From the Pastor's Study
From the Pastor’s Study
Ought Can and Will
March 22, 2023
There is a often big gap between “ought” and “will.” For example, we know that we ought to help those who recently lost everything in an earthquake, but will we help them? We ought to take time with a recent immigrant, helping them adapt to the language and culture of Canada, but will we? We ought to do more to ensure that the workers who make our clothes and electronics are paid a fair wage and have a decent work environment, but will we? There is a big gap between what we ought to do and what we will do.
This becomes a bigger problem when we begin to ask if we can do something. Can we actually do something about the homeless and hungry people in Turkey and Syria? Can we stop the war in Ukraine? Do we have the capability to make the immigrant feel at home here in Canada? We can do something, but we cannot do everything, and some things are impossible for us to do, even if we would put all of the world’s resources to the task. The gap becomes an even bigger problem when we consider that we cannot do what we ought to do, even if we try very hard.
There are two possible solutions: change the “ought” or increase our capabilities. If we lower the standard of what we ought to do, we free ourselves from obligation. For example, if I convince myself that I don’t have any obligation to help the victims of an earthquake (they should have followed better building codes and their buildings wouldn’t have collapsed, so it’s their own fault), I no longer have to provide help, thus freeing my conscience. We tend to make set moral standards this way: if we no longer ought to be married before becoming sexually active, then we eliminate the gap between “ought” and “will.” We rationalize our decision by saying that there is no perceived harm in changing the standard because, after all, how can something that feels so right be wrong? When the majority of people lower their standards, ,the “ought” disappears, and we become free to do whatever we wish with no feelings of guilt. This tends to be the easy solution.
The more difficult solution is to increase our capabilities. If we ought to do something, then we must find ways to do it. Thus, if we ought to help earthquake victims, then we put money, time, and extensive resources into providing aid to the millions whose lives have been torn apart. Unfortunately, there are times when we cannot do what we ought. We ought to do something to stop the war in Ukraine, but what can we do? Very little, if anything. Even the powerful governments seem unable to do anything, although, perhaps, not everything has been tried, mostly because of the cost involved. Realistically, though, we have limited capabilities, leaving us unable to do what we ought to do.
There is a third possibility, one that is not widely recognized at this time, and that is to turn to God for help. God does not lower his standards, allowing us to do things that we ought not to do. His standards are consistent, and they remain high. Thus, we find ourselves often unable to do what we ought to do. The lowering of standards is not an option when it comes to the “ought.” Of course, if we leave God out of the picture, we can lower standards so that we can achieve what we ought to do. This is what has been happening in Canada.
If God does not lower his standards, then we must depend on him to increase our capabilities. In other words, God must intervene and provide what we cannot provide ourselves. And he does. How he intervenes is not always obvious nor is it expected, and we, by ourselves might never think of the option he chooses to use. For instance, I’m not sure that any of us could have imagined God sending his own Son to the world to die for our sins as a way of bringing reconciliation between people who had been at odds with each other for centuries. That is exactly what happened so that the early church was filled with both Jews and Gentiles serving and working together even though there was a long enmity between them. In other situations God equips some among his people with the skills necessary to use scant resources to bring aid to many. He provides strength to those tempted by sin. And, most significantly, he moves in the hearts of the people of this world so that they become eager and willing to do what they ought. If we are not looking to see God at work, we might miss seeing what he is doing, but we can be assured that he is intervening in this world. Again, how God enables us to do what we ought might not be what we expect, but we can be sure that he will make us capable to do what we ought to do. God doesn’t lower his standards, but he does enable us to meet his standards by equipping us with the necessary resources.
What we ought to do we can do because God provides us with what we need. What we ought to do we will do because God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, makes us willing. There should be no gap between “ought” and “can,” nor should there be any gap between “ought” and “will,” for God does intervene to make us both able and willing.