Nobility and corruption are two hard hitting words. They both carry significant emotive weight. One is positive and attractive. Who among us would mind being considered a person of noble character. Or if we do something kind, to be told, “That was very noble of you.”
To be called corrupt, on the other hand, is demeaning if untrue and unsettling if accurate. If, for instance, we visit a country that allows for widespread corruption; or if we need to do business locally with a corrupt contractor, we discover that we face a prospect of being tainted by their corruption ourselves. It might amount to being forced to pay special fees for simple services, fees that amount to bribes. Or to sign statements that blend truths with distortions or falsehoods.
So here’s a question: what do these words actually represent? They’re both morally loaded, with some standard of judgment in play when we use them. But do we ever analyze what that standard of judgment—or set of standards—might be? Or do we simply intuit each from a deep moral instinct that God provides? Or is the judgment based on our societal training? Or something else?
These may seem to be useful questions but I’m not sure they get us to the heart of the matter. We all “know” corruption when we see it; and we all “recognize” nobility when it blossoms, but we rarely take the assessment beyond this point of shared recognition. Yet as Christians—those who are meant to bring salt and light to a culture; to be moral preservatives—I think we should.
A tangible analogy from table fruit might help here. I enjoy having sliced bits of nectarine on my morning bowl of cereal whenever the fruit is in season. So when I visit a grocery store and they’re available I’m prone to buy half a dozen at a time. The problem is that I only eat one a day, so by the sixth day my final sample is, at best, corrupt—too soggy to cut and showing sprouts of mold that I’d rather not add to my Wheaties. Yet in the middle of the cycle—of fruit not yet ripe on the one hand, and the overripe on the other—I’ll have a morning or two when I think, “These were good!” Let’s call them the noble samples. That is, they have all the goodness I anticipated when I bought them.
The measure of what we as people are meant to be is something like the humble nectarine. We were created by God to be his people. In Trinitarian terms, we were made to be the Bride of Christ: to be his immediate and beloved companions for all eternity. So the measure of our goodness comes in our relationship to him. As we taste the goodness of his love for us we’re rewarded with joy and peace. When he tastes the goodness of our love for him, he’s rewarded with delight as we reciprocate what he initiates.
What, then, is corruption by this measure? Our humanity begins to decay whenever our love is misdirected, and self-love is the ultimate nemesis of our souls. Self-love—whether expressed in a love of personal security, of wealth, of status, of sensual pleasure, or in simple lethargy—always makes us distasteful to God and to others. We are no longer true “persons” in the sense of having a place of honor with others as God meant us to experience, but instead we become soulless manipulators who are, in fact, being degraded by an ultimate power of decay—by God’s adversary, the ultimate Liar.
Nobility, on the other hand, grows as life breeds more life. Like an unripe fruit that becomes properly ripe, a mature person is one who gives himself to others to feed them with the goodness of his own life.
My reflection today was stirred as I heard about a couple who traveled from their home in Europe to a country in Asia that has been famously soulless for decades. These young believers set up an orphanage for blind children who were the cast-offs of society. The couple worked hard within a bleak setting—with poor facilities and a hostile government for starters—but now have a home that is touching dozens of lives for good. Their nobility has become a blossoming flower in corrupt soil, and now the government itself is asking for more flowers—orphanages like theirs—to be planted.
Nobility is beautiful, and it comes to us naturally when we give our hearts freely and fully to the ultimate lover. Try it and see how good it feels to spread God’s goodness!