Jesus’ way of looking at things was radically relativistic. He set teachings like the Golden Rule squarely on subjective foundations. Doing to others what we want them to do to us makes our own desires the standard for our behavior.
Peter wrote that God has granted us everything pertaining to life and godliness through true knowledge (experience) of him. You might think he meant that all the power of God is at our disposal. Potentially, that is true. However, we stubbornly tend to think backwards in fixed terms instead of forwards in relative terms. We think, “If I have God’s power, then I should be able to do X.”
Let’s say that X is cleanliness, as in the saying, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” (Yes, I’m being sarcastic.) First, we fix cleanliness in our minds. We have an idea of what cleanliness is. Then we designate it as a goal to achieve. Then we try to achieve it. This is putting the end before the beginning, i.e., backwards. It also deftly avoids crucial questions. First, do I love cleanliness? If I don’t love it, why do I want it? Paul writes about people who supposed that godliness was a means of gain. For love or for gain or for fear, the real worth of our aspirations and the behavior they motivate is settled in our hearts, a matter of the spirit, of intention, a subjective determination.
Failing to achieve a goal shows that we lack power, because if we had sufficient power we would have achieved it. Most of us experience this as defeat, i.e., losing. Achieving a goal shows that we possessed the power to achieve it. Most of us experience this as success, i.e., winning. Depression follows defeat, and pride follows success. Both occur regardless whether our goal proves beneficial to us or anyone else. We might have been mistaken. Our goal, as conceived by us, might have been a bad idea.
Mistakes aside, a fixed-goal approach ignores the effect that achieving a goal has on the distance between us and God. Goals serve as end-points, as if they were next to God, implicitly denying any distance between them and God. Their relevance is assumed, not questioned. Achieving a fixed spiritual goal is tantamount to arriving at God. This confusion of God with our concepts of him is the essence of idolatry.
The only points fixed at any moment are us and God. Without true knowledge (experience) of God, we remain unclear about one of those points, i.e., God. Lacking that knowledge as a reference, we also remain unclear about the other of those points, i.e., ourselves. We experience joy and suffering, but don’t understand their root causes, so we attribute causation to the agents of our joy or suffering, praising or blaming others and the world at large for our condition and experience. Their apparent power attracts us. Our perspective gravitates toward these supposed sources of joy and suffering. Eventually, our perspectives revolve around external power sources, alienating us from our native, subjective perspectives, i.e., from God’s very point of contact with us. This is how we end up thinking backwards, from the outside in, resistant to divine input.
Jesus’ approach faced forward and was relative. Knowing God, to whatever degree we know him, reveals distance between us and him. Jesus cared about relative motion. Any movement that brings us closer to God than we currently are is good movement, i.e., righteousness. Any movement that takes us further from God is bad movement, i.e., sin. Aside from movement, the distance itself–our alienation–is also sin, because at one time there was no distance between us and God. This accounts for the Bible’s dual use of the concept of “sin” both as behavior that alienates us from God as well as our current state of alienation.
Evil is not the same as sin, however. Evil is commitment to alienation from God, whether to excuse it, condone it, defend it, advocate it, or further it. Good is commitment to connection to God, which implies commitment to reducing the distance between us and God.
Jesus’ approach is relative, because the meaning of behavior is not determined by virtue of its characteristics, but by whether it serves to increase or decrease the distance between us and God. Apart from knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves, we can’t know whether one course of action or its opposite is either good or evil. This is subjective relativism, because the ultimate meaning of behavior depends on intentions and motivations that originated in “the heart.” Misunderstandings of Jesus’ sayings often trace back to the mistake of trying to fit his square pegs of internally rooted relativism into the round holes of fixed, externalized moral categories.
This is why law is irrelevant to life with God, i.e., spirituality. Law describes limitations on actions with reference to observable outcomes, which by their nature are fixed in space and time. The reverse of Jesus’ approach, this approach compares our behavior with external rules of conduct without regard to our distance from God, even if the law in question was coined by God. Satisfying God’s laws no more demonstrates our nearness to him than satisfying the rules of our parents’ homes indicated our nearness to them.
Jesus was primarily concerned with motivations, i.e., the heart, the originator of any behavior that law could govern. Basing morality on law that governs observable behavior is to put last things first. Jesus began with the desires of the heart, a decidedly subjective and relativistic approach.
Paul wrote much about law in Romans and Galatians. He claimed that law, “weak as it was through the flesh,” could not do what God did by sending his son Jesus “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Law cannot condemn sin in the flesh, thereby reducing distance between us and God. Law can only condemn sin outside the flesh, after it has been expressed through behavior as visible evidence of distance between us and God.
Jesus’ complaint about hypocrites was not that their words were not reflected in their deeds, but that their overemphasis on words and deeds, i.e., observable behavior, detracted from more important matters of the heart, i.e., “inside of the cup.” Their success in achieving fixed goals of righteousness hid the fact that they were far from God, “full of robbery and wickedness.” Jesus wondered how they could escape the sentence of hell, because they put all their energies into outwardly appearing righteous to men without reducing the distance between them and God.
Reducing evidence of the distance between us and God does not of itself reduce the distance. Reducing that distance occurs internally, as does increasing it. As Paul described in Romans 7, changing our distance from God is a matter of love and hatred that precede behavior. This is why Jesus likens behavior to fruit, the outcome of prerequisite internal processes. Jesus called God a spirit, and said that those who worship him must do so in spirit and truth. What we do is secondary to what we love, and what we refuse to do is secondary to what we hate. Getting those priorities straight is critical if we hope to become spiritual people.