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Being terrible

Being terrible

THE MAGAZINE

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

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Philip Snyder
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Philip Snyder

One of the big problems with forgiveness is that to truly be forgiven we need to forgive everyone who has sinned against us. In order to forgive everyone who has sinned against us, we need to understand our own need to be forgiven and to know that we can be forgiven and experience that Grace and new life that comes from being forgiven.

It is something of a Chicken and Egg thing.

So, what is the solution?
As humans, there isn't one. But God's grace breaks through our limitations and leads us into a "forgiveness feedback loop" where we understand our forgiveness, leading us to forgive others, leading to more understanding, leading to more forgiveness.

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

I do not believe in atonement theology (Jesus has to die because we are so bad) -- Jesus died because he lived fully into the dream God has for this world - and we killed him. He died showing us that to be saved means knowing you are beloved of God and showing others that as well - -living so that others might live fully. People are not "born bad" -- we do terrible things but God continues to have hope in us. We are God's plan for this world.

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Philip Snyder
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Philip Snyder

When I go to prison, the men there GET "penal substitution" where one person pays the penalty for an offense so that another person can go free.

When it comes to models of the atonement (ransom, penal substitution, Christus Victor, etc.) I say "yes!" A "model" only describes a possible "how" to an impossible "what."

We know that Jesus death and resurrection gives us the ability to have a right relationship with God the Father. How does it do that? We don't really know because there are several models in Holy Scripture and some strongly implied by Holy Scripture.

But I will not say that this is NOT how it happened (about the different models in and/or implied through Holy Scripture), because we lack that direct knowledge. I may have my preferred model, but that is just a personal preference - how God reaches me best. He may reach you or others differently.

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Helen
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Helen

We were all born into the "Adamic" nature. Believing in your heart and confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord will redeem you from this sin nature (the noun). The blood of Jesus satisfied all sins (nouns an verbs) at the cross. Salvation connects our spirit to the divine. The battle we face as believers is between our selfish flesh (mind, will and emotions) and the perfection of our spirit in the righteousness of Christ Jesus. If life in Christ depends upon perfect actions then we are just religious people living under an ancient law (of sin and death). The real answers to these questions can be found in the book of Romans.

[Helen: please sign your first and last name when you comment. Thanks Editor.]

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Eve Nash
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Eve Nash

We are created in the image of God, but this is a fallen world. We are sinners, "not worthy to gather up the crumbs under His table" as it says in our church liturgy (Rite I, BCP). But since Jesus died on the cross, our sins are forgiven -- past, present and future. Nonetheless, we are a sinful people.
As the author wrote, "people are awful." As you read the Bible (or merely live life) it is not long before you discover this. What makes so many churches (and Christians) miss the mark, is that they ignore this basic truth. "If we say we have no sin ,we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." (I John: 1:8.) This sounds like a downer, but is actually Good News. We have a Savior to deliver us. If we're not sinners, why do we need a Savior?

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

If we are created in the image of God - then how does that make people basically bad?

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Philip Snyder
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Philip Snyder

There are three possibilities
1. People are basically good, but makes mistakes (sin)
2. People are basically evil and continues in that
3. People were created good, but fell from that status - destroying God's likeness and marring (but not erasing His image).

I reject ath people are basically good or that they are basically evil. I submit that human beings were created good, but are now part of fallen creation and have no choice but to sin in some areas.

Sin brings blindness and bondage, not sight and freedom. Think of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings - he was created as a good Hobbit like creature, but was ensnared by the evil of the One Ring. This evil twisted and warped him such that good things (like the food Elves created) actually hurt him and all he wanted was to eat raw fish and to say out of the light.

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Kelly Wilson
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Kelly Wilson

That is a great question, perhaps THE question about the relationship between man and God.

And I don't know the answer. But it may be in part because of the question. There's not much question about whether humans do "bad," if we are judged by our fruits. I think of Paul's struggle in Romans:

For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.

But does that make us "bad," intrinsically speaking? My great grandparents might have said so. Later generations talk about us being "broken" or "lost."

I'm not sure what it is, but I certainly hope that one message God imparts to is through his love is that at our core, we are not "bad," despite our failings.

I'm curious to know what others think...

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