Every Monday we’ll post something to do with personal purity. Hope it helps.
Of Pots and Kettles
Your first thought, like mine, was probably How could he? How could anyone?
And of course, we don’t know; not yet, maybe never. We do know that something unfathomable inspired James Holmes to enter an Aurora, Colorado theater just past midnight, July 20, with murderous intent. Within minutes 12 people were dead and 58 injured; within hours hundreds of family members were plunged into their worst nightmare. The rest of us are left dazed and confused, muttering speculations in the wake of catastrophe and grappling with questions obvious but largely unanswerable.
People do evil things, sure, but because —? To say it’s because we’re all essentially evil won’t do, since many would protest that at our worst, we’ve never come close to mass murder. Maybe there are degrees of evil? Lines we cross that systematically erase our most basic sensibilities? Or can it all be chalked up to the accused’s alleged mental problems, problems that, although a convenient explanation, haven’t plagued all such killers?
The talking heads, God bless ‘em, will mull this over for some time, as is their custom and job. But for my part, I’ve already noticed something else quietly happening in me that I once read about in the Dutch holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom’s autobiography, The Hiding Place. Recounting how, in Ravensbruck concentration camp, she began viewing her own private sins differently in light of the horrors around her, Corrie noted:
“The special temptation of concentration camp life, the temptation to think only of ones’ self, took a thousand cunning forms. I knew this was self-centered, but even if it wasn’t right, it wasn’t so very wrong, was it? Not wrong like sadism and murder and the other monstrous evils we saw every day. Oh, this was the great ploy of Satan in that kingdom of his: to display such blatant evil one could almost believe one’s own secret sin didn’t matter.” (Ten Boom, Corrie, The Hiding Place New York: Bantam Books 1971 p. 203)
When evil gets displayed front and center, then I, along with my pet sins, look pretty good by contrast. That’s an absurd way to measure yourself, somewhat like posing and flexing in a roomful of people much older, or in much worse physical shape, then you. You look at them before examining yourself in the mirror and, by comparison, you get the gold cup. It makes you feel better, while keeping you from striving towards goals you could achieve but won’t since you’re keeping the standards down.
Maybe that explains the weird fascination I get when cases like this come up. I ache and weep for the victims and their families, who are going through something I pray I’ll never be able to relate to. But some small, carnal part of me also points at the accused and says, like the Pharisee Jesus described in Luke 18:11, “I thank you, Lord, that I’m not like him! I don’t end life, I’m not violent, bloodshed’s not in my past nor will it be my legacy. Aren’t I something?”
Thoughts like that show, among other things, a significant lack of faith. If I was as convinced as I should be that my sins are forgiven and covered, I’d have no need to compare them to anyone else’s. Knowing I’m justified, I’d be secure enough to avoid that game and, out of that security, I would only wish the same for everyone. But, as my uncle Joe used to twang, I’m a Saint that Ain’t There Yet. So somehow, amidst our national grieving, I harbor a ridiculous smugness when sizing myself up against the awful actions that should have me praying, not contrasting. And that’s something to confess, renounce, and move on from.
Because I, like the man I wrongly compare myself to, can and do make decisions that are wrong, destructive, hurtful to me and others, and wildly counterproductive. I, too, have my hurts and hang-ups, so like him, I lash out, or brood, or keep in the dark things better brought to light. And who knows how much damage I’ve done over the years as a result?
A man in Aurora decided to plan, load, and destroy, and his decisions changed history. So have mine, on a punier scale, sometimes for better, sometimes not. My decisions, past and future, are thereby the ones I’d best focus on rather than his. I may rage against, analyze, or pray for James Holmes, but I won’t answer for him. I’ll answer only for myself when facing the Righteous Judge who’ll rule on Joe Dallas’ brief earthly tenure, and He’ll have no interest in how my successes or failures match up against those of anyone else.
“Let us take the little foxes that spoil the vine,” the bridegroom in the Song of Songs said (Song of Solomon 2:15) and that invitation (or better put, that command) still stands. Because my foxes, while little to me when compared to the giant ones others may own, are as repugnant to Him as ever. Wrong is wrong, whether compared to a greater wrong or a lesser one, and by its nature, not its severity, it can never be acceptable. So the pot may call the kettle black, but it’s an ill-advised criticism, because the pot’s own blackness, though maybe less dense or striking then the kettle’s, is blackness nonetheless. As a color, black’s attractive. But when it’s the blackness of grime, no matter how large or small the grimy area, can it ever be acceptable?
Let the pot, then, scrub itself clean, seek to stay clean, be thankful for its cleansing and, if it’s got any spare time left, let it pray for the kettle it’s tempted to judge. I can’t thank God that I’m not like another man, because in too many ways, I am. As long as that’s true, and in this life it always will be, then God grant that I severely judge sin in myself, abundantly forgive it in others, and hugely rejoice in the grace that’s extended, today and always, to me.
You’re joining me, I’m sure, in prayer for the families devastated by Holmes, and for Holmes himself.