This is the text of a short reflection I delivered today at Cliftonville Moravian Church in North Belfast:
As we grow in years and experience of life it becomes evident, rather quickly, that life is complex; people are complex. Often what we see on the surface belies a much deeper level of complexity – very rarely are any of us what is euphemistically called an ‘open-book’. We carry with us the scars of difficulties past alongside the wisdom of experience gained. There are regrets at mistakes made, people hurt…..and there is contentment at things done well. There is brokenness…..but there is also wholeness.
One of the issues that we Christians quickly have to come to terms with, is that we live in the sight of God replete with all our imperfections – the complexity that I have just mentioned; some of those are seen readily by those around us – we may have a temper, we may have treated others badly….we may have let our egos get the better of us to the detriment of other others. And some of our imperfections, of course, are unseen by those around us – the thoughts we have….the real motivations behind our actions…and we could name many, many more.
None of us are one-dimensional; our characters are multifaceted, the good and the bad are intertwined – that’s what makes you and me human. The psychiatrist Carl Jung had an interesting take on it; he wrote: ‘How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole’. And in the same vein, but with a slightly different slant, the author Sarah Vowell said this: ‘We are flawed creatures, all of us. Some of us think that means we should fix our flaws. But get rid of my flaws and there would be no one left’.
Vowell’s insight, and indeed Jung’s too, raise some interesting questions that go to the core of what it means to be person struggling to do the right thing and to make a positive impact. How indeed do we deal with those flaws? Well, that notion of human imperfection is perhaps summed up best in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he wrote: ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. Or as expressed in that secular source – the author Augusten Burroughs, who wrote; “I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” I like that.
And so, darkness, if you like, dwells within each and every one of us. And as we reflect on that reality, we are perhaps called to deal with it in a constructive way. St. Porphyrios made this suggestion: ‘Do not fight to expel the darkness from the chamber of your soul. Open a tiny aperture for light to enter, and the darkness will disappear’.
Forgiveness too plays a very important part here. We can be harsh in dealing with our own failings, but perhaps we need to be more understanding and compassionate with ourselves? Fred Luskin said this, which I think is very pertinent: ‘Forgiveness of self emerges when we understand that even with our own actions we do not have total control. Nobody is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. We all make bad decisions and act from poor information. Being human means you and I will fail at some things and cause other people harm’.
Accepting our limitations is an important first step in, what is after all, a process. The key to understanding that process comes directly after those words of consolation in Romans: ‘‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. Consider if you will Romans 3:24-26: ‘they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus’.
And so here we reach crux of the matter. There is much to unpack theologically in those few verses; there is much to reflect on that has been given to us to guide our faith. And we will of course do that in the weeks and months ahead. But in simple terms, the over-arching message is clear. Because of our flaws, our faults, our very obvious failings, we are human. But it is despite these aspects of our character that we are justified through faith in the eyes of God. This is what makes the Christian faith, the message and personhood of Jesus Christ, the ‘Good News’. It is not through good character and an accumulation of good deeds that the ‘mind of God’ is influenced. We are who we are and God knows that….all of it. And so there is no need for false piety or a denial of our real selves; we can come before God just as we are, in the knowledge that He loves us and that our faith conquers all and transcends our flaws, failings and brokenness.
Let us take that reality with us as we begin a new week, meet new people, go about our daily tasks and tackle new challenges. As we do so, in the light of today’s reflection, there is no need to feel burdened by the fact that we are less than we could be. Let God deal with that.
Now to Him
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to Him be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation evermore!