So I have to confess that for years I have had this nagging problem with the Bible that hovered around in the back of my mind. Why is it so obsessed with sin? Honestly, you cannot turn a page in the Bible without somebody telling us how screwed up we are, how everything we do is awful, how humanity is “totally depraved” (to borrow a Calvinist soundbyte) and so on. You get the sense from reading the Bible that all God sees when he looks down at us it a bunch of ugly, despicable and horrible people.
Why does he not see the good? Do we never do anything right? I find that hard to believe. If I’m supposed to see myself and those around me as “sinners” that’s a tough pill to swallow when they aren’t wielding knives, kicking cats or even being particularly rude. In fact, some of them are nicer than the Christians who are supposed to be a little more “sanctified” than outsiders.
Now I’m not claiming they’re perfect; nobody is. I don’t know a single person who would be arrogant enough to say they never do anything wrong. Yes, I can agree that they are “broken.” They are “corrupted.” They are “sinful,” just like everybody, but those descriptions, though accurate, hardly seem the most appropriate. Something more along the lines of “really great people who mess up now and then” seems a little more appropriate. To be forced to constantly throw on my sin-detecting glasses and go out of my way to sift through all the wonderful, redeeming qualities of people around me, just so I can dig up some obscure moral infraction so that we can have a conversation about sin (which is supposed to impose an unnatural feeling of guilt in their souls) in order to persuade them they are horrible people deserving of Hell and they should be glad Jesus came to save their wretched soul…
It’s a hard sell. Honestly, it’s hard to convince myself of this too. Why can we not focus on the good stuff instead of constantly drawing attention to those annoying peripheral areas where the flaws lie? It’s like I am expected to see past their true selves in order to fit them into the “Bible tells me so” paradigm of them being a horridly lost sinner desperately in need of Jesus’ redeeming power in their lives. It’s a tough paradigm to accept, but I have recently begun to wonder if my inability to gleefully accept this paradigm is due, in part, to a perspective problem I have.
I wonder if the issue comes down to choosing between a “good enough” paradigm and a “nothing but the best” paradigm. Let me explain. In our present culture there seems to be this idea that humanity need not aim any higher than “good enough.” So many examples could be provided. There is a profound resurgence of interest in Karmic religions. The basic concept behind Karma is that you should have more of the good Karma and less of the bad over the course of your life. Having a bunch of bad Karma is kind of expected, but as long as you are “good enough” (the good outweighs the bad) then you’ll move up the re-incarnation cycle. This may not be the official doctrine of Karmic religions (there are a bunch of the, after all) but it seems to be the folk-level understand of the people I’ve talked with over the years.
Or consider this; many school boards have banned keeping a student back a grade. It’s not good for their self-esteem, we are told. They will be passed to the next grade, regardless of their academic performance or lack thereof. In this case, actually, they do not even need to be “good enough” they will advance anyway.
In so many places we have minimum quotas, minimum wage, and countless other minimums that we will happily live up to so long as nobody expects us to strive for our maximum. We are a culture steeped in the “good enough” line of thinking. So many people think like Jennifer Aniston in this scene from the movie Office Space.
We naturally think this way, much of the time.
“I may not buy my wife roses every day, but at least I buy them monthly.”
“I may not buy roses monthly but at least I buy them on occasion.”
“I may not buy my wife roses, but at least I tell her I love her.”
“I may not tell my wife that I love her, but at least I treat her with respect.”
“I may not treat my wife with respect but at least we are not getting a divorce.”
“My wife and I may be getting a divorce, but at least I do not bad-mouth her in front of others.”
“I may bad-mouth my wife in front of others, but at least I never beat her.”
And on it goes. We so readily look at our lives and think that we’re doing “good enough” so that we can excuse any extra effort, or striving for any standard higher than whichever standard we arbitrarily chose; standards which almost never require any real moral effort on our part. If we think from this perspective (especially if you are the guy who does, actually, buy roses regularly) it seems difficult to justify dragging out the minor moral infractions and making a big deal of them.
Nothing but the best
But what if that’s not God’s plan for us? What if our tendency to settle for second best (or third, fourth or fifth) actually hurts him deeply? What if his greatest hope and ambition for us is absolute perfection, and the moment we talk about “good enough” it is as if we slapped him in the face and told him to take his “nothing but the best” priorities and shove them where the sun don’t shine?
We were made to explore the stars and we have colonized the moon, plopped ourselves on the sofa and started watching reruns.
From this perspective absolutely every single hair’s breadth that stands between us and who we were designed to be begins to look like a chasm too great to bridge. Some more analogies might help. For a weight-lifter who wants to break a world record of 300 lb, even lifting 299 lb is not “good enough.” For a sprinter who wants to beat his own best time of 20 seconds, 20.1 seconds is not “good enough.” For the engineers who wanted to break the sound barrier in an aircraft, even Mach 0.99 was not “good enough.” For a musician working on their life’s masterpiece, no matter how magnificent it may be, until they get it just right it is nowhere close to “good enough.” When perfection is our goal then the only result that is good enough is perfection itself. Every imperfection, no matter how infinitesimally tiny, becomes so great that it consumes us.
Consider this video to illustrate the concept of dedication to a cause. In this case the cause (per the narrator at least) is money, so that’s actually one example of “settling.” but the tone of the video illustrates the concept of striving for the maximum instead of settling for the minimum. If we accept this kind of language and enthusiasm about money and sports, perhaps we can understand when others apply that same kind of language to their character.
“If you had to spend more time planning your workouts and less time planning your weekends would it even be a tough choice?”
How many of us think about our lives in these terms? How many of us settle, and how many of us strive? How bad do we want it?
We see somebody else’s failure to achieve perfection, but we look – with awestruck wonder – at how close they got . We are amazed, but those who failed to accomplish their goals are disappointed. Not just disappointed, it eats them up inside. They see the accomplishment, yes, but they also see – like a giant neon light – that tiny little, almost infinitesimal, gap between them and their goal.
So I wonder if the people who can best understand God’s obsession with our sin, our brokenness, our corruption, our imperfection are those who are striving for “nothing but the best” instead of settling for “good enough.” It takes significant nobility to live a life centered on that perspective, especially when so many in the culture around us openly strive to drag the curve down by telling people they are doing “good enough.”
The universal problem
The Bible describes sin as “missing the mark.” And oh, how we miss that mark. Even the best of us, and even our greatest accomplishments as a human race, are tarnished by our pattern of imperfection.
We may love our spouses, quite sincerely in fact, but not everything we say to our spouse will exhibit the ideals of love.
We may be excellent parents, but when it’s been a long day and you’ve got a headache and the kids started fighting again, well… there go a few phrases out of your mouth that you’d love to take back.
You may be a faithful employee, but there was that time you booked a couple of hours against that one project while you took off early.
How many musicians, actors, athletes and others reach the pinnacle of their career and fall into a life of drinking, sex, drugs, and sometimes suicide?
Nuclear power could provide clean energy for all of humanity but our first use of it was to annihilate an entire city in an instant.
The wonder of flight, which must have amazed all those at Kitty Hawk, eventually led to the use of aircraft as some of the most potent military weapons the world has ever seen.
Lance Armstrong‘s career and personal battles were an inspiration to many until the revelations of his steroid use. Tiger Woods, anybody? Bill Clinton and Lewinski?
Kony 2012 gained worldwide attention and interest until the activist behind it suffered a very public and very humiliating breakdown.
We are capable (on the one hand) of some of the most amazing feats, but (on the other hand) each and every endeavor we set out on is tainted, even if only slightly, but our personal and collective imperfection. Even if we are morally “very good” we cannot possibly be morally perfect. None of us are. But we start to shift our perspective to align with God’s the moment we start to bemoan what “could have been.”
Seen in this light I have a better understanding of God’s obsession with sin. He has perfection in mind for us – in fact it is what he designed each and every one of us for – so the present state of affairs must hurt him far more than it could possibly hurt us. We settle for this when he has something so much more amazing in mind. C. S. Lewis described this condition in “The Weight of Glory.”
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
When we understand that God’s ultimate goal for humanity is a state of absolute perfection – not a single trace of any hint of minor imperfection anywhere – then it is not hard to understand the severity of the problem from God’s perspective. Indeed, with this perspective in mind I find it much easier to see the problem myself. If God designed a 5-star resort as the eventual destination for humanity, then the only people he can allow into the 5-star resort would be 5-star people. For in God’s resort even a single drop of soda on the carpet behind the bed where nobody looks would tarnish the perfection and defeat the entire purpose. If he welcomes people who already have stains and imperfections (no matter how minor) then the 5-star resort immediately becomes a 4.99999 star resort by virtue of our imperfection.
And like the athlete striving for a goal that fraction, that 0.0000001 gap, between what is and what ought to be, just isn’t “good enough.”
But no human (excluding Christ himself) has ever lived a 5-star life. That nobody is qualified to enjoy the resort he designed us for is truly the greatest problem humanity faces. We can do much that is excellent, glorious, wonderful, praiseworthy and all that, so we don’t really have a “problem” in that area. But we do nothing perfectly; that’s the only problem that matters to God. We fall short and we have no hope of working “just that little bit harder” to get there. A single instance of sin in our entire life – and how many of us can say we have only erred once? – transforms us into something less than a 5 star person. This is basic math; not some bizarre theological construct arbitrarily dictated by God.
Since we cannot become perfect, God’s obsession drove him to create a solution. Sin is the ultimate problem facing humanity, and God paid the ultimate price to provide a solution. The significance of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross is that God wants to see our present excellence transformed into eternal perfection. God’s obsession with sin is directly tied to the very lofty opinion has has of who we are and who we can one day be. Rather than looking down at us for who we are, he is looking up at who he wants to transform us into.
But only if we will let him. And we will only let him if we abandon the “good enough” mentality and start thinking in 5-star terms. God offers you the stars, will you accept his offer or will you continue channel surfing on the moon?