by Kelly Wilson
I remember every terrible thing I’ve ever done. Every day, my mistakes—big and small—come back to remind me just how human I am.
Every time I took the joke too far and hurt somebody’s feelings. Every time I broke something through my carelessness. Every petty theft. Every blundering lie. Every time I let anger, even self-righteous anger, get the best of me. Every time I ignored a problem in front of me that I could have helped fix.
What eats at me isn’t exactly guilt. It’s the clash between mental images of my messed-up self blatantly missing the mark, and competing self-images of someone who is good, holy, and perfect all the time.
Many people inside and outside the church believe the desire to behave perfectly is the essence of Christianity, which is why the hypocrisy of public figures who profess to be moral upstanding people and then fall from grace give such offense. Especially if the sinner who stumbles is someone who likes to preach about what others should and shouldn’t do.
But what if the Christian challenge isn’t trying to be perfect, but accepting and dealing with the fact that we are not?
The more progressive forces in our culture have done what they can to move beyond the “Angry God” of past generations. In this post-post modern world, it is hard to read the Bible without asking how God could have such wrath toward us just for doing what humans do naturally – make mistakes.
The challenges to reason and to our notions of justice posed by traditional readings have led to a gradual softening of these doctrines within mainline churches. The notion of wrathful eternal punishment has fallen by the wayside in favor of a “Love Wins”-style personally inflicted mini-Hell in this life as a consequence of turning away from God. Basically, it’s the idea that making mistakes keeps us from living our best possible life.
While the focus on the God of Love has done much for our self-esteem, I’m not sure how much it’s done for the accuracy of our self-image.
The debate over sin and culpability is long-standing. We continue to question whether people are born innocent, whether the notion of guilt is just a way for society to control us, and even whether fear and shame are self-imposed in response to the presence of incomprehensible divinity. Personally, I lean toward the more inclusive, universalist interpretation of the Gospels but I’m not here to comment on which interpretation is right. However, there is one core concept from the fire-and-brimstone circuit riders of the past with which I agree.
After nearly 20 years of living in a city that draws people from all over the world, from all different economic classes and ages and demographics and belief systems, who are jammed into way too small a space, I’m convinced of one truth:
By and large, people are awful. Myself included.
I have my moments of kindness or altruism as I flip a quarter to a homeless guy or play with my kid or give directions to lost tourists. But at the end of the day, there’s a basic framework of narcissism and short-sightedness, selfish anger at not getting my way, and a love of comfort that drives me to live for myself, not for my neighbors.
I see it all around me, from the blockheads who won’t get out of the doorway of the train while the rest of us are trying to get in, to the corporate raiders who fired half their staff today to improve the bottom line and are now under tipping their waitress at a fancy restaurant while I wait for an hour outside to get a seat, to my own gratitude for increased arrests making my neighborhood safer, even as it makes a poor family down the street even more desperate.
I try to stand up and fight this present darkness, but I fall, often and hard.
When I’m trying to be perfect, believing this perfect behavior is somehow my natural state, I get into a kind of madness, attempting to reconcile two truths, the one I want to believe, and the reality of who I am.
Perfection is a kind of false god. It leads to a lot of posing, a lot of denial, and a lot of missed opportunities to share the experience of being messed up with other people who might then recognize they are not alone. Perfection is a painted-on act that gets in the way of genuine connection.
But every once in a while, at the end of the day, there comes a moment of clarity. I think back on the day and realize I shouldn’t have said that. I could have done that better. I should have done more.
Tomorrow I’ll do it differently, with God’s help.
And then, as I attempt to rush from admission to repentance, some part of me slows down to rest for a moment in the acceptance that this, not my false image, is who I am.
After all, I’m human. Did I expect myself to be any different?
There is actually comfort to be found in accepting that I can be really terrible. There is profound beauty in knowing that as much as I try, sometimes I’m going to be terrible, and that God loves me anyway, though the beauty of the Cross.
It is not my perfection that connects me to the divine. It’s that radical acceptance by He Who Loves Me Anyway.
Modern theology has domesticated it into “forgiveness,” but it’s so much more than just a transaction.
It is where I live, the meeting place of human and divine.
I still try to be good. I still try to do the right thing whenever I can. In fact, it is harder for me to believe that I would be loved by God as I am than to believe that somehow I can earn that love through my own effort.
But it’s only when I force myself to acknowledge the truth that I’m not really all that great, nor am I even expected to be, at least under my own power, that I can live with the memory of all the mistakes I’ve made along the way and continue in my stumbling path forward.
Kelly Wilson is a writer, blogger, advertising professional, and member of the production staff at the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in New York City. His writing website is www.kellywilson.me.