We are all screwed up
There are a lot of things about God and Christianity that are a worthwhile debate, but the fact that we all sin is typically not one of them. I have never met a person so brave as to say he was perfect, but I have met a lot of people who think they are good people.
What do they mean by that? Do they mean they have good motives, do good things? Or do they mean they are just good, like warm chocolate chip cookies are always just good? I get the impression when they say that about themselves, they are saying, “God thinks I am okay.”
On a core level, are we really as “good” as we think we are? Despite my impressive script performance, I’ve rarely felt deep, deep in my bones as though I’m a truly good person. I didn’t perceive myself as being as bad as others, and I worked to maintain the respect of people with my external behavior, but I always knew, even on my best day, how far from good I really was. There has always been a dichotomy inside of me.
A person can learn the right behavior for any character quality. Though some of my behavior came from a pretty sincere place, the truth has always been that without God’s intervention, I am selfish and prideful every minute of every day. I care what others think because deep down I want to be seen as great—I want to matter. I find it impossible to forgive; to truly be able to forgive people who hurt us must be one of God’s greatest miracles. And I belittle the God of the universe by worrying as if he is not really in control. Inside, my soul seems prone to slant toward every quality I would never want to possess. I live assuming I am not alone in these weaknesses. Mostly because I know a lot of people.
I’ve always thought the epic war in our universe was pretty simple— good versus bad. But if you read about the war in the Bible, it was always more complicated than that, even from day one. Adam and Eve chose evil, but then they found themselves in a place without church or Bibles or pressure from their priest. On their own intuition, they ran from God and tried to cover themselves and their shame with fig leaves (Gen. 3). These were leaves of pretending, the same leaves we call religion or perhaps morality or maybe being good. They tried to cover up just how bad they were.
I’ve done this. I do this. I impress the world with passionate, visible morality while avoiding God altogether. There is something to humility that is costly…something resembling humiliation…an outright declaration of the wreck we are without God rather than composing a beautiful existence that barely needs a savior.
We’ve often run to pretending, to covering ourselves with religion or the fig leaf of appearing good. It was the biggest fight Christ picked, and yet it is still our biggest problem. We think we can appear okay…okay to God and to each other, and that if we construct really pretty coverings out of our leaves, no one will know.
But God is clear. The state of our invisible hearts takes precedence over all the good behavior, over all the bad. From Adam and Eve to the churches described in Revelation, God addresses the inner parts of man. This is what he takes issue with the most.
This took a long time for me to learn because everything in our world works in opposition to this idea. We judge children on their behavior or performance from the time they are born. “Oh, what a good baby,” we say. “She is so quiet and eats so well.” We issue good grades for good work come kindergarten. We give our kids time-outs when they are bad and a star on their charts when they are good. Then we become adults and we get promotions or awards based on our good performance.
People just flat-out like us better if we are…good.
Everything in this life seems to hinge on our external behavior. Being good matters. Quite honestly, it is all we have to go on. We don’t, for the most part, work with the invisible space of souls and thoughts and motives and feelings. They’re so abstract and immeasurable. And then God showed up in the flesh. Christ appeared and turned our system of being good on its head.
When Jesus came, he went to the most broken, the least good. In fact, it was always the most sinful he ministered to. He touched them and healed them and loved them, and they loved him back. They needed him.
I remember the first time it occurred to me that my life looked more like the lives of the people Jesus rebuked than the people Jesus drew near to. I was reading his words to the religious in Matthew, “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (23:28).
Ugh. I felt that way. I knew deep down I was screwed up. I also knew nobody really knew it, and I liked it that way. I did not want to be face down in the sand like all the sinners Jesus healed. I wanted to stay bright and shiny and good, and comfortably on my feet. Yet when I read the words of Christ, I felt this call. A call to fall on my face.
It physically hurts to see our pride, to see our sin, to quit playing good, to feel broken and to need God. And it hurts even more to let others see it. So we run from falling; we choose large fig leaves to cover up with and not God. We run from that vulnerable feeling that we may not measure up, all while aching to measure up.
Throughout the history of humanity, this has been how we engage God. First we ask, is he real? And second, do we really need him?
What if the thing we are trying to impress him with was the very thing keeping us from him?
I love the song “Beautiful Things” by Gungor. It says, “You make beautiful things out of dust. You make beautiful things out of us.”
God’s people have always been good at running from him. Jeremiah was one of the people God sent to remind them that God was real and that they needed him, and that he wanted them back. So he sent Jeremiah to the home of a potter.
When Jeremiah arrived, the piece of clay in the potter’s hands was misshapen and ruined. As Jeremiah watched, the potter reworked the same clay into something beautiful, an altogether different vessel.
As Jeremiah walked away, God asked him, “Can I not do with you as this potter has done?…Like the clay in the potter’s hand, so you are in my hand” (Jer. 18:5–6).
Christ kept drawing close to broken people while he was here. For the woman caught in adultery, about to be stoned in John 8, her face in the sand, Jesus protected her from stones. And to protect her from eternal judgment, he whispered the same thing that he whispers to us: Repent, because you are not good; you are not okay. Come back to me. You need me. He says, Go and sin no more (John 8:11), which is impossible apart from the righteousness Christ offers to those who come to him in faith. He is what makes us right.
There is something so beautiful about people aware of their sin and their need for God. That is beautiful to God. He can work with that, enter into that. Jesus’ first command after nearly every encounter with a needy person was for them to repent. He promised these broken people hope and healing. He promised to make a way for them. Often, after these encounters, he would turn to the religious people who seemed to have it all together and confront their sin of pride and pretending. Yet with every opportunity, for the most part, they never repented. They thought they were fine without Jesus. They did not need him.
A few years ago we were in San Antonio, enjoying a weekend away as a family. We had spent a day at SeaWorld and the next day on the River Walk. Most of my time was spent chasing our two-year-old and forcing her to hold my hand, mainly so she did not die. Often I found myself saying to her, “Caroline, hold my hand or you will get a time-out.” I wanted to control her with that hand, for her protection.
My oldest son, Conner, who was eight at the time, witnessed all of this. Toward the end of our second day together, with Caroline tucked safely in her stroller, I reached out leisurely and affectionately to grab my son’s hand. I wanted to walk with him. He pulled his hand back, and immediately I knew why. I thought about what it had meant to hold Mom’s hand the last few days…a fight, discipline, controlling …and I also knew he was getting close to the age where it was no longer cool to need Mom. I knelt down in the center of the walkway on the River Walk. I grabbed both his hands and simply said, “Will you hold my hand just because I love you, just because I am your mom?”
I had to redefine my hand for him. What seemed to be a hand that signaled discipline and failure was about something different; it was about a relationship. I wanted him to love me and need me just because he was eight and I was his mom, not because I was disciplining him or trying to control him.
God is reaching out to us, wanting us to see we need him. But since he is God, we think he wants some song and dance from us—in other words, behavior modification. He actually just wants us. He longs to set us free. And yes, to accomplish all that, he wants us entirely.
God is home to us. He is where we were made to be. He is what we were made for. We just forget all that while we are trying to be good and independent.
Pretending to be good halts God’s movement in our life. Legalism or religion helps us feel better about ourselves, puffs us up, gives us the posture to be critical and judgmental and prideful. Oh, and every- thing human about us loves that. It feels better to live that way. It feels better to walk independently and all grown-up, not holding hands with your mom on the River Walk when you want to feel cool and like an adult. We want to not need God.
I was visiting a halfway house filled with men who had all recently been released from prison. It was the holidays, and the group I was with had brought them a few insignificant gifts to open around Christmastime. I hadn’t known what to expect, but my heart instantly began melting.
I saw an older man with his worn shirt tucked in pouring lemonade—the grainy kind that you add water to and stir—and putting out cookies that looked store-bought but were arranged in a pattern on a plate. The other men greeted us with smiles as if they were welcoming the president. I had rushed to get there that night—I was dealing with sitters and car pools and wrapping gifts—and honestly I felt a little cranky, but at the sight of these humble men my pulse slowed and I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
We went around the room, and each man shared a little about his life. With tears and true ownership, each man confessed his weaknesses and mistakes. Their hearts bled for the damage they had brought to those they love, and they gushed at how they lived forgiven because of Christ. There was no air about them, no pretense. Christ had moved into their wrecked lives and restored them. They spoke with peace, and I sensed they possessed hope.
I found myself longing to be like them, these men recovering from the consequences of sin. I wanted to need God as they did and feel broken as they did and be transparent as they were. It was as if they were already exposed…already caught. “Screwed up” was written on their foreheads—no need to act like it wasn’t. And something about that brought freedom. It made God the hero, not them.
My soul resonated with that. Even though I’m a blonde, mom-of- three pastor’s wife connecting with criminals fresh out of prison, I am a human, and we humans arrive with “screwed up” on our foreheads. We come that way, but somewhere between toddlerhood and being a grown-up we learn to wipe off our forehead signs. To sit up straight. To be good.
But before God I am no different from these men. My forehead is clean; my soul certainly is not. That day on an old, beat-up sofa with some old, beat-up guys, I rethought the things I valued in people and the types of people I valued, and I realized that God shone more through those accused and hurting men than through me.
We are all hiding from each other with big fig leaves, but God says, “You could stop because I am a way better covering. I have an actual payment for all the sin you are hiding. But it will take coming out from behind your leaves. It will take humility to see that you need me” (John 11:25, 1 John 1:8, paraphrased). The irony is that Jesus' blood takes the least good and makes them the most good. It's beautiful.
Face to the Ground
We don’t want to fall. We like to see great testimonies of God’s grace, but we don’t want to be the testimony.
Even though I was bright and shiny—I was full of sin and pride. Eventually I fell, dramatically, face-first, crying because I had lived like a Pharisee in all my pride and arrogance. I actually have learned to fall a lot. I fall because I can’t keep pretending I am okay when I know deep down I’m not. But I also fall because I find God in the sand. I find God with my face in it. And then he gets to be the lifter of my head, rather than my pride.
Grace is scary insane. In one act God did what no amount of effort on our part could do. He sacrificed his perfect son, placing every sin on him. No sin would be exempt from this ransom. He would pay for every one of them. Every murder, every sexual sin and perversion, every prideful thought, every idol we would worship, every bit of gossip or slanderous word, every time we impatiently snap, every sin that has ever shamed us would be paid…for those who would see their sin and turn to Christ for that forgiveness.
It’s not just those in prison who are far from God; often it’s those of us sitting in pews, deciding where to go to lunch after this guy finishes talking about a God we barely need.
“I will not boast in anything.” I’m getting more comfortable with imperfect forehead signs.
Here is mine:
I am crazy screwed up.
And my only hope is my Jesus.