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There seems to be a prevailing attitude in our modern society that ethics are purely situational; in other words, it is necessary to take into account the particular context of an act when evaluating it ethically, rather than judging it according to absolutemoral standards. Whilst the motivation behind actions can be really helpful in understanding a person, we have to acknowledge also that God gives us absolute moral standards and we do well to focus our attention on obedience to these, rather than offering excuses for our sin in the guise of rationalisations or ‘reasons.’ God’s grace, as Paul vividly expounds to the Romans, is not a reason to sin! (Rom 5:20-6:14) Rather, His grace and mercy are the motivators to holiness we desperately need.
The account of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11 does not dwell on the motivation behind their actions. We don’t know what made them decide to withhold part of the proceeds from the sale of their property from the apostles or to lie about this. Our text seems to say that whatever our motive might be, if the act is a violation of God’s Word, then the act is sin. Peter’s emphasis is that Ananias and Sapphira lied, not only to men, but to God. (Acts 5:3-4) Regardless of why they lied, they lied, and that was a sin worthy of death. From a Christian point of view, one may do “the right thing” for the wrong motive and thereby sin, but one can never do the wrong thing for the right motive and do that which is pleasing to God. Machiavelli taught that ‘the end justifies the means’, but this is no Christian doctrine.
One of the ways we sift our motivation and seek to obey God in every aspect of our lives is by regularly praying David’s prayer: ‘Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’ (Ps 139:23-24) Jeremiah warned us of the deceitfulness of the heart (Jer 17:9) and we need God’s help if we are to avoid situational ethics, chameleon-like tendencies rather than the distinctively different lifestyles God longs to grow within us. Paul, when discussing Holy Communion with the Corinthians, warned that some had died because of their failure to discern the body of Christ (1 Cor 11:29-30) and went on to say, ‘if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.’ (1 Cor 11:31) Earlier, he had urged the Corinthians to ‘build with care’ so that they would build something of lasting value (1 Cor 3:10-15). We can rely on God’s grace and help to sustain us, but we also do bear responsibility for how we live and this is best done in prayerful response to God’s word.