September 2, 2012 – Don’t Be Good, Be Made Well
For the audio version, click here: Don’t be good, be made well
A long time ago, when our big children were still little children, we owned a used bookstore in St. Louis. There were a lot of children in the neighborhood. We homeschooled our kids, and there was a Catholic school nearby that some of the neighborhood children attended, and of course a lot of kids went to the public school. Kids tend to travel in packs, and a little herd of the Catholic school children sometimes hung around the bookstore, and I remember they especially liked to talk about the public school kids, and about how bad they were. Public school kids – according to them – were the kids who swear and get into fights and smoke cigarettes and take drugs and generally do bad stuff. And these children clearly thought of themselves as the “good kids,” who didn’t do any of those things – or at least didn’t get caught doing them – who attended the “good” school and went to Mass with their families every Sunday and gave up candy for Lent every year. Those children knew they were going to heaven because they did all the right things and kept themselves to themselves so they wouldn’t be contaminated by the evil that surrounded them – their neighbors, whose kids seemed to have no rules to follow, who ran around outside till all hours of the night and whose parents seemed to ignore them except for screaming at them now and then.
I could be making fun of those Catholic-school children, pious little hypocrites that they were, except that I wasn’t really any better than they were. There were a lot of reasons why I taught our children at home: I liked having them around and I thought we could give them a better education than the overburdened city schools – and also just like my Roman Catholic neighbors I didn’t want my children to spend every day in a place where children were forced to grow up way too quickly. I didn’t want them to know the kinds of things that were a normal part of so many of our neighbor’s lives. I wanted to protect them until they were a little older and a little more ready to make their own choices. So I think that we were right in making the choice to keep our kids home. But I am ashamed to say that deep down I sometimes felt like we were better than many of our neighbors because we brought our children up to do and say what we believed was right. I fell right into that trap that is so very easy to fall into of self-righteousness and pride, because I was concentrating on being good instead of on becoming like Jesus.
If we make our Christianity into a small enough little box, we can pretty easily sit inside it and succeed in being good. We can shut ourselves away from everything that we think will corrupt us and our children; we can only read “nice” books and watch “nice” movies and spend our time with “nice” people. And we can do all the things that good people are supposed to do: go to church on Sunday and read the Bible and work hard and keep our home tidy and give to charities and avoid all those things that we know are “bad” – drunkenness and overeating and vulgar language and lying and cheating and stealing and laziness. And as far as it goes those are all good things to avoid.
That’s pretty much how the Scribes and the Pharisees lived, only more so. They had an elaborate system of laws and traditions to keep themselves pure, unstained from the world. They washed everything carefully before they ate, and if they went into the marketplace, just in case they might accidentally have rubbed shoulders with a Gentile without noticing it, they washed themselves. They went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and they raised their children to know all these traditions and to respect them. That was their way of trying to be good people, and avoiding the sin that was all around them in the world.
The problem with trying to be good like that is that it doesn’t work, because sin isn’t something you get on you like you get grease on your pants from working on your car. Sin is a cancer that kills you from the inside. Listen to what Jesus says, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, impurity, theft, murder, adultery, greediness, deceitfulness, sensuality, slander, pride, and foolishness.” Those are the warning signs, those are the symptoms of the disease of sin, and I don’t think there is a single person in this room who doesn’t recognize some of those symptoms in their own hearts. And the cure is not to avoid contact with the other sinners in this world. The cure is much more radical than that. The cure is the radical surgery of confession and repentance, and the life-giving transfusion of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Being cured means putting ourselves under the care of the Great Physician, admitting that we are just as sick and just as needy as everyone around us.
Being good by following rules and keeping up appearances only means – at best – that we are symptom-free. Being good, when we pull it off, means that we are hiding away all that poison and infection, and sometimes we can be very good at that. But as long as we hide or ignore the sin within us it is slowly killing us. God doesn’t want us to be satisfied with being symptom-free – he wants us to be completely well and whole. There are things we are smart to avoid, like pornography, or certain relationships, or things that we personally have a tendency to become addicted to, but I think it’s important for us to recognize that these things are not the cause of our sin; they are just occasions that the sin within us uses to grow that infection, to draw us away from the only thing that can heal us, which is the love of God, and the saving work of Jesus on the cross.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the expression that “the Church is not a museum for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners.” And that is true in the deepest sense. Jesus came into the world that we might have life, because on our own we were dead in our sins. We are, each one of us, in various stages of treatment, all in desperate need of healing, but none of us hopeless, none of us incurable. And as sinners-in-treatment we can look at the people in the world around us in a new way. Like patients in a cancer ward we have no cause for fear – we don’t have to worry about being infected if we are already sick – or pride – what do we have to be proud of? or judgment – because we keep our eyes on the doctor, no longer on ourselves. We meet our fellow patients with humility, but also with grace and with hope because we are in the process of being healed. And the end of our healing will not be that we are merely symptom-free but that we are well and whole in a way that we have never been before. We will be grown up into ourselves in a way that we could never have been by our own efforts.
The reading from James today said, “Every good gift, and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” From within our hearts we bring forth evil thoughts and greediness and foolishness, no matter how carefully we try to be good, following all the rules, keeping up all the appearances. But from the heart of God comes every perfect and good thing, because he is all that is good, all that is pure, all that is loving. And it is his good will, if we will give over to him all that is sick and infected within us – and why wouldn’t we run with all our might to give all that up to him? – to fill us with his own pure and perfect life, and to make new creatures of us.
When my mother was a little girl she went out barefoot in the yard when she was told not to, and stepped on a bone that the dog had left lying around. And she was afraid to tell her parents about the little cut on her foot because she didn’t want to admit she’d disobeyed – and after all, it was just a little cut – so she hid it until some days later when it had become so infected and painful that she couldn’t hide it anymore. And the doctor told her that if she had waited any longer she would have had to have her leg amputated. She told us that story many times, I think to stress to us kids that we should never, ever hide things from our parents. But sin is in us just like the poison of that cut. To hide it from others, to pretend it isn’t there, only does us more harm. Our sin might look smaller than others. Our messy lives might look very good if we compare them to the right people. We can always find someone who makes us feel good about ourselves by comparison. But if we stop pretending we are well we can hope for something much better than good, because the gift that the Father has to offer us all is perfect. Being a child of God is not about being good; it’s about being well and whole and truly alive.