable consensus that the “letter” to the “Ephesians” should be seen as a kind of general sermon intended to be read during worship to any number of congregations, with the Ephesians probably one of many. In fact, some early manuscripts lack the words “in Ephesus” (v. 1), which leads some commentators to suggest that Ephesians was originally a circular letter into which the name of a particular church could be inserted. Long before letters could be mass-produced using word processors, leaders of the early church may have been “personalizing” correspondence in this way!
Thus, the document’s rather impersonal tenor and its numerous liturgical and hymn-like qualities may be seen as part of this generalized function the “letter” was intended to serve. It may have been written by a disciple of Paul, based on Colossians and other Pauline letters, to be used as a letter of instruction in numerous churches throughout the region.
The language of election or predestination seems to seep throughout the first few verses of today’s text. The Pauline writer speaks confidently of how God “chose us in Christ” (v. 4) and “destined us for adoption ... according to ... his will” (v. 5), as the gift of grace is “freely bestowed on us” (v. 6). But we must be careful not to read church history back into this language. Nowhere in Ephesians is the notion of “election” used to suggest that some will be saved and others damned. The glory of divine election is seen as an opportunity for praise and wonderment. Set in contrast to the other ancient Near Eastern philosophies of capricious fate, the notion of an engaged God who is intimately involved in all aspects of life is a comforting, not chilling, thought.
This does not mean, however, that our “elected” status allows us to live our lives without moral or spiritual boundaries. Verse 4 clearly states that, while we are chosen in love, we are also chosen to be “holy and blameless.” Of course, our moral status should reflect our family tree, for we are “his children,” and this grace comes to us through “the Beloved.”
Verse 7 reminds listeners that this new status and salvation cost the giver plenty, for our “redemption” comes through “his blood,” our trespasses forgiven through the lavishness of his grace. The term “redemption” can be used for freeing a slave, and it evokes memories of how God obtained Israel as his people by liberating them from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 15:16) and from captivity in Babylon (Isaiah 51:11). This Christ-based redemption comes through “his blood,” because Christ’s death is understood as the penalty paid for human sin — the “sacrifice of atonement” (Romans 3:25) that makes redemption a reality. All this giving and graciousness, all this love and acceptance, are revealed now to be part of God’s eternal plan of redemption. Although it becomes known only now, through Christ’s saving work, this is a “mystery of his will” that is no longer a secret.
In the first century, “mystery religions” were extremely popular. Each sect claimed they possessed some secret “key” (knowledge) that would open the door to eternal life for a chosen few. The Ephesians text plays on this popular language by calling God’s revealed plan for our salvation a “mystery.” But it is a “secret” that believers must shout from the housetops. It is gnosis or knowledge that can become common knowledge through Christ.
The inclusivity of this deliverance will become a recurring theme of this letter. In verse 10, the inference is universal as God plans to “gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” The writer next invokes the language of “inheritance,” suggesting a special status that had previously been thought the domain of the Jews only. A bit later this point is articulated even more blatantly: Both Jews and Gentiles share equally in the blessing and grace that God extends to all creation (2:11-22). No one lies outside this new form of divine “election” so long as she or he is “in Christ.”
“The first to set our hope on Christ” (v. 12) should be taken to mean those Jews who saw their long-expected dream of a Messiah fulfilled in Jesus. But even as Jewish believers are saved through Christ’s sacrifice, so are all other believers. The inclusion of “you also” in verse 13 means “you Gentiles also” are family, “marked with the seal.” Verse 14 combines Jewish and Gentile believers and declares without distinction that “this is the pledge of our inheritance.” All peoples can now celebrate their common redemption as “God’s own people.”
Verses 13-14 suggest that participation in this redemption is not dependent on genealogy but rather on a series of steps. First, the individual must hear “the word of truth,” that is, the “gospel of your salvation.” Second, after hearing, each person must respond by believing in this message. Third, the believer must be “marked with the seal” of the Holy Spirit, an idiomatic phrase which suggests that all believers enjoy the full measure of the Spirit’s gifts. The presence of this Spirit is a sure sign of the full inheritance of redemption that is shared by all who live within the faith community.
Navigational technology is prevalent, even if we’re unaware how much we’re using it. The most basic form of this techno-gadgetry is the compass and its four cardinal points: north, south, east and west. This grid forms the basis for a discussion of the theological compass the apostle Paul describes in Ephesians 1.
MEANING OF LIFE
Why should I learn to use a compass?
With the advent of GPS, navigating by compass has become something of a lost art. It’s easy to see why: In clear skies, modern GPS receivers can determine a user’s location accurately and quickly with little to no user skill necessary.
But here’s the thing: GPS units are electronic, and electronics fail at the most inopportune times. Sometimes, they run out of battery; sometimes, after years of use, they fail. Furthermore, they can usually only tell which way you’re facing once you’re on the move.
Compasses, on the other hand, are nigh-indestructible. They don’t take batteries, don’t have screens to break, and don’t need software updates. When protected with either waterproof coatings or careful storage, maps rarely fail. Keeping these two simple items in your pack — and knowing how to use them — is a small step that could save you a lot of trouble. …
How to Find Your Location with a Compass
Figuring out your location with a map and compass is easy, but it comes with some caveats. First, you’ll need to be able to find at least two known landmarks. (Mountains and lakes are both good choices.) If you can find a third, even better. As always, remember to adjust for declination [the difference between magnetic north and true north].
—Leah Qiu, “How to Use a Compass,” Backpacker.com, September 1, 2018.
Retrieved August 6, 2021.
[So, if the moral compass is a desire deep within us to live a godly life, then what’s the map that must be used along with it? Perhaps it’s the Scriptures. Pair your deep desire for God with that ancient map depicting the unchanging landforms of human existence, and you can find your way back home.]
Recent years have seen no shortage of leaders promising to make their companies a force for good in the world — and yet time and time again, we’ve seen executives fail to live up to their stated ideals. What has kept these leaders from actually speaking out against unethical practices when they arise in their own organizations?
To answer that question, I conducted a series of studies with my co-author, Cameron Anderson, at the University of California, Berkeley. We consistently found that holding a higher rank within a group strengthens people’s identification with that group, in turn blinding them to the group’s unethical practices. This means that even if leaders are otherwise highly ethical, the higher they rise within their own organizations, the less likely they are to speak out. …
This tendency for higher-ranking people to avoid dissenting may seem surprising. After all, leaders generally have less to fear by disagreeing, since they are the ones in charge of evaluating others. But the key factor at play is group identification. When people hold higher rank, they define themselves more in terms of their group membership, agreeing more strongly with statements such as, “I feel connected to this group” and “I value my membership in this group.” …
Sometimes leaders are genuinely unethical, caring more about profits than principles. Some leaders may even intentionally take advantage of their higher-ranking positions to advance and conceal unethical behavior for their own gain. But our research offers a more nuanced explanation for why otherwise ethical people might make ethically questionable decisions. Given the right circumstances, anyone’s moral compass can drift — and holding higher rank only makes it that much harder to stay on course.
—Jessica A. Kennedy, “Does Getting Promoted Alter Your Moral Compass?” Harvard Business Review, February 9, 2021.
Retrieved August 5, 2021.
Imagine this scenario: As you’re walking by a train station, you notice there are some construction workers working on the tracks. There’s a fork in the track, so a train could either go left or right. On the left track, there’s only one person working. On the right track, there are five people working. They all have noise-canceling headphones on and don’t seem to know what’s going on around them.
Suddenly, you see an out-of-control train car coming down the tracks — it must have gotten loose from a train! The fork in the track is directed towards the right side, so the out-of-control car is headed straight for the five workers, certain to kill them all. There’s no way to stop the train car. The only thing you can do is to pull a switch to redirect the car towards the left track, which would kill the one worker there.
Do you pull the switch?
It’s a tough one, isn’t it? On the one hand, it seems like a no-brainer that killing one person to save five is better than killing five to save one. On the other hand, redirecting the track would require you to purposely cause someone’s death rather than letting the accident take its course. Most of us feel at least squeamish about the kill-one-to-save-five choice, but most of us, when pressed, agree with it. At least when asked about it hypothetically, that is.
This is the classic moral dilemma called the Trolley Problem. Many philosophers and psychologists have used it to study and ponder the way we think about morality. One big question they’ve asked is: “Do people make these decisions based on rational thinking, or are they influenced by other factors?”
Well, consider this twist to the Trolley Problem for your answer: What if there is no switch to redirect the train car, but there is a large stranger walking by that you could push onto the track? This person would be killed, but their body would stop the train from killing the five construction workers. Would you push the stranger?
Here, the math is the same — sacrificing one to save five. But I bet you had a different gut reaction. If so, then it shows that something else is helping you make this decision. What is that something else?
It turns out that emotions play a big role in the way we judge morality and make moral decisions. What did you feel when considering the Trolley Problem and the Stranger variation of it? Fear? Empathy? Disgust?
—Jade Wu, “How Do Your Emotions Affect Your Moral Compass?” Scientific American, March 12, 2020.
Retrieved August 5, 2021.
[Speaking from a Christian perspective, there’s a further variation of the “Stranger variation” of the Trolley Problem. What if you were that stranger? What if, by jumping onto the track ahead of the speeding train car, you could stop the car with your own body and save the lives of one or more others — although this decision would inevitably lead to your own death? This is, of course, similar to what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross. Now, there’s a moral compass at work!]
In 1981, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre opened his book After Virtue with a passage that is now famous. Imagine if we lost the theoretical coherence of science. Imagine if we still used scientific words like neutrino and atomic weight, but had no overall framework to explain how they fit together.
That’s the state of our moral discourse today, he suggested. We still use words describing virtue and vice, but without any overall metaphysics. Religious frameworks no longer organize public debate. Secular philosophies that grew out of the Enlightenment have fallen apart. We have words and emotional instincts about what feels right and wrong, but no settled criteria to help us think, argue and decide.
That diagnosis seemed accurate to many people, and it seemed to point toward a culture of easygoing relativism. With no common criteria by which to judge moral action, we’d all become blandly nonjudgmental — sort of chill, pluralistic versions of Snoop Dogg: You do you and I’ll do me and we’ll all be cool about it. Whatever feels right.
But that’s not what’s happened. We haven’t entered the age of milquetoast bourgeois relativism. Instead, society has become a free-form demolition derby of moral confrontation: the cold-eyed fanaticism of students at Middlebury College and other campuses nationwide; the rage of the alt-right; holy wars over transgender bathrooms; the furious intensity at every town-hall meeting on every subject.
American life has secularized and grand political ideologies have fallen away, but moral conflict has only grown. In fact, it’s the people who go to church least — like the members of the alt-right — who seem the most fervent moral crusaders. …
Sin is a stain, a weight and a debt. But at least religions offer people a path from self-reflection and confession to atonement and absolution. Mainstream culture has no clear path upward from guilt, either for individuals or groups. So you get a buildup of scapegoating, shaming and Manichaean condemnation.
—David Brooks, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” The New York Times, March 31, 2017.
Retrieved August 5, 2021.
The Church is like Noah’s ark that was full of both clean and unclean animals. It must have had an unholy smell, and yet it was carrying eight persons to salvation. The world today is tearing up the photographs of a good society, a good family, a happy, individual personal life. But the Church is keeping the negatives. And when the moment comes when the world wants a reprint, we will have them.
—Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Through the Year with Fulton Sheen: Inspirational Selections for Each Day of the Year, ed. Henry Dieterich: (Ignatius Press, 2003), 175.
Ask the children if any of them have gone to camp or nursery school or pre-school at church. Did they share a song together before they had a meal or a snack? If they did, can they sing or say it together? Take this opportunity to ask the children who know the blessing to teach it to the others. Ask questions or tell them that we say a blessing to ask God to be present with us while we eat, to bless our food and time together. And we also offer thanks for the food we are about to eat: all of this is what we call "saying the blessing." Having enough food to eat is a blessing. What other blessings do we have to be thankful for? Introduce the idea that this is a brand new year and a good time to start something positive in our lives. Suggest that they end each day by thinking of one blessing they are thankful for; perhaps they can ask everyone in their family to share at dinner time something they noticed during the day or something that happened during the day for which they are thankful. End by telling the children you are thankful for them and the time you spend with them each week.
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