It is common to look on other cultures, and especially past generations with some disdain. This is almost a requirement for anyone who thinks of themselves as a “modern” person. We see their flaws so clearly, and congratulate ourselves for our clear vision in areas where they were so blind. How could they have missed it?
But to a thoughtful observer, this experience should be a little terrifying. What if I am not so very different from those barbarians? What if history repeats itself? What if my children will have the same critical thoughts about me that I have about my parents and grandparents? What if my own bias makes me blind to my own moral failings? And above all, what if God sees it all very clearly? Then what?
This was the argument of the Apostle Paul in Romans Chapter 2. He said, “you who condemn another do you not condemn yourself?” It is too easy to limit the idea of condemnation to moralists. Our generation readily condemns those guilty of greed, racism, environmental irresponsibility, sexism, etc. And we do this most readily when looking at past generations. But when we make these kinds of judgments we are unwittingly conceding that there is a standard that transcends generations and cultures. That there is a standard that is not relative, and that applies even when we don’t see it or know it. And when we are honest, we will have to admit that this law stands over us as well.
CS Lewis ruminated on this 75 years ago:
“If, then, you are ever tempted to think that we modern Western Europeans cannot really be so very bad because we are, comparatively speaking, humane—if, in other words, you think God might be content with us on that ground—ask yourself whether you think God ought to have been content with the cruelty of cruel ages because they excelled in courage or chastity. You will see at once that this is an impossibility. From considering how the cruelty of our ancestors looks to us, you may get some inkling how our softness, worldliness, and timidity would have looked to them, and hence how both must look to God.”
Is it rude to point out a growth that might be cancer?
Is it judgmental to diagnose a malignant tumor?
Is it mean spirited to suggest that unchecked, the cancer will grow, and grow, and grow?
Is it uncaring to point out that growing cancer will spread and destroy vital organs and ultimately lead to death?
Is it condemning to explain that radical and unpleasant treatment is needed to save someone’s life?
Is it too negative to say that treatment should begin while the problem is still small and manageable?
Of course, to suggest any of this is ridiculous. But in the realm of moral cancer, few of us want a physician to deliver bad news. No one wants to hear that a certain relationship is toxic, that our habits are self destructive, or that our innocent pleasures are growing into addictions, or that our compromises are numbing our conscience.
And yet when pastors and leaders fail to be clear and direct about sin they are engaging in spiritual malpractice.
This happened in the book of Lamentations. After destruction had fallen on the nation of Israel, the prophet Jeremiah offers a post-mortem assessment of one of the factors that led to the death of the patient: “Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen for you oracles that are false and misleading.” (Emphasis added) (Lam 2:14)
It is never fun to find out you have cancer. But if you have cancer, finding out about it may be the most merciful thing that can happen. It opens the door to hope before it is too late. When God’s law points out the cancer of sin, it is actually a mercy because it points us to the Christ the great physician.
Vivian Gornick wrote a review of the book “Why Grow Up: Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age,” and hiding in there I found a few great observations, and several golden sentences that beautifully express the great contradiction of human nature: that we are both full of virtue and potential, yet also perennially evil and powerless to do what we know is right. For Christians this is understood in the tension between the image of God and common grace on the one hand set against original sin on the other.
“The desire to submit to the constraints of established authority at the very same time that we long to break loose of them seems to me a fair account of one of the major miseries of the human condition.”
She also talks about the human tendency toward revolution and says that throughout history, “the cycle of submission and rebellion repeats itself, without much permanent progress having been made.” Consistently today’s revolutionary liberator becomes tomorrow’s oppressive tyrant.
Gornick also says, “The catch is that learning to think for oneself is not a given; it is an ideal, one achieved only with immense effort. We resist making the effort as it involves damned hard work.”
“The Hebrew philosopher Hillel urged that we do unto others as we would have others do unto us. Kant urged, similarly, that we not make instrumental use of one another. With all the good will in the world—and remarkable numbers of people have it—we have not been able to make these noble recommendations carry the day. Not because we are lazy or venal or incompetent but because most of us live in a state of inner conflict that makes purity of behavior an impossibility. Every day of our lives we transgress against our own longing to act well: our tempers are ungovernable, our humiliations unforgettable, our fantasies ever present. We cannot stop ourselves from scorning, dismissing, challenging, and discounting. We spend years on the couch struggling to make our reasoning intelligence subdue our impassioned outbursts. When given a recipe for the good life, we want these realities on the ground incorporated in the mix.
“Aside from that of our own permanently conflicted selves, another unchanging reality is that the world as it is has been decried since time immemorial. Throughout history women and men have been writing—letters, diaries, poems, and novels—claiming theirs the worst time ever. While many have been truly horrendous, not one is without some redeeming feature.”
One of the deepest questions of human experience is this: “Who am I?” And this question seems more urgent for our generation as we tumble into the abyss of self definition. Is there anything that I “objectively” am. And I mean this as a human, and especially as a Christian? And is this something I need to create or to recognize?
How can we wrestle with the contradiction that we are? How can we honestly embrace the innate virtue and vice that is humanity?
It seems that everyone is trying to sell us a story for this. And it is hard to take the answers seriously when they come from marketers, politicians, and angry preachers. On one side are the cheerleaders telling us how amazing everything is. If I could just recognize my inner superhero, euphoria awaits! On the other side you have the misanthropes that can only see the evil and injustice of humanity. They downplay the obvious value and virtue we see in the world. Both sides see something important, and simultaneously miss something obvious. How can we wrestle with the contradiction that we are? How can we honestly embrace the innate virtue and vice that is humanity? My answer below comes from Christ and what he has done for me.
I am a unique human being designed by a wise and powerful creator. I am not merely an animal. Like every human I have an eternal soul. I have value and dignity because I am made in the image of God. I was made to be like him in goodness and creativity. I have the ability to love and be loved by God and others.
• I am a fallen person. I have turned my back on God and chosen to break the laws he gave for my good. Sin has affected every part of my body, soul and mind. I was designed by God for good, but on my own I do not have the strength or will to do his good purpose. I am now broken by guilt and shame. My natural tendency is selfishness. My attempts to fix myself often make things worse.
• I am now a redeemed child of God. I am not what I once was. Jesus took my nature so that he might die for me and be raised from the dead. I am loved and forgiven because of the work of Christ, and his Holy Spirit lives in me. I have confessed my sins and returned to God. I have been made righteous in Christ, and though I battle with sin, his grace is at work in me to restore my soul. I am now part of the body of Christ, and my fellowship with God has been restored.
• Though I struggle, my faith in his promise assures me that he will complete the work he has begun in me. He is daily renewing me and I am slowly growing to maturity. Through Jesus my sincere love and faith please God. One day he will completely renew me and all things. And though my body is still decaying, I look forward to the day when I will be with him forever. He is making me more like Christ. In this joy and hope I live and serve.