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bible faith guilt injustice jesus religion righteousness self sin spiritual life struggle theology

Being Right

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Of all the desires that motivate human beings, the desire for personal righteousness—wanting to be right—is the most pernicious. There is no evil, no matter how unspeakable, we will not commit if we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is for the greater good. We will put up with caging children at our borders, turning away the poor and sick, righteously stifling our own sense of mercy in service to outrage at some injustice. The desire to be right makes us spin our own actions, not only to impress others, but to burnish the image we have of ourselves. We willingly deceive ourselves about ourselves in order to preserve an image of ourselves that is noble, caring, even kind while approving and even performing acts that are cruel and selfish. The desire for personal righteousness makes us remorseless and unrepentant. After all, repentance requires acknowledging sin in our own lives. Sometimes, we willingly acknowledge some acceptable sin in an effort to cover up a deeper, more entrenched sin to which we are culpably blind. No wonder Jesus talked about picking specks out of others’ eyes while being unaware of the plank in our own eyes!

The Bible writers were well aware of how pervasive and pernicious is the desire to be right. That is why they repeated again and again, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” They wanted to assure their readers that no matter what they thought about themselves, the reality was that all their efforts at being right were worthless. As Isaiah puts it, “All our righteous deeds are like used menstrual cloths.” They are not merely rubbish, but the worst, most disgusting rubbish. (The Jews regarded a woman during her period as ceremonially unclean. She could not enter the temple or approach God. Whatever she touched would also become unclean. While laws regarding menstruation unfairly stigmatized women, they also protected the community from the spread of disease at a time when humans knew nothing about microbes.)

We cannot merely rid ourselves of the desire to be right, however. It is fundamental to our humanity. Though it deceives us time and again, it also makes us want to do better. It inspires us to keep trying to do good. What a quandary we are in—wanting to do what is good but lacking the capacity!

Therefore God has imputed righteousness to those who put their faith in Jesus. He satisfies our desire to be right without requiring us to be sinless. Because he has shown us such mercy and grace, he enables us to likewise show mercy toward those who are also trying—and failing—to do what is right.

Everyone is a hero in their own story. While some tell their story to evoke pity and others admiration, we all mitigate our sins to ourselves. We all make excuses for ourselves and seek forgiveness for our worst blunders. “If you only knew what it was like,” we say, and we are quite right to say it. None of us knows anyone better than ourselves. We know how hard we try. We know how often we fail. Despite this knowledge and the free gift that God offers of his own righteousness, we remain unwilling to acknowledge before him just how much we need what he has. To do so, we would have to admit we were wrong.

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blessing poverty theology weakness wealth

Poor in Spirit

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Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:3 (NIV)

When Luke records this dictum, he leaves off “in spirit,” so it becomes a saying about poverty. Yet what benefit, what good is there in being poor or in having an attitude of poverty? To answer this, I think we should consider the attitude of the rich.

What does it mean to be rich? What benefits does wealth confer?

Wealth does not make it possible to satisfy all your wants. In fact, there is nothing that can do that. Nevertheless, wealth expands the choices of the rich and provides greater opportunity and access to the means of satisfying more wants. Rich people don’t need anything. Their wealth is sufficient for them.

Consider what Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you!

1 Corinthians 4:8

Paul’s criticism is that their perception of their own wealth has blinded them to the needs they still have. By becoming boastful and proud, they have lost the sense of dependency that is fundamental to the Christian life. Jesus, in his own life, demonstrated that same dependency. He relied on support from his followers for his livelihood, of course, but he again and again announced that the things he was saying and doing did not originate with him but with his Father, the one who sent him.

Like Paul, John also criticizes the church in Laodicea for the same spiritual myopia:

You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

Revelation 3:17, 18

Like the Corinthians, the Laodiceans believed they were rich, and their misapprehension blinded them to their actual poverty and need. Wealth, therefore, comes with a spiritual curse. The rich are less likely to see their own need. This was also the case of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, so rich in their own conception of righteousness but so impoverished in love and care toward their fellow human beings.

The blessing of poverty, therefore, is an awareness of need, of dependence on others, ultimately of dependence on God. To those who are aware of their need, Jesus makes an extraordinary promise. The kingdom of heaven is theirs. That place ruled by God’s love, by mercy and grace, that place which he taught was within their grasp, already belongs to those who know they have needs they cannot meet themselves.

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Why Health Care is Complicated

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I’m turning 65 this year, so I’ve been receiving reams of unsolicited information about Medicare. As I’ve reviewed it, one thing has become very clear. The intricacies and Byzantine complexities of Medicare (and also of employment-based health care in general) are not to help consumers manage their health care expenses. They are to limit costs—and thus improve profitability—for health insurers and providers. One huge advantage to a single-payer federally funded health care system would be an exponential reduction in complexity and the costs associated with maintaining a bureaucracy to navigate those complexities. Those costs are already borne by consumers because they are passed on to them by insurers and providers in the form of higher premiums and some of the most expensive health care services in the world.

Conservatives drown out every good argument for radical change in our health care system with shouts of “Socialism!” but the truth is that most developed countries in the West have had tax-funded health care for their entire populations for decades without descending into chaos like Venezuela. Even in the United States we have decades of experience covering nearly everyone over 65 without all the catastrophes conservatives keep predicting for socialized medicine. It’s time to cut out the complications of our health care system and create a system designed with the best interests of health care consumers in mind.

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