Biblical Values

All Robert Fulghum ever needed to know, he learned in kindergarten. I didn't go to kindergarten, so I didn't learn those things. My parents didn't teach them to me at home, either. What my parents did teach me is that the Bible is the final authority for everything that matters. I believed them. I still believe it.

As I get older and look around, I see this strange disconnect between myself and just about everybody else. Most of the people I see on a regular basis say they look to the Bible for their values the same as I do, but they don't live like it. Their lives are essentially indistinguishable from the people who make no such claim. Either their claim is false, or else they are finding different values in their Bibles than I find in mine. To properly explain this I need some definitions.

Values -- I use the term "values" to refer to what a person considers most valuable, the goals to be maximized, and therefore the motivation to which other purposes and motivations are subordinate. Staying alive is a value most people hold dearly, so they do those things known to keep people alive, such as eating and breathing, and avoid those things known to cause premature death, such as jumping off cliffs or taking naps in the middle of a busy freeway. Some people, notably 19 guys with middle-eastern names on September 11, consider other purposes more valuable than even staying alive. Notice that the other guy with a middle-eastern name, the one responsible for sending them on their mission, did not share that value with them; he's still hiding because he wants to stay alive. Most of us, like Osama bin Laden, want to stay alive. It's a natural motivation wired into our psyche, put there by God -- or if you don't believe in God, then by Natural Selection (which is just a different deity preferred by a large number of otherwise intelligent people).

Biblical Values -- People get their values from a variety of sources, mostly from their parents before they are old enough to understand what is happening, but also from their peers in the culture and whatever literature (think: TV) they absorb uncritically. Biblical values are those motivations and purposes explicitly taught in the Bible, or else implicitly taught by example and not contradicted by other teachings in the Bible. Some examples of explicitly taught values are "Thou shalt not steal" and "Love thy neighbor as thyself." An exemplary value is self-sacrifice, demonstrated par excellence by Jesus himself, but also by a number of other people in the Bible. Nothing in the Bible condemns self-sacrifice.

Value Hierarchy -- Whenever there are multiple values to be considered and approved, there is the possibility of conflict. What happens when the value of self-sacrifice conflicts with the value of staying alive? In Jesus' example, self-sacrifice is a higher value than staying alive: He died. Oh wait, that's not a fair example, because he's alive again. But you get the idea. At any point in time, all the values that might impact or motivate a particular decision can be ranked as more or less important. Perhaps at another time they might be ranked differently. For example, two starving guys in front of a single apple, one of them might consider staying alive more important (and therefore eat the apple), whereas if there were two apples and he just ate one of them, then loving his neighbor might become more important (so he could let the other guy eat the second apple). But generally, whenever there is a conflict, there is a ranking we apply to the various values to decide which values win the contention. Perhaps unconsciously, we all do it, we all make choices.

So which values are so different between myself and everybody else? Let's look at three:


The Bible is about Truth. Jesus said he is The Truth. I'm a little unsure how a person can be equated to an abstraction like truth, but everything else the Bible says about Truth makes sense: Jesus criticized his opponents for being dishonest, and following their "father, the Devil, the father of lies" [John 8:44]. After the Final Judgment, "all liars" will be denied entry into God's Heaven, but instead be thrown into the lake of sulfurous fire [Rev.21:8] reserved for the Devil and his minions. God Himself cannot lie [Heb.6:18]. The Truth sets people free [John 8:32]. There are many more, but this is a start.

Truth is a moral Absolute, there are no exceptions. Situations can be contrived where it might seem better to lie, but those situations are really about saying nothing at all, not about lying.

The Honest person (who values Truth) considers it cruel to withhold information that another person needs to prevent or mitigate disaster, such as getting or holding a job. The Honest person is not afraid of the truth and is willing to be held accountable for what they say. Their "yes" means "yes" and their "no" means "no" as Jesus taught [Matt.5:37]. If they make a mistake, they are willing to admit it.


I don't have a Biblical word for this value, but "nice" seems to capture the sense that most people have about interpersonal relations. "Be nice." That's what Fulghum learned in kindergarten. As near as I can tell, being nice means praising people for attributes they don't have, such as complimenting their appearance when they are not attractive, or letting the crippled child "win" the race. The reason I don't have a Biblical word for it is because I cannot find this taught in the Bible. Actually there is a Biblical word for it: hypocrisy. Yet every church member in the whole country seems to think it is the most important Christian virtue. And everybody in the country, whether they admit to being Christian or reject it, everybody agrees that the churches are full of hypocrites. Jesus condemned hypocrites. They are not telling the truth. They are liars, and there is a sulfurous lake of fire awaiting them. God Himself said so.

The Nice person considers it cruel to say anything negative about a person to their face for any reason, but it seems to be OK to slander them behind their back. I say "seems" because I cannot find any definitive exposition of "Nice"; I can only watch Nice people to see what they do. Nice people know that anything they say can be twisted into an insult or disaffirmation, and since that would be a violation of the Nice ethic, it's important to say everything so that it is plausibly deniable, with hidden inferential or double meanings. They also don't like to have things written down. That way, if you challenge them on it, they can deny that's what they said or meant.

Jesus was not Nice, not to his friends and disciples, not even to the people he was helping -- like the Phonecian woman he called a "dog" [Mark 7:27]. When he was the guest in Martha's house, he criticized her efforts at hospitality and praised Mary sitting and doing nothing but listen [Luke 10:42]. He called Peter, his top disciple by all counts, "Satan" [Matt.16:23]. God is not Nice, He calls people "Fools" and other less-than-complimentary terms.


Jesus was pretty strong on forgiveness, and so is the rest of the Bible. God Himself is forgiving, and we are expected to pass it on. There are teeth on this requirement: if we are unwilling to forgive others, God will not forgive us. Jesus said so, many times [Matt.6:15]. Most Christians agree that this is a Biblical value, but when you ask them what this means, they start to deviate. R.T.Kendall wrote a popular book, Total Forgiveness, but he doesn't deliver on the promise. Not only is his forgiveness not Biblical, it's not even total. The kind of forgiveness most people (including Kendall) think is Christian cannot be rigorously practised, not even by God. I believe in forgiveness, and I wrote an essay describing what exactly that means in Biblical terms, but very few people in America even understand the idea taught in the Bible, let alone practice it.

The Honest person recognizes that people make mistakes and is willing to help them correct their mistakes, and (this is most important) accepts their promise not to repeat the mistakes. This is honest forgiveness, the kind taught in the Bible and given to us by God.

The Nice person recognizes that "the leopard cannot change its spots" so any effort to correct mistakes is futile. A Nice person "forgives" other people by pretending (to them) that no mistake was ever made.  Nice people also consider it important to "forgive yourself." I guess that means getting rid of guilt feelings by pretending you never made the mistake; there is nothing anywhere in the Bible even remotely resembling self-forgiveness.

Conflict & Resolution

Two or more people trying to live or work together, but operating under different value systems, is a recipe for disaster. The curious fact is, the Biblical values I have described here are believed and practised more often by the non-Christians than by the church members. Jesus noticed the same phenomenon in the 1st century [Matt.21:31]. Having different values from the religious establishment got him crucified. I understand the problem, really I do.

I have met some very sincere people in the churches. They are trying to do the best they can with the information they have. They know they are supposed to follow the Bible, but their church leaders have foisted off on them an unintelligible 400-year-old Bible that nobody (including the church leaders themselves) understands, or a slightly modernized version of the same which is only slightly more understandable. God is merciful. Rahab the Harlot earned her place in the Faith Hall of Fame by lying about the Israeli spies. She was in the process of converting to God's Way and had not yet learned about Truth. God accepted her where she was. God is much harder on the church leaders who (should) know better [Luke 17:1, James 3:1].

Biblical values must start with the Bible. If you uncritically absorb secular values from your TV ten times longer each day than you spend absorbing Biblical values from your Bible, guess which values you will live out ten times more often? One of my relatives doesn't like to see a movie with me, because I critique it. I analyze it. I ask, "How does this teach values different from (or the same as) the Bible?" Screaming at the ocean will not stop the tide, but it does keep you from becoming part of it.

Tom Pittman

Rev. 2005 February 9