If my sinfulness appears to me in any way smaller or less detestable
in comparison with the sins of others,
in comparison with the sins of others,
I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer- Life Together
“Thank goodness I’m not as bad as that guy over there!” These are words that clearly indicate I am in denial and most certainly on the wrong path. I am making one of the most common of hypocritical statements. Even if I try to modify it in a way that admits, that well, maybe I am sinful, that is usually just a way of allowing me to point out the sins in the other person without guilt.
As Jesus sat down next to the woman caught in adultery he started doodling in the sand. He looked around at the men (almost certainly no woman would have been allowed in such a place) and made one of the most powerful condemnations of human judgmentalism- “Whoever is without sin may throw the first stone” and he went back to doodling. I imagine the crowd quietly slipping away.
In the Twelve Step programs of recovery and self-help five of the steps have the person look at themselves and find out what they have been doing wrong. Many balk at what seems to be an extreme self-examination. Yet recovery and growth depend on it.
- Steps four and five are a personal moral inventory;
- Steps eight and nine recommend that the person go and make amends to all they may have harmed, not looking for forgiveness, but honesty;
- Step ten says continue to take personal stock of one’s life and promptly admit when we are wrong.
That is one of the major points of Lent. This is a time to take inventory of ourselves. This is not a wallowing in how bad we are. It is not a time of self-flagellation over how we have been so sinful it is hard to believe God can even get close to wanting to give us grace. Those have been part of Lent in many times and places- and still are for many. But that can be counter-productive to living the grace of forgiveness.
As I have often understood it, it is important to realize that I am in just as much need of grace as anyone I may meet. I got into a discussion with a colleague one time about hoping that someone even as bad as Hitler or Charles Manson could be given the grace that allows them into heaven. My summation was simply that if God’s grace is THAT big, then there is also room for me. I wasn’t trying to say there is universal salvation. I’m not sure the Hitlers, Stalins, or Mansons of the world would want to be in heaven. I was talking about the oversized, one size fits all grace of God. (Please- no theological dissertations here. It was not a statement of doctrine!)
If I am to know grace and forgiveness- and share it with others- then I have to see my human condition. Which brings me to the Lenten questions to ask myself this week in light of Bonhoeffer’s quote.
- How do I participate in the sinfulness I am condemning?
- How can I discover when my own defects of character are getting out of control?
- When have I not treated my neighbor with the love and respect I want- and need?
- When have I judged others, casting the first stone, so to speak, instead of recognizing my own shortcomings?
Does all this mean that I cannot speak out when I see evil being done or when people are being taken advantage of or when situations and individuals are acting in ways contrary to the ways of God? Absolutely not. Part of the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was his selfless stands challenging the Nazis and the powers that be in the church in Germany. He did not mince words or soft-pedal the condemnations he was seeing. To look at oneself first is not to ignore the evil that may be happening around us. But we cannot do such challenge from a self-righteous position of being better or holier than the others. Only when we see our own self- honestly and in depth- can we begin to see the ways we are called to speak out from humility.
But that will come later in Lent. For this week, I continue to dig around in my own soul, learning how to be more in touch with the will and work of my higher power.