Acts 25. In “Silver Linings Playbook” every character is delighted to use the insanity of Bradley Cooper’s character to make themselves look better. “Okay, sure, I may be a little, shall we say, OFF sometimes,” each character implies. “But am I BIPOLAR? Hardly. Am I CRAZY? I think NOT. Have I ever tried to MURDER someone? Nope.”
Each person in the movie wants to put herself in a position of moral superiority. But the movie implies that when we do that, we’ve become blind to the point of craziness ourselves. Instead, we are nudged to ask: how can we love other people – and by extension ourselves — without judging?
It’s a good question. How can we? All too often we echo St. Paul’s indignation in this chapter of Acts at being unfairly accused. “I am not guilty!!!!” Acts 25:10.
The only way we can get indignant about our innocence, however, is when we are very, very selective about which of our actions we choose to look at. We’re geniuses at this kind of selective morality. We hone in with laser-like focus on those few areas where we have even a chance of claiming perfection. Like sharpening our pencils, for instance. We’re pretty good at that. Or are we? I came across ten unsharpened pencils this morning and had to stuff them in a drawer. Okay, so maybe that’s not a great example. Perhaps we can say we are terrific at walking out the door without forgetting our keys – whoops. Scratch that one, too. When it comes down to it, the list of what we do perfectly is miniscule. But that doesn’t stop us from revisiting it like a favorite song. Even worse, we find ourselves engaged in the unattractive task of turning around and judging others for not having a sparkly (short) list that looks exactly like ours.
Why? Why do we care? Why do we want to look so good anyway? What’s our problem?
I’m not sure we know. I mean, I know we can come up with reasons. We can count on all our fingers the list of why. We want to earn love, respect, promotions, honors, degrees, acclaim and admiration. Fine. But why do we want all that? Let’s go deeper. Why do we even WANT the moral high ground over anyone? Why this drive for perfection at the expense of others?
The Biblical answer is that we all want to be like God. Sound familiar? It’s the refrain the serpent used to trap Eve: if you eat from that apple, you’ll be like God. But why did Eve fall for that? Why didn’t she say: “who cares? I don’t WANT to be like God. God is God. I’m good with being Eve.” Or better yet, why didn’t Eve say: “God loves me. God walks with me and my man in the garden in the cool of the day. I’m already made in His image. And that’s good enough for me.”
I don’t know. But she didn’t. And neither do we. We DO want to be like God – or at least to be like what we think He is like. We do want to be perfect – according to our own definition of perfect. We want to walk to heaven on our own two feet – or roll our wheelchairs – or hop on one foot. Whatever. “I can do it by myself,” is one of the first things we say as toddlers, and we’ve been saying it ever since. We spend our lives pushing away the helping hand that we all too often need.
It’s a lot of work pretending to be perfect. It’s exhausting pretending we don’t need any help. It’s also doomed. So we resort to a few other tricks. We point fingers at others to try to distract everyone from our own faults. We rarely fool others when we do this, and we certainly don’t fool God: “You didn’t think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing your misdoings?” Romans 2:3 (the Message). Well, we did actually. But if God really is the all-seeing all-knowing one, it’s not the best strategy.
God longs to help each of us. God is love, and love by definition is a verb of giving. But God makes it very clear that a condition for His help is that we have to stop pointing our finger at other people. Isaiah 58:1. Why? Why is it so important to stop pointing out that we’re not bipolar, psychotic, sex-addicted or a jailbird? And if we are any of those things, why do we find ourselves coming up with another list of Nots?
The answer is that those it’s irrelevant.
The ground at the foot of the cross is level. If we humble ourselves there, we find God lifts us up and sets us on our feet. God let the fingers point at Him on the cross, so He could extend to us instead the hand of forgiveness.
All we have to do is accept it with thankfulness. And when we can’t do that, or don’t want to, and find ourselves judging others with vile abandon — God’s hand is still there. His hand is always waiting. We can feel the press of His fingers all day long. God’s fingers nudge us in the direction of giving up the moral high ground and taking instead the mantle of grace. It’s the only playbook worth reading from. Because it’s only when we’re standing on level ground that we find our true balance.
posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on January 23, 2013