As I write these words, it is a frosty, gloomy Friday afternoon, and my mood resembles the weather outside. I just finished reading a Christianity Today article about another prominent pastor who has resigned from his church in disgrace. Though he admitted to having an affair, the facts uncovered by the church’s investigator strongly suggest he is actually guilty of clergy sexual abuse.
Last night, I saw a PBS News Hour story on the Russian government’s disinformation campaign surrounding the war in Ukraine. The most heart-breaking fact recounted in the story was that some Ukrainians have been able to talk to family members in Russia, and those family members have refused to believe their testimony. Other observers of this calamity have published similar reports.
Two weeks ago, I read Phillip Yancey’s memoir Where the Light Fell. This magnificent piece of personal, religious, and cultural history shed unflattering but necessary light on the ways white, southern fundamentalists did seemingly everything in their power to ignore (and sometimes propagate) the racial injustice all around them. And although Yancey focused his examination on 1960s Georgia, this intentionally myopic view of history still influences southern Christians (perhaps including me) to this very day.
Seeing Our True Selves
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog titled The Ministry of Telling the Truth. In it, I argued “humankind seems addicted to dishonesty. We think we gain some kind of advantage by the deceptions we weave, but God knows better. He knows our pretensions rend the fabric of society, deprive individuals of what they need to thrive, and mar our very souls.”
It turns out it is we ourselves who we most often deceive. Even as Christians, we seem to have a perverse skill at hiding, ignoring, or justifying our behavior. Even the most debased thoughts, even the cruelest actions, can land outside of our moral field of vision.
I am certainly no exception. I am just one of the billions of humans on this planet who struggle to see flaws in my character that are patently obvious to others. But the moral myopia seems to intensify—at least sometimes—when we move beyond the level of individual moral agency to the level of group behavior. The same social forces which enforce conformity to the group’s norms serve as obstacles to an honest appraisal of the group’s morality. And these processes only intensify when there are those within or outside of the group who are intentionally trying to distort the group’s view of reality.
Honesty and Repentance
Why is it so important for us to recognize this universal human tendency to overestimate our own goodness and to underplay our evil? Simply put, honesty is the foundation of repentance. In other words, we cannot repudiate patterns of thinking or acting which transgress God’s will and harm our neighbor (or ourselves) unless we can detect and honestly address them in our hearts, our churches, our communities, and our nations.
We as Christians ought to have an advantage on this account, for we know every human being who has ever lived—apart from Christ—has been deeply misshapen by sin. We know, or at least ought to know, that everything we touch can potentially be corrupted by the sin in our hearts, and, as such, we know only God can be trusted to be truly and irrevocably good.
I think we really do know these things. Still, it can be painfully difficult to look ourselves squarely in the face and acknowledge how our theoretical sinfulness has manifested itself in practical patterns of destructive behavior—especially when those patterns of behavior are associated with strong feelings of shame.
No Condemnation, Just Encouragement
My intent here is not to condemn anyone. I am no more eager than anyone else to have the skeletons in my closet put on display for the world to see. Perhaps we deserve to be condemned, but I will leave the condemnation to others.
Nevertheless, I do want to encourage all of us to be more honest with ourselves, with our communities, and with God about the ways in which our brokenness has manifested itself. In particular, I want to encourage us to cultivate families, churches, communities, and nations where we as a group can be honest about the ways we have fallen short. As we seek to make repentance a perpetual part of our Christian journey, I want us to do more than just say “I messed up.” I want us to say, with conviction and contrition, “We messed up.”