The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

MAKING TOUGH DECISIONS

Delivered 3/8/98
Text: James 1:1-5
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

"If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God..." Hmmm. Have you ever felt lacking in wisdom? Faced with a tough decision? I read somewhere of an old farmer who had hired a local boy to sort the potatoes. He wanted him to separate them into three piles: small, medium, and large. After only a couple of hours, the young fellow came to the farmer and, in great frustration, told him he was quitting. "Why?" the farmer asked. "Is the job too hard for you?" "No," the boy answered, "but the decisions are killing me."

Have you ever felt like the decisions were killing you? Have you ever been confronted by an issue with which you just did not know how to deal? Of course you have. We all have.

Let me give you some "for instances." Example: your unwed teenage daughter (still in high school) comes home with the news that she is pregnant. She wants to have an abortion. What do you do? Example: you are on a jury in a murder case. The defendant is found guilty. Do you vote for the death penalty or not? Example: your wife has just given birth to a seriously deformed child. With surgery and constant care, the child may live for twenty or so years, but they will be painful for all concerned and will, no doubt, bankrupt the family. Do you tell the doctors to perform the surgery or not? Serious questions, everyone of them, questions not just of what would be most convenient but questions of what is RIGHT, questions of ethics.

How do we handle things like that? Those are tougher than sorting the potatoes. This morning I am going to give you some guidelines, six steps you can follow when confronted by a really difficult ethical decision. I will give you the six steps first and then use one example to show you how they work.

Here are the steps. First, what does the scripture say about the problem, if anything? The Presbyterian Church has historically insisted that the Bible is our primary rule for faith and practice. Thus, the Bible should be our first resource for finding solutions to ethical dilemmas.

But, on some issues, the Bible does not provide any clear answers. So the second step is to consider what the church universal has historically said. For example, most Christians agree that gambling is a problem, and controversy explodes in North Carolina anytime someone proposes a state lottery, but the Bible has little to say on the subject. However, the church recognized early on that gambling was wrong and has fought it for centuries. We should take that seriously.

Third, what has your own denomination said? There are some situations on which the Bible has not spoken clearly and which the church through the centuries has NOT spoken with one mind. Abortion is an example. Some churches are violently opposed to abortion (and the violence of the rhetoric has spilled over into violent attacks on abortion clinics and healthcare professionals). They say abortion is nothing short of murder of the unborn, and the Bible clearly says THOU SHALT NOT KILL! Other churches would agree that abortion is not an option to be considered willy-nilly, but that the choice should remain with the woman; the government has no business interfering. If you are a Presbyterian and being Presbyterian matters to you, were not quite sure what to think on this question of abortion, you would be well served to see if your own church has a position to provide you guidance.

Fourth, common sense. There are some issues which are so individualized or so new that neither the Bible nor the church universal nor particular denominations have provided clear direction. For example, it was reported a few days ago that Dr. Jack Kevorkian had just assisted in his 100th suicide. Should the doctor have been charged with murder? He has been, several times, but never convicted. Our sense of compassion might want to say, if these people were so miserable that they saw suicide as the only way out, who are we to judge? But common sense would caution us against coming to such a quick conclusion since, with questions about inheritance, rights of survivors, and the possibilities of undue pressure, there is a terrible potential for abuse here. Common sense tells us to BE CAREFUL!

Fifth, Christian concern. If we take seriously Christ's commandment to love God and neighbor, and if we have no specific guidelines from any other source, a good approach to an ethical question would be to ask, "What is the most loving response in this situation?" Christian concern will sometimes prevent us from coming up with a too hasty moralistic answer to some questions.

For example, this past year we have seen a good deal in the news about cloning - some folks are horrified at the prospects, others are excited about the potential good to be done. A few years ago, there was a real-life story that had some of the cloning elements. Do you remember the Ayala family?(1) Abe and Mary Ayala were the parents of Anissa, a lovely young teenager who had leukemia. Anissa's only hope was a bone marrow transplant, but no donor could be found to match. So Anissa's parents decided to have another baby with the idea of providing a tissue match for the transplant. Little Marissa was the result of that decision and at age 14-months, the operation took place. Anissa's life was saved. Neither the Bible nor the church has ever said anything about the moral acceptability of parents conceiving a child in order to obtain an organ or tissue that could save the life of another one of their children. The technology is too new. Does our Christian concern tell us anything about this subject or, for that matter, any other issue that is not covered in Christian tradition? The Lord's law of love must be considered in the decision-making process.

The sixth and final step is a request for guidance. As our scripture says, "If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you." If you want to know how to sort those ethical potatoes but have not been able to get any clear answer through any of the other five steps, this is the court of last resort. Six guidelines to help in coming up with a Christian framework for making tough decisions.

Now, let us test them out with something that is currently the focus of national debate...what to do about Saddam Hussein. The question is a bit less urgent this morning than it was two weeks ago, but two weeks from now, who knows? If Saddam goes back on his word to Kofi Annan, after all the promises he has made and broken before, should we say enough is enough and bomb Baghdad back to the Stone Age to get this international outlaw to shape up? OR...should we back off all together and let the diplomats handle everything, no matter what? I realize that this is a subject on which most everyone of you have an opinion - I do too, and I will share it with you presently. But my purpose this morning is not to argue the merits of the case, but simply to use the topic to test our guidelines and their ability to help with Christian decision-making.

Consider the guidelines now. First, what does the Bible say about the subject? Obviously, nothing - Saddam was not around when the Bible was written. The Bible does deal with the general topic WAR. Throughout the Old Testament we find story after story of war conducted, not only on God's behalf, but with active divine participation. To be sure, this may have been simply a reflection of primitive understanding, but the message surely comes through that war is an acceptable option to fulfill national aspirations, particularly if they are seen as being in concert with the will of God. The New Testament is relatively neutral on the subject of war. There is the realistic view that war is a fact of life: "There will be wars and rumors of wars."(2) There is no call for soldiers to lay down their arms, simply to be fair and just in the performance of their duties.(3) (By the way, passages about turning the other cheek which have been used to justify a pacifist position are a misunderstanding of the context(4) - those texts are about response to personal insult, not national defense.)

What then can we conclude about war, against Saddam or anyone else, from what the Bible has to say? Not a great deal, actually. Scripture is not as definitive as we might wish.

We turn then to our second guideline. What has the church universal historically said on the subject? Well, depending on the times, it has spoken out of three sides of its mouth. There have been times when the church has advocated all-out war, as for example, during the Crusades when anything and everything that belonged to the enemy was a ripe target for destruction. There have been times when a pacifist position has been advocated - no participation at all in armed conflict. But, for the most part, the church has allowed for what have been termed "just" wars - a last resort by a government to confront a real danger in which the issues are so great as to justify killing and whose object is peace, not conquest: the damage to be inflicted and the cost involved are proportional to the good that can result and non-combatants are not to be harmed. The church has generally said that kind of war is reluctantly acceptable.

The question we have to deal with in the 1990's, of course, is whether or not, in light of modern weaponry, such a "just" war is even possible anymore. Ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we know that damage can now be caused on such a catastrophic scale that there is no way non-combatants can be spared and that the ultimate cost might be the destruction of the planet. The Gulf War, even with the precise targeting of the smartest of "smart bombs," still resulted in death and injury to thousands of civilians. Thus, the historic position of the church in allowing for a "just war" is called into question. Concerning Saddam, statements in recent days from a World Council of Churches delegation to Iraq, the National Council of Churches, the International Policy Committee of the US Catholic Conference and the Middle East Council of Churches all have called for a humanitarian, not a military response, to the situation.(5) The voice of the Church Universal is saying NO.

Move to the third guideline - the position of our own denomination. To be sure, the Presbyterian Church in this nation has, for the most part, reflected the views of the majority of its members. During the Revolution, Presbyterian pulpits were generally supportive of the Independence effort. The only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence was a Presbyterian - John Witherspoon. During the War Between the States, Presbyterian churches in the South supported the Confederacy while Presbyterian churches in the North supported the Union. During Vietnam, along with the rest of the country, our denomination was generally supportive of US policy in the early days of the conflict, but reversed itself once it became obvious that a grave mistake had been made. The Presbyterian Church's position on Iraq is to deplore the regime of Saddam Hussein but to focus concern on the suffering of the Iraqi people brought on by the international trade sanctions and the loss of innocent life that would inevitably result from bombing attacks. In a letter to Presbyterians last year, General Assembly Moderator John Buchanan called on us

  • to pray for the people of Iraq, and for people throughout the Middle East, who are affected by all the conflicts in their region;
  • to advocate change in the selective sanctions policy and practice of the United Nations and United States;
  • to keep yourselves informed about the humanitarian needs of Iraq...
  • and in the name of our compassionate Lord, to support the humanitarian efforts of the church and world community.(6)

The fourth guideline - common sense. Common sense tells us that international bullies must be kept in check. Common sense would say that sometimes war is necessary.

But there is another side to common sense. Story after story, picture after picture, have come to us detailing the awfulness of armed combat. And people DIE in the process!!! We are only now beginning to learn of the health problems being faced by veterans of the Gulf War - were they exposed to chemical weapons or not? This week it was announced that all our troops in the Middle East will be vaccinated against anthrax poisoning...just in case. THAT side of common sense would say that war is to be avoided.

What then does common sense tell us for certain about dealing with Saddam? Our only conclusion must be that sometimes common sense is not nearly so common as we might wish.

The fifth guideline - Christian concern. Again, this will not be as definitive as we might hope. Our Lord's command to love our neighbors might seem like an obvious demand for us to protect and defend those who are in danger. On the other hand, love for the neighbor might also be understood as an absolute prohibition against ever taking up arms against anyone - after all, even the most unlovable enemy is our neighbor too. Christian concern on the one hand will be muted by an equally strong Christian concern on the other.

Where does all this lead? On the basis of the guidelines, it would seem that we are forced, as per our investigation, to conclude that armed intervention in Iraq right now is not the way to go - it might FEEL GOOD, but it would be WRONG. My personal conclusion is that, in light of the realities - that Saddam would not be harmed, that his ability to make mischief would not be eliminated, that the only certainty is that civilians by the boatload would be killed - we should shut our national mouth and let the diplomats do as much as they can. If Saddam attacks, that is another matter, but until then, let us keep our bombs to ourselves. You may or may not agree with me, but this is the position to which I come by following the guidelines.

The sixth and final step is the prayer for wisdom. The ethical questions raised by war or abortion or capital punishment or any of the other difficult issues faced by modern Christians sometimes boggle the mind. The first five guidelines might provide enough of an answer for you to sort those potatoes, but there will be times when even a faithful trip through that process will fail to bring you to a satisfactory conclusion. It would be nice to think that wisdom will finally come with time, but there are moments when we do not HAVE time - the decision we make must be immediate. Fortunately, we have God's promise. When we NEED wisdom, God will give it to us...just for the asking.

Six steps to making tough decisions - First, what does the Bible say? Second, what has the church universal historically said? Third, what has our own denomination said? Fourth, what does our common sense say? Fifth, what does our Christian concern say? And sixth, what does the Holy Spirit say when we come in prayer with a request for wisdom?

There is no guarantee that each of us will come to exactly the same conclusions once we have gone through the steps. But if we go through the process, at least we CAN be certain that we have been faithful in seeking divine guidance as scripture instructs us to do. "If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you" - one more gift of a gracious and loving Lord.

Let us pray.

O God, we confess that some of the issues which confront us, these hot potatoes, are almost too much to bear. We would rather avoid them if at all possible rather than be forced to make any decision. But we realize that sometimes the issues canNOT be avoided. Help us in those hours to make decisions which would be honoring to you and would be loving to those around us. For we pray it in Jesus' name. Amen!


1. A motion picture relates the details of the story, "For the Love of My Child: The Anissa Ayala Story (1993)

2. Matthew 24:6

3. Luke 3:14

4. Matthew 5:38-41

5. Alexa Smith, "Church Leaders Call for Alternatives to Military Attack on Iraq," Presbyterian News Service, via Internet, 3/1/98

6. John Buchanan, "Moderator's Letter to the Church on Iraq," Presbyterian News Service," via Internet, 3/11/97

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