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Private and public morality

“I, Wisdom, live together with good judgment. I know where to discover knowledge and discernment.” — Proverbs 8:12

Presidential candidates usually start out talking about “the issues.” As the competition becomes tighter and the stakes get higher, though, such noble concepts as “issues” tend to get lost in a welter of more personal considerations. Attack ads fill our television screens; charges and countercharges fill the air. It doesn’t take long before matters of private behavior are “leaked” and indignant rebuttals are voiced. Usually the rebuttals claim that what a man does in his private life is of no concern to the public.

The idea that a line can be drawn between what a man is in private and what he does in public is worth exploring. It has its roots in the majority opinion in America that there are no absolute truths—more than half of all Americans think so! They overlook, of course, the nonsense in this self-defeating statement—the statement itself purports to be an absolute truth!

If there is no such thing as absolute truth, then everyone can make his own truth and develop his own morality. It may be necessary for the sake of appearances and social integration to have some nebulous public standards, but private standards are just that—private. Since there are no absolutes, this can mean that what is morally acceptable in private is morally wrong in public!

Proverbs would beg to differ. There is an inescapable link between private and public morality in the biblical record. “All who fear the Lord will hate evil. That is why I hate pride, arrogance, corruption, and perverted speech” (Proverbs 8:13). Pride and arrogance are private issues—they are all about what a man is in his heart when he is on his own. Corruption and perverted speech can be either private or public. But Wisdom goes on to say, “Because of me, kings reign, and rulers make just laws. Rulers lead with my help, and nobles make righteous judgments” (8:15). These are public actions.

Both the private motivations and the public actions spring from the same root—wisdom. There is no dichotomy here. For what is right is right, whether in public or private. What is evil is evil, whether anyone sees it or not.

Politicians are sitting ducks in such matters, but the average man needs to search his own heart concerning the possible contradictions between what he does in public and what he is in private. The aim of the godly person is to “walk in righteousness, in paths of justice” (8:20), both in the darkness of his inner sanctum and in the blaze of public scrutiny. One standard fits all.

For further study: Proverbs 8:12-21

Content taken from The One Year Book of Devotions for Men by Stuart Briscoe. Copyright ©2000. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.