We’re terrified to learn of our badness. That isn’t to say we aren’t also good. In most cases, we most certainly are. However, “bad” and “good” are relative terms. Bad according to whom? Good according to whom?
Further complicating matters, we’re conditioned, culturally, to believe there are no bad people, just bad decisions.
Indeed, we’re inculcated in the false notion that our wrongdoing is primarily rooted in something or someone other than ourselves. For example, not in who we are, but in how we see ourselves, i.e. low self-esteem. “If only you thought better of yourself you’d be a better person,” we’re told. In part, perhaps there’s something to that. But if thinking better of ourselves doesn’t correct our behavior and soothe our injured feelings (heaven forbid we feel remorse or guilt or shame), because our first instinct is to skirt responsibility, we inevitably end up looking for another scapegoat. Although misleading and simplistic, as the above example indicates, ultimately, we conclude that our wrongdoing must – absolutely must – be someone else’s fault. “Surely, I’m not a bad person,” we tell ourselves.
But try as we might, we can’t seem to successfully and permanently silence the inner voice that quietly but persistently – almost irritatingly – challenges, “Or are you?”
Interestingly, most criminals – to include violent, homicidal criminals – do not think they are bad people, either. In their minds, not only are they not bad people, they’re very unique people with very unique circumstances. So it only makes sense that special rules should apply to them. Excuses that would not normally justify others’ behavior, justifies theirs. Which is why whatever criminal act they may have committed doesn’t really qualify as being “bad.” A mistake, maybe. But bad, no way.
To say that orienting ourselves in this way is spiritually and psychologically dangerous is, quite clearly, an understatement. No one is above reproach. To pretend otherwise can only ensure one thing: continued unnecessary pain and suffering.
Further, at least for Christians, such an orientation is diametrically opposed to revealed truth. In most cases, we may not be homicidal criminals, but, let’s be honest, that’s a pretty low bar. Just this morning on my way to work (while listening to the 14th chapter of Mark, no less (you know, the part about Christ’s atonement)), I muttered something under my breath at a driver who had the audacity to drive slowly in the fast lane. Once I noticed the inherent contradiction between what I was hearing and what I was doing I thought to myself, “My goodness, if the word good means anything, I had better be very careful about just how ‘good’ I think I am.” Otherwise, how could I ever hope to be better, much less realize Jesus’ injunction to “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”?
Besides, prophets the world over have made it abundantly clear that unless we are born again; unless we are changed from our carnal and fallen state – ultimately, unless we become new creatures – we cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Lest any ambiguity remain concerning our need for redemption, Jesus confirmed, “There is none good but one, that is, God.”
In fact, isn’t it our high opinion of ourselves and our too-big-to-fail egos that enables us and criminals alike to think we’re somehow above the law, moral or otherwise? Which might explain this nugget of truth, “And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” The thought, therefore, of emboldening our narcissistic tendencies, especially when mixed with our immoral propensities, appears not only to be terribly misguided, but a recipe for moral catastrophe.
In no uncertain terms, change requires remorse. Only by becoming intensely fed-up with our immorality will we be sufficiently motivated to affect real, fundamental change, particularly given the fact that change generally requires a massive amount of endurance.
The hard truth is that we’d be better people if we had an awareness not just of our badness – to include our deliberate, intentional and malicious acts to both injure others and to make matters worse – but of our moral agency to choose between good and evil. To be sure, our wrongdoing is not determined by nature or nurture, much less low self-esteem, but in our choices to do wrong when, regardless of the difficulty, we could and should have done right.
Our choice to do wrong despite our power to do right is the very definition of depravity. To add insult to injury, by blaming others for the cause and consequences of our choices, we voluntarily and deceptively strip ourselves of the power to choose differently. Whatever influences we may be under, and however powerful they might be, unless we are compelled against our will, we are response-able. In other words, even if we don’t have the necessary skillset right now – in this very moment – to choose responsibly, we can responsibly begin the process of developing it.
This realization should inspire hope: our past doesn’t have to become our future. But this power becomes active only after we take responsibility for its exercise. Other than to provide context and encourage patience and understanding, our hard-luck stories must become – for our own sake – irrelevant. Maximizing our power to choose demands accountability. Note to self: nothing justifies immoral behavior.
An impediment to becoming better people is an iron-clad commitment to convincing ourselves and others – to include God – that we are already good, or perhaps good enough, people. However, Jesus didn’t mince words, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?“
Fortunately, he didn’t just inform us of our predicament, however desperate it might be. In the greatest act known to man, he personally provided the way for our escape. So although we are, admittedly, at least in part, bad, the good news is that God is willing and able to make us better – perfect even.
Redemption is possible. But it can’t just be an intellectual exercise. It requires our whole person: body, mind, heart, and spirit. In other words, we can’t just think that what we’ve done is wrong. That’s not enough – not nearly enough. We must also feel the agony, among other things, of having done it. We must, as was communicated two millennia ago, hunger and thirst after righteousness. We must stop blaming others and begin to assume full responsibility for our persons. Truly, the joy of being redeemed is experienced in no other way.
It is infinitely better to overcome evil in very deed than to simply overcome only our feelings of being evil. Tragically, the world encourages us to focus almost exclusively on the latter. And we are no better for it.