To Thine Own Self Be True?

by Brian Watson

Can We Trust Our Hearts?

Yesterday at church, in our morning Bible study (a.k.a., “Sunday school”), we had a bit of a side discussion on whether all people have an inherent sense of right or wrong. In other words, do people have a conscience that infallibly leads them to a knowledge of good and evil, whether or not they act on that knowledge? Do people know that something is wrong even as they do it?

According to the Bible, people do have a conscience, some sense of what is right and wrong. It would seem that Paul indicates as much in Romans 2:14-16 (ESV):

14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

The Gentiles did not have the benefit of receiving the Old Testament, God’s authoritative revelation given through and to the Israelites. Yet they have a conscience, which will excuse them (if they follow it) or accuse them (if they do not). Though the Gentiles did not receive the “oracles of God” (Romans 3:2 ESV), they, along with every human being, has some knowledge of God, because he has revealed himself (in a general way) through his creation (Romans 1:18-20). Yet that is not the end of the story.

Because of the presence of sin in our lives, we have suppressed that knowledge of God and our hearts are wayward. They are no longer completely trustworthy. Paul writes in Romans 1:21-23 (ESV):

21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

The human heart chases after false objects of worship. What we worship determines how truthful we will be. Our hearts will try to justify anything if we are worship a false god, an idol. Therefore, we must be careful about following our hearts. Thus, Jeremiah writes:

The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)

I made the comment in our class that when people say, “Follow your heart,” they could be offering up very bad advice. Then, I added, “‘To thine own self be true’ is dangerous.” These words, which come from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, are often ripped out of context to indicate that following one’s desires, one’s heart, is the right course of action. Yet we would never say to the drug addict or the pedophile, “To thine own self be true.”

Failed Moral Reasoning

Last night, I happened to glance through the Sunday edition of the Boston Globe. I happened on item in the Globe Magazine. It was a story about how a Republican state representative in Massachusetts changed his mind on same-sex marriage. Richard Ross had once voted for same-sex marriage, then later against it, apparently due to the influence of his Christian wife. Now, in 2007, the Massachusetts Legislature was voting on a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage. Those who favored same-sex marriage needed his vote against the amendment. What would Ross do?

Ross had decided to vote in favor of it. The article suggests this would be the expedient vote for Ross, to preserve domestic tranquility and perhaps also his funeral home business in his conservative town of Wrentham. Shortly before the vote, however, Ross met with Patrick Guerriero, a former Republican state representative who is gay. Guerriero happened to ask about the clients Ross served in his funeral home, which led Ross to recall something his father, the original proprietor, once told him. The senior Ross told his son not to judge those who came in the door. This memory was enough to reduce Ross to tears and led him to change his mind. In the words of the article: “As he grappled with his decision, what came to mind was a quote from Hamlet that his mother loved: ‘To thine own self be true.'”

Unfortunately, this is what passes for moral reasoning these days. There is no debate about whether we should redefine marriage. For, that is the issue. It is not a matter of marriage equality, but marriage redefinition; instead of regarding marriage as a covenant union between one man and one woman–the definition given by God and affirmed by Jesus (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6)–we are now entertaining the idea of marriage as a union between any two people in love.

Furthermore, there seems to be little debate about whether it would be right to redefine marriage. And when people engage in such a debate, people rarely reflect on the basis or standard for their moral reasoning. Why is something right? According to what standard and what authority? Instead of a rigorous debate, we are left with assertions: “It seems right.” “We want this.”

Much more can be said about the issue of marriage. My point now is simply to say, “To thine own self be true,” interpreted in this manner, is no reliable moral guide. Jiminy Cricket once sang, “Always let your conscience be your guide.” But what if your conscience is distorted by wrong desires and, ultimately, a wrong object of worship? Do we really want to make laws according to everyone’s subject experience of “conscience”? Do we want Jiminy Cricket to be our moral philosopher?

The True Source of Morality

This moral quandary is why we need an objective source of moral authority, revealed to us by the One who knows all things, including what is right and what is wrong. That is why God has given us the Bible. It is external and objective. Yes, our interpreting the Bible is a subjective experience, but that doesn’t mean we can’t arrive at truth. There are moral imperatives in the Bible that are abundantly clear, particularly with respect to marriage and sexuality.

One more thing needs to be said: not only do we need an objective source of truth, but we need new hearts so as not to distort that truth. We need hearts that are purified of their wrong desires. We need hearts that are true in order to arrive at truth, so that we do not reinterpret Scripture to our own ends, whatever they might be. And when people come to Christ, they receive new heart. God’s promise to purify his people’s hearts is found in Ezekiel 36:25-26 (ESV):

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

This promise is given through the Holy Spirit’s work in the hearts of Christians. Jesus alluded to this passage when he told Nicodemus about the need to be “born again” (John 3:3). Through the Holy Spirit, we are given new desires and new eyes to see the truth.

“To thine own self be true”? No. Rather: be true to God. “Let God be true, and every man a liar” (Romans 3:4 NIV).

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