BREAKPOINT 09-19-2012

Today’s BreakPoint is a must-read as well, following up to yesterday’s:


To view this mail in a browser, copy into your browser.

More than Rule Following

Virtue and Character

Eric Metaxas

September 19, 2012

Yesterday, I told you about the cheating scandal at Harvard involving half of the students in an “Introduction to Congress” class. (No, I’m not making that up!) The scandal has already cost Harvard two of its best players from last season’s Ivy League basketball champions.

But there’s more to this story than academics, basketball, or even cheating itself. It’s ultimately about character.

The students under investigation claim, as the “New York Times” put it, that “they were tripped up by a course whose tests were confusing, whose grading was inconsistent, and for which the professor and teaching assistants gave contradictory signals about what was expected.”

Not surprisingly, students facing possible suspension have threatened to sue Harvard over the matter.

I don’t know whether “contradictory signals” were given or not. But what I do know is that more than half of the class did not collaborate. Apparently, they didn’t interpret the “contradictory signals” as a license to cheat.

Events in Cambridge demonstrate the limitations of defining ethics, and especially virtue, as a matter of rules. People have an almost infinite capacity for rationalization and what lawyers and ethicists call “casuistry.” We acknowledge that lying and theft are wrong in one breath and then “explain” why what we’re doing is neither lying nor thievery, in this particular instance, in the next.

For the Christian, while rules matter, they are far from enough. The goal is not rule-keeping, it’s character and virtue.

In his book, “After You Believe,” theologian N.T. Wright uses the story of Chesley Sullenberger, the celebrated US Airways pilot who safely landed an Airbus 320 in the Hudson River after it had been disabled by a flock of geese.

According to Wright, Sullenberger’s achievement was “to have so formed his character, by thousands of small choices and learned decisions . . . that, when the test came, he did by ‘second nature’ what was required.”

This kind of “second nature” is what Wright means by “character.” Christians overcome our sinful fallen natures one “small choice and learned decision” at a time until we no longer need to consciously ask ourselves what the rules are.

Of course it isn’t only Christians. Something similar, minus the specifically-Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love, was what previous generations had in mind when they referred to a person’s “character.” In this setting, for an honest person honesty was a habit, not a matter of interpreting signals.

Unfortunately, as James Davison Hunter wrote in The Death of Character, “Character is dead. It’s time has passed.” He didn’t mean that virtues such as courage, prudence, and temperance are no longer being practiced or that our culture denies that they are good things.

Hunter meant that a “profound transformation” in America’s “moral culture” in the 20th century made it much more difficult to instruct the young about the importance of virtue. And without this instruction, character formation is, at best, difficult.

Thus, cheating is no longer a matter of “what kind of person do I want to be?” Instead, it’s “do the rules apply to me in this instance?” In other words, the stuff of lawyers.

On Monday, I’ll tell you about the alternative. It requires a certain kind of courage: the willingness to be out-of-step with the times. It’s not easy, but it’s the only road that leads back to character. Please tune in.


BREAKPOINT 09-18-2012

Having attended the Naval Academy and experienced various ways we ignored or rationalized the Honor Concept (“A midshipman does not lie, cheat, or steal”), the BreakPoint message below resonates.

It is especially poignant when I think of how many times I have rationalized (or had others rationalize for me) my sin.  For example, after confessing my bondage to pornography and my adultery through lust and masturbation, I was told by one person, “It’s not as bad as if you had physically committed adultery.” (or words to that effect)  Another accountability partner (who has since divorced) told me, essentially, “Your wife has to understand – you’re going to fall into sin again.  She can’t expect you to never [lust][commit adultery][look at pornography][whatever – choose the sexual sin] again!”

In my own mind, I have rationalized sins long enough to commit them, then minutes or hours or days or weeks later been convicted by the Holy Spirit, and had to confess and ask forgiveness from God and others I sinned against (or, for many years, just live in guilt and the fear of being discovered).

Sin is sin.  You know it is sin.  If you find yourself trying to find a way to convince yourself (and you conscience) something is not sin, so that you can “enjoy” it guilt-free, you’re rationalizing…IT’S STILL SIN!

Give it a read:

Cheating at Harvard

Let’s Be Honest About Ourselves

Eric Metaxas

September 18, 2012

The disciplinary board at Harvard recently announced that it was investigating allegations of cheating that were described as “unprecedented in anyone’s living memory.”

The allegations of plagiarism and “inappropriate collaboration” on last spring’s take-home final in the course “Introduction to Congress,” involved nearly one-half of the 279 Harvard students who took the class.

The investigation began when the professor noticed that between ten and twenty of the tests contained similar answers. Further investigation by the disciplinary board found an additional 100 or so to be “suspicious.”

If the students are found guilty of cheating, they could be suspended for one year and receive other sanctions.

While I as a Yale alumnus am tempted to have some fun at Harvard’s expense, that would be inappropriate. First of all, we don’t have all the facts.

Even more important, cheating happens virtually everywhere—it’s part of the human condition.

Last year, an epidemic of cheating was uncovered in the Atlanta public school system. There was strong evidence that teachers in some public schools had erased students’ answers on standardized tests and penciled in the correct ones.

Then there are the less dramatic ways that, in the words of behavioral economist Dan Ariely, “we lie to everyone—especially ourselves.” In his new book, “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty,” Ariely debunks the notion that a kind of cost-benefit analysis lies behind human dishonesty. On the contrary, his research shows that neither possible rewards nor even the likelihood of getting caught play much of a role in the decision to cheat.

He also disputes the idea that cheating involves a rejection of the idea of right and wrong. In his account, people are caught between two competing goals: They want to see themselves as good and moral people, and they also want stuff.

I don’t know if Ariely, who is an Israeli, has read Romans 7, but he is describing the dilemma the Apostle Paul identified.

The way we reconcile these competing goals is to lie to ourselves about our honesty. The most obvious form of this self-deception is rationalization. In the aforementioned Atlanta scandal, teachers rationalized their cheating as a kind of protest against over-emphasizing standardized tests.

Ariely also documents that we “limit” ourselves to small acts of dishonesty. In several experiments Ariely and company found that “lots of people cheat a little bit; very, very few people cheat a lot.” Those who cheated “a little bit” got the benefits of cheating while continuing to think of themselves as good and moral people.

Except, of course, they really aren’t. To reference the Apostle Paul again, “none is righteous, no, not one…” Virtue isn’t what you do when nothing is at stake: It’s what you do when doing the right thing comes at a cost, whether large or small.

For the Christian, the response to this dilemma is God’s grace, which forgives and transforms us. We become new creatures instead of imagining ourselves as something we’re not.


BreakPoint/Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview

44180 Riverside Parkway | Lansdowne | VA | 20176

Subscribe to BreakPoint –

1 JOHN 3

Here is a good reminder from God’s word:

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.


And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:1-10 ESV)

Do not despair when you fall into sin! Confess your sin to God, make things right with those you’ve offended, receive God’s forgiveness, and get right back in the battle.

However, if you live in sin, without really trying to get out or change, you’d better take a hard look at your heart, and decide if you’re really going to follow God.

Practice righteousness! Work out your salvation in fear and trembling – not working to earn your salvation, but once saved you have a lifetime of working toward sanctification, of becoming more like Christ.

Keep the faith!


I read this passage again several times today. It has had a big impact on my life, so I thought I’d share…

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. (Colossians 3:1-25 ESV)