There are days when I transform into a yelling mom. As my impatience and frustration grows I increase in decibels, often hypocritically so, as I am telling my sons to speak kindly to one another. My husband is patient in reminding me to take a step back, and speak calmly with a gentle tone. I would like to say that I immediately apologize to our boys and turn it around after I receive these gentle reminders, but usually my selfish heart rears its ugly head and I transfer my frustration to him instead. The other day I responded sarcastically with, “are you saying I should be perfect?” And as soon as the words left my mouth I heard a whisper move through the house repeating, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Nothing quite like being slapped with conviction by a verse you memorized as a child. I felt the weight of my failure sear painfully onto my heart as I saw my attempt at self-justification wither before a holy God, like a papery leaf caught in a furnace.
In the face of my failure to do good I often look for ways to justify myself, to excuse my selfishness, pride, laziness, and apathy as something I couldn’t help, the fault of someone else, or I make it out to be trivial. We all try to do this; it’s sort of the mark of humanity. Adam and Eve tried to justify themselves by blaming it away on someone else (including God himself), and they tried to cover up their shame and guilt with flimsy leaves; but God showed them something more was required to pay for failure. Their failure required a sacrifice and the blood of an innocent, he covered them because their attempts weren’t good enough. I try and cover myself too, and it’s never good enough either.
Yet I keep trying to do it myself. I keep trying to right myself before this God who is perfect and demands perfection from us. I know I don’t measure up, but instead of admitting this I pass blame, make excuses, or pretend it’s not a big deal. I am not perfect, none of us are, yet we often try and wear this as a badge of honor. “No one is perfect!” we chime along with a flippant wave of the hand, but this fact isn’t one to be celebrated: it ought to humble us and bring us to our knees before the God who is perfect.
We are so good at downplaying our lack of goodness that we have convinced ourselves that we shouldn’t feel remorse over our failures. We try to simply move past them, or perhaps even applaud them.
Often we are like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man who continually sets himself up in cruelty to others, and keeps walking straight into his own depravity, yet he still says, “Repentance would come; I’d drive it away—it was too nauseating.” The thought of the humility required for repentance was too difficult for him, and he couldn’t bring himself to relinquish his own pride. So he continued in his depravity, though it made him miserable and ultimately left him isolated and in a constant state of anguish.
We may not be as honest with ourselves as the Underground Man, but we are ultimately too proud to repent. Too self-reliant to look to God for mercy.
Most of us would say we want to be “good” people but we attempt to achieve it in all the wrong ways. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says,
Man desires to make himself right, that is his guilt. For he could only do that if he had God in his power.
Our very desire to make ourselves right by our own self-reliance is as wrong as the failures we’re trying to make right. We cannot be good on our own, we cannot be perfect as God is perfect. As Jesus says, “no one is good but God alone.” It is our self-reliance and self-focus that drives us back to fail again and again. But instead of recognizing our failures and turning to the God whom we have failed, we keep going back to our failures and just try to lessen the guilt, often by lowering the standard of “goodness”. But for goodness to actually be “good”, the standard cannot be lowered, because as soon as it is, it ceases to be good.
At first glance this may sound hopeless, and it would be, if not for Christ. It is in Jesus that we can be restored to our position as those who lean not on ourselves for goodness, but who look to our God humbly, in faith, for goodness. We can confidently stand before the perfect and holy God because we look not to what we have done (or failed to do), but what Jesus has done for us. As Bonhoeffer says,
This is the gift of faith, that man no longer looks on himself but on salvation alone, which has come from without.
It is only in Jesus that we see our guilt while simultaneously being freed from it.
Because when I look to Jesus who is perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect I see, in painful clarity, that I do not measure up, and it isn’t my children’s antics nor my lack of sleep that is to blame for my failures, it is my heart that is dangerously turned inward, twisted and gnarled from growing the wrong way.
Our hearts begin beating the wrong way when we keep them directed inwardly and we try to heal them ourselves. The children’s book The Tale of Despereaux has a particularly illuminating statement on this idea,
There are those hearts, reader, that never mend again once they are broken. Or if they do mend, they heal themselves in a crooked and lopsided way, as if sewn together by a careless craftsman.
-The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo
We are careless craftsman and we try to fix our twisted hearts by twisting them further inward. But the truth is, they can only be mended by someone outside ourselves, the One who makes our hearts beat and who designed them to work properly with him placed firmly at their center. When he is there, in the center of our hearts, like the pin that makes all the gears in a clock run smoothly, then we see our failures for what they are and we properly turn to him repentant and thankful for his forgiveness. I see that my frustrated yelling is a crime against my children and the God who made them, and instead of trying to justify it or wave it away, I apologize to my children and my God. I see my guilt clearly, and I am freed from it as Jesus catches it up in his perfect, nail-pierced hands, and he makes my heart beat aright again.
There is no excuse for my wrongs, no covering I could create to make them right, but there is grace found in the one Who was innocent and was sacrificed so that I might be covered in his goodness. There is a merciful God who asks only that we look to him, trusting that though we are not good, he is, and he offers that goodness to us.