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Living ethically when it's tough

Author Liz Carter on facing the challenges of illness and ethics

In spite of a long-term progressive disease, I strive to harness the power of God so I can make ethical decisions in my daily life, writes Catching Contentment author, Liz Carter.

We live in a big, draughty old vicarage, and the heating bills are rather cumbersome for a vicar and his ill wife. Shop around,” people say to us. This company or that company do it much more cheaply.” But then we look at the companies. We look at their values, what they invest in, how they treat their staff, and that small voice whispers to our spirits: What are you going to do?”

My natural inclination is to say that we simply can’t afford to use green energy companies. I justify it in all sorts of ways in my head: We’re only trying to live in our calling; it’s not our fault the bills are so daft.” Or, everyone else uses the cheapest deal they can find. What’s so wrong with being prudent?”

The reality of my life is such that taking action or spending money can be a challenge. I live with a long-term progressive disease, and I can’t hold down a job. When I’ve heard people talk about ethical living in the past, the words have swirled together in one great threatening mass: they are words of vitality and words of doing. Words which expect people to be healthy and wealthy, and ready to leap to action with tons of energy and fire in their bellies.

I sit there, in pain, unsure of my part in it all. I’m not springing with energy. Sometimes even writing emails has me needing to lie down, shut away once again from the world. I feel inadequate, knowing that God tasks me to defend the poor and the oppressed. In my mind I am screaming justice from the rooftops; in my body I’m enclosed in a blanket which muffles me.

We confine God when we reduce ourselves, because God works in surprising ways.

God makes a way

Yet this narrative doesn’t do justice to how God works, and the gifts and capabilities God gives us in every situation, not just in those where we have enough health and enough money and enough knowledge. We confine God when we reduce ourselves, because God works in surprising ways. I’ve found that it’s when I turn to God and think outside my own narrow mindset that I imagine new ways of living in my calling to be a person of justice and compassion.

In Philippians 2 we find Paul advising the Christians to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves”. He tells them to have the same attitude as Jesus, who made Himself nothing, humbling Himself even to the point of death (v. 3 – 8).

These new believers didn’t have many resources. They were a small, persecuted church in a Roman colony. Yet Paul appealed to them to look to one another’s interests before themselves. Paul himself knew great hardship and suffering yet made his life an example of compassion and dynamic action, spreading the gospel in word and deed. It’s clear that the call we have to live mindfully of others is a call on each one of us, whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.

When I make ethical choices, I am taking action. It may not feel like action in a rush of empowered energy, but it is action seasoned by grace, by the power of God which works within my weakness rather than despite it. Choosing a green energy supplier may seem a small thing (and to some, a bit crazy), but it’s living by the mandate of the second chapter of Philippians.

My husband and I choose to buy fair trade goods where we can, and it might seem an insignificant action, but it will join with millions of others around the world to make life less painful for someone who is struggling. Each choice to live ethically is a choice for good. A choice for upholding the interests of others, for being a tiny link in the chain which might eventually bring liberation to a family or a community.

These choices mean a certain amount of discomfort for us. Yet Jesus never promised a life of comfort. I worry when I see the Christian faith reduced to a good feeling, a religious version of a spot of exercise and one’s five-a-day. It’s society that tells us we need’ more stuff to be happy, yet the gospel narrative is that looking to Christ is enough. 

And the great news is that by the power of the Holy Spirit in us we can live lives of purpose and freedom, even within our brokenness. We can be warriors for justice from our sickbeds and our limited finances. We can choose to imitate Christ, who made Himself nothing; Christ who, in an act of stark weakness, displayed the greatest compassion we could ever know.

So, let’s look to Jesus, wherever we find ourselves. Let’s dig into our faith and find treasures in dark places. Let’s dare to push our own boundaries, even if they are tiny and insignificant. Let’s choose others over ourselves, even if it seems to increase our own hardship. Because that’s the life-giving model Jesus gave us.

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