Wednesday with Michael Spencer
Rerun (from 2009)
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
• Luke 18:9-12
He expects us to make mistakes. He gives us millions (indeed billions and trillions) of chances. If anything, God likes our weaknesses because it enables him to exercise his infinite mercy. When Paul prayed earnestly to be delivered from a particularly annoying weakness, God said to him, “My grace is enough for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) According to this text, we do God a great favor by accepting our weakness. So there is no reason to be saddened by the fact that we do not measure up to our idealized image of ourselves and of how we should perform in the spiritual journey. That obviously is an ego trip.
• Manifesting God by Thomas Keating, p. 104
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“Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men.”
Of course, we are like other human beings. The Pharisee’s prayer was an exercise in self-deception. Informing God that we aren’t like other people is a particularly pointless endeavor, though it made enormous sense to the Pharisee, whose entire religion was based on separation from others.
“I’m right and you’re wrong.” How far should we go down that road? It does take us somewhere, but where does it ultimately take us? If you get out the map, it eventually takes all of us to the place where we’re all wrong, in one way or another.
“I don’t do the bad things that some men do.” But if you keep traveling, sooner or later the scenery starts to look familiar. We all arrive at the town where WE do bad things.
“I’m more religious than other people.” That’s a short road, because religion is a short road to nowhere. No one is religious enough, and the more religious we are, the less we have of what God is really looking for.
In a post from another time, I called it “the Ecclesiastes attitude.” Eventually, the same things catch up with the whole human race and we all turn into the same kind of monster. Life is one big rerun, with a few different whistles and bells.
Do we have a sense that Ecclesiastes is telling us the truth when it says that all our efforts to outdistance ourselves from the unwashed masses and the common sinners, while impressive today, are page 9, section F tomorrow?
Do we get it that the awards we give ourselves for avoiding the errors and failures of other people tarnish very, very quickly?
Do we realize that in the gaze of God, all our thrashing around, outrage at unrighteousness and extended speeches correcting the errors of our neighbors end up being the very evidence that convicts us of being unrighteous, unloving and condemned by God’s holiness?
The problem with being a religious leader, or a husband, or a dad, or a preacher/writer, is that eventually EVERY SINGLE WORD you’ve spoken to your wife, your kids and your various congregations will revisit you and condemn you.
All of it. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak or teach or correct, but which does mean there’s no separating ourselves so far away from or above others that we become spectators on their condemnation and repentance.
When we have a bad man in our sights, we are at particular risk. His flaws loom large and fill the screen. Our condemnations and criticisms fill ears, eyes and pages.
It never seems to occur to us that while the circumstances may be different, the human failure is the same. Eventually, we all will be sitting by that bad man in the same bus station, going to the same destination.
So Jesus’ story reminds me that the difference between the tax collector begging for mercy and the Pharisee reading all the reasons he was right amounted to a matter of self-perception, not God-perception.
And from God’s point of view, what mattered was sola fide. And that was all. Dressed in the righteousness of Christ alone, I have no place to stand and point at how poorly dressed someone else happens to be.