I hate the presidential election season, the rhetoric, emotional responses, hushed conversations, and mud-slinging candidates. I especially hate those damned, political phone polls! Don’t worry, this is not about the election. It’s about when good Christians do bad things.
And yet, weeks after the elections, the rhetoric is still meteoric and the mudslinging has not abated. Friends of mine from both political camps willingly participate in this mud bath. And it gets nasty. Winners ooze smugness and losers dribble bitterness. We all get spattered.
And both believers and non-believers, from the right and the left, hurl slurs. Their opponents are racist or communist, uncaring or unthinking, dumb or dumber.
This absence of distinction bothered me. I had hoped Christians would handle their victory or defeat with better grace. But we didn’t. Just this morning a thought raced through my mind:
A “good” Christian knows that our atheist neighbors are often better people than us.
I had a high school friend whose life overflowed with compassion. The rest of us were obsessed with college-prep, extra-curricular activities, and jobs. But he, like a lion, could sniff out a wounded schoolmate from a thousand yards. And like a lamb, he sat with them in their grief.
One day we heard a lecture on handling pain. Most of the class was indifferent—bored even—but my friend listened quietly with fixed attention. My preppy class asked how to deal with a poor score on a college-entry exam; my friend wondered how he could cheer a suicidal sibling.
My friend suffered from cerebral palsy. Everyday his infirmity slapped him in the face, and every night throbbing muscles threatened his sleep.
His walk was awkward, his dialog at times incomprehensible, his body wracked with pain; while his mind remained sharp. But mid-day waiters asked me what “he” wanted for lunch; classmates overlooked him for team sports; and the difficulty of his spastic speech meant few people invited him for an evening dinner. Yet he always sought out others in sorrow.
Oswald Chambers observed that, “Suffering burns up a lot of shallowness in a person.”
Our romantic 30th anniversary trip to Italy began the same week Dan Brown published his latest book, Inferno (Italian for Hell). I think it was prophetic.
Carla and I have very different ideas of vacation. She likes cultural sites. I like scuba diving. She likes exploring museums. I like exploring shipwrecks. We are very different.
Our differences make it difficult to find a good place for anniversary getaways. We went nowhere for our 15th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries, except out for dinner. In the past we’ve had several family scuba vacations, so I agreed to a trip to Italy for our 30th.
On our first day in Italy we toured the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. On the second day we visited the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and the Pantheon. After two days, I had walked 33,134 steps through museums and cultural sites, and I had seen approximately 4,741 masterpieces.
My flat feet ached. My fat brain overflowed. I was irritated and I didn’t hide it. I kept thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of this!” Maybe I sulked. I was tiresome enough that Carla was thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of him!”
The countless masterpieces were driving me nuts, and my sulkiness (I’m ashamed to admit) was driving Carla nuts.
My twelve year old self had a violent temper. My fuse was short, and my blasts of anger detonated at insults as unexpectedly as bursts of laughter explode at well-timed jokes. Without the mutually pleasant consequences.
I remember once chasing my older brother Andy around the house with a knife. I don’t remember what he had done (probably something HEINOUS), but I do remember him chuckling as he easily evaded my thrusts. His laughter did nothing to calm my storm.
I hated my uncontrollable anger, and I memorized over fifty verses about the angry man:
A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.
A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.
Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty.
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.
When I felt an outburst rising, I tried to calm myself by repeating those memorized verses. It even worked a few times, but not for long. I soon boiled over again.
When I was thirteen, a friend offered to pray for anything I wanted. I asked him to pray for my temper. Six months later, he asked how I was doing, and I realized I hadn’t once lost my temper since his prayer. I hadn’t even had to fight it. My explosive temper had been defused.
It was a miracle.
Since then, I’ve asked God to take away other bad habits, and he’s never acted again so instantly. He usually works slower, a little less dramatically, and (it seems) less miraculously.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with someone who felt horrible about forgetting a commitment. She felt her accidental negligence caused unnecessary stress for a good friend. And it probably did.
She felt bad (understandably) and kicked herself (metaphorically) for her mistake. She couldn’t shake the pain of disappointing a close friend. The oversight overwhelmed her thoughts and dreams. She couldn’t find a faucet to turn off the fountain of self-condemnation.
I suggested that her pain was triggered by an unrealistic expectation of her own perfection; that this one omission was possibly not an anomaly; and that she probably makes dozens (maybe hundreds) more mistakes every week. Her problem was a false, high opinion of her perfection.
I’m always good for a pick-me-up when you need it most.
I suggested that she make a list of every sin (and mistake) she had committed in the last week. A month would be better. I partly proposed a list to shake her self-punishing perfectionism, but mostly to help her recognize God’s unshakeable love of her in her imperfection.
That same day—literally a few hours later—someone sent me an email that condemned the “horrific practice” of listing our sins, claiming sin-lists are evils that rob us of freedom in Christ.
Who’s right? At the risk of making a mistake (that I could add to my own list later); I am.
I once belonged to a prayer group that prized ecumenical unity. We came from a wide variety of Christian traditions. We sang, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” Then we split down the middle due to ruptured relationships among our leaders.
We formerly prided ourselves on our exceptional unity; then our leaders attacked each other. We were embarrassed and a bit humiliated. Our highly prized treasure—good relationships in the midst of very strong differences—had slipped from our grasp.
A fellow member heard of a Christian leader in a neighboring city who had committed adultery and raided the group’s bank accounts. Sitting next to me in a prayer meeting, my friend shared the story and then whispered, “At least we’re not that bad.”
“Great!” I thought, “that’s just what I want chiseled on my tombstone:”
Three years ago (this month) I repented to God for something dinky. I hadn’t stolen candy from a baby, oppressed a widow, or coveted a neighbor’s cow. I had simply failed to control my eating.
During the previous six months I had lost ten pounds. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I found them again in cookies, pies, and chocolates (and only once in the hand of an infant).
So I prayed, “God, I’m sorry about my poor self-control; I’ll stop eating between meals, and I’ll stop buying those tempting snacks.” I sensed God sigh, “Stop!”
I thought, Okay, I get it. That’s not the only area I lack self-control, so I prayed, “God, so-and-so is irritating the heck out of me, and my thoughts are like untamed beasts. I will begin being patient and start to domesticate my mind.” And God said, “Stop!”
A flood of other uncontrolled areas came to mind, and I willed myself to do better. I felt God shout, “STOP!” This time I stopped, and this time I shut up.