To See the Face of God
The classic story, Les Miserables, strikes at the human heart as Fantine, a destitute young woman, must choose between a morally upright life or supporting her daughter, Cosette, and becoming a prostitute. How could a mother choose otherwise? Earlier, this theme of difficult choices begins the story as former convict, Jean Valjean is given a second chance by a priest who lies in order to preserve Valjean’s innocence. What kind of priest lies for another? For the most part, the only one who struggles with these “moral antimonies” – the paradox of choices – is Javert, the policeman who wants everyone to follow the law, both civil and moral. Interestingly, he commits suicide (not to give the story away) as a result of his inability to live with this ambiguity. Black and white no longer offers him the answers he thought he needed to live by.
The Matrix of Christian Ethics highlights this transition from a modern understanding of ethics to post-modernism, going from black and white to the necessity of “courageously mak[ing] ethical decisions in the mucky waters we live in.” According to Patrick Nullens and Ronald T. Michener, the co-authors, modernism fails to offer discernment not only around decision-making but also in how we live our lives in congruence with “God’s commands and guidance through the Holy Spirit, in Scripture, and in the context of the church community.” Leading into depersonalization, modernism dismisses the varying factors that impact living an ethical life for our world today. For Javert, he only seeks answers to the problem, attempting to fix with a moral code. Fantine, the Priest, and others who serve as a foil to Javert all point to “ethics [as] a renewed image of God in the human person, within the context of the community of Christ.”
Ethics are based on our values. When we recognize how “values give direction to our lives,” we begin to see more clearly the reason for our investments, way of acting in this world, and purposeful living. As followers of Christ, we are called to choose a life attuned to “values, norms, virtues, and purposes of Christian life in one’s contemporary context, drawing on Scripture and the tradition of faith.” But what about the gray areas? How do we find a “way” through the difficult choices that leads to thoughtful reflection, integrity to context/scripture/tradition, and fruitful living?
Nullens and Michener point to two ways that impact how I view freedom in Christ. If we are going to face grayness, ambiguity, messiness, what do I hold onto in the midst of that creative tension? One way is the choice of diaphero. In their explanation, they offer that instead of adiaphora (indifference) to decisions, we are to take the action of discerning what is the best choice with the intention of love and wisdom. This approach provides an understanding that we are in partnership with God around this decision and/or way of living. It’s an interactive, dynamic process that leads to a greater freedom by recognizing who we are and gaining a greater understanding of God. Similar to Calvin’s statement: “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (Inst. I.1.i).
Secondly, the way through to this kind of wisdom, means that we look at “[o]ur habits of temperance and prudence…often exposed in little moments of our daily lives.” Ethics, a topic I typically shy away from because of its seeming magnitude, addresses our everyday life as much as the big choices we make. When we are “faithful in very little, [we are able] to be faithful in much.” (Luke 16:10) The way towards a Christian ethic begins right where I am, here and now, in my relationship with God, with others, and with my world. Ultimately, the place to start in ethics is letting God be God in the “‘unknowability’ of the enigma of life, in which we ‘cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.’” 
I cry every time I see Les Miserables whether in the play form or movie. (And I’m not the one in our family who usually cries at movies, honest.) In the rawness of their lives, the characters of Fantine, Jean Valjean, the priest, and others make the attempt to live out their “best” choices – the diaphero – in order to serve each other. In their ethical choices as they seek the “good” of another, they reflect the Imago Dei. As Les Miserables ends, Valjean makes his last statement in song:
Take my hand, and lead me to salvation.
Take my love, for love is everlasting.
And remember, the truth that once was spoken:
To love another person is to see the face of God…
 Patrick Nullens and Ronald T. Michener, The Matrix of Christian Ethics:Integrating Philosophy and Moral Theology in a Postmodern Context (Colorado Springs: IVP Books, 2010), 230.
 Ibid, 243.
 Ibid, 11.
 Ibid, 244.
 Ibid, 55.
 Ibid, 12.
 Ibid, 242.
 Ibid, 242.
 Ibd, 243.
13 responses to “To See the Face of God”
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Love it! Les Mis is my favorite. I think we need to all go see it when we are in London!
You used Les Mis as an illustration well to highlight the gray area that comes into play. And I really appreciated your comment, “the way towards a Christian ethic begins right where I am, here and now, in my relationship with God, with others, and with my world.” You always seem to articulate well the points I’m trying to say in my own post.
What makes this definition of Christian Ethics so difficult is the room it leaves for two people to choose different resolutions and both be correct. I’m not really sure how that works but I do know it requires us to live with a great amount of grace towards one another. Thanks Mary.
Nick, interesting point that there can be two different conclusions that are both correct. IS it that so long as the conclusion isn’t patently “wrong” that there can be a lot of variations of correct? Uggghhhh… This is hard because I think I agree with that but it feels uncomfortably like relativism. So, is relativism always wrong?
oh man this is hard
Jon…It is hard isn’t it? Lately I’ve been processing what the greatest force in the world is? Is it power, wisdom, truth, etc?
Those are all good things in and of themselves…but the greatest force in the world is love, right? I really believe Truth matters…it has to matter…but in Christian ethics the way we love has to matter more. And for some…because of a lack of education or upbringing or maturity or nativeness…their love is misplaced. Is it better to be wrong with love or to be right with no love? This keeps getting harder doesn’t it? (-:
Great story to put with the meaning of making ethical decisions. One quote you used was striking to me because some decisions you have to make in love and wisdom can be very distasteful but real. Your quote, “In their explanation, they offer that instead of adiaphora (indifference) to decisions, we are to take the action of discerning what is the best choice with the intention of love and wisdom.” Here is a scenario from Biola University I remember from my ethics class. You have a plane carrying 250 innocent people heading for Los Angeles with a nuclear bomb on it and terrorist are going to crash it into the city. What do you do? Shoot the plane down and kill 250 people or let it crash and kill one million people? No matter how you slice that to make that decision hurts. You would have to shoot the plane down. Some times the lesser evil is the best decision even if its not ethical!!!!!!
That makes me think of what I heard on the news recently -the new programmed cars that drive themselves are actually programmed to kill. In their software (or hardware, whichever one), the car computer knows to hit, possibly kill/main, one person over a number of people. I was so struck by that…thinking of where that could eventually lead after watching way too many sci-fi movies.
But isn’t it the same for us – we are programmed in the Image of God to make the better of the two choices. Yet we’re broken. So how do we do it? Not easy at all!
Lol yes that is it Mary how?
Powerful post Mary! I think your post represents what is missing in our culture. The ability to see, feel, grapple with the issues that are really crashing together on the moral/ethical compass. I feel as though there is no compass and if the majority of Christians, I know saw “Les Mis” they would not get the deeper issue and theme running through the film. Maybe that is terribly judgmental on my part, but I feel the power of contemplation and reflection on the ethical/moral tensions truly alive in our world and culture is stripped when we live fast and furious, shallow lives that skim. Again great post and love how you live and express your faith!
Phil, you make a powerful statement with the words of how our “world and culture is stripped when we live fast and furious, shallow lives that skim.” I know I tend to “preach” the value of the contemplative life, but I struggle with it everyday to take the time to pause, walk a little slower to notice, to listen, and then hopefully from that kind of posture, I can then respond. We don’t have a culture that supports that. Or if there is a culture, it’s considered “new age” and so Christians dismiss it. I hate it when Satan seems to usurp all that can be good by making it into something God never intended.
Mary, Beautiful the best post I’ve read all year – and that’s not just because of love Les Mis… I’ll be the first to admit I’m a modernity thinker and have always found the grey difficult but what you’ve done is elevate the “intention of Love and wisdom”. Of course this lack of certainty puts us in the hands of God whom is the one who allows the paradoxes and whom is an enigma. Again really really wonderful post.
Thanks Dave – I’ll make a confession that I thought this post was one of my worst, mainly because I didn’t feel like I could land on an answer of sorts around ethics. In light of all the confusion, anger, fear, and malice from the recent attacks, I considered my post a bit flimsy. I kept asking myself – isn’t there a definite answer somewhere? But then you said the answer: “[it] puts us in the hands of God.” So not only do we know his face, but his hands as well. Isn’t it interesting how we need each other to be able to “see”?
Your post brings much clarity and perspective. Thinking about Les Miserables reminded that ethics isn’t a new concern and isn’t an issue to be readily solved. The struggle between good vs. evil and right vs. wrong won’t go away. We have and will live in tension. Thus, it is our faith and following of Christ that will help us to decipher direction in the moment. Our wisdom must come from above, which requires we submit to His will and not our own.