We’re strange creatures, more lovely than we think and more sinful than we imagine, too hard and too easy on ourselves all at the same time.
Human nature is a curious mix. On the one hand, we’re better than we think and this beauty and goodness doesn’t just come because, deep down, we’re made in the image and likeness of God or because, as Plato and Aristotle say, we’re metaphysically good. That’s true, but our loveliness is also less abstract. We’re beautiful too, at least most of the time, in our human and moral qualities.
Most of the time, in fact, we are quite generous, often to a fault. As well, most of the time too, despite appearances, we’re warm and hospitable. The same is true in terms of the desire and scope of our embrace, both of our minds and our hearts. Inside of everyone, easily triggered by the slightest touch of love or affirmation, lies a big heart, a grand soul, a MAGNA ANIMA, that’s just itching to show itself. Mostly the problem isn’t with our goodness, but with our frustration in trying to live out that goodness in the world. Too often we look cold and self- centred when we’re only hurt and wounded.
We don’t always look good, but we are. Mostly we’re frustrated precisely because we cannot (for reasons of circumstance, wound, and sensitivity) pour out our goodness as we would like nor embrace the world and those around us with the warmth that’s in us. We go through life looking for a warm place to show who we are and mostly don’t find it. We’re not so much bad as frustrated. We’re more lovely than we dare imagine.
That’s the half of it, there’s another side: We’re sinners too, more so than we think. An old Protestant dictum about human nature, based upon St. Paul, puts it accurately: “It’s not a question of are you a sinner? It’s only a question of what is your sin?” We’re all sinners and, just as we possess a big heart and a grand soul, we also possess a petty one (a PUSILLA ANIMA). Inside us too, congenitally, there’s selfishness, jealousy, and a pettiness of heart and mind that is never far from the surface.
Moreover, generally, we are blind to our real faults. As Jesus says, we too easily see the speck on our neighbour’s eye and miss the plank in our own. There’s a real contradiction here: Where we think we’re sinners is usually not the place where others struggle the most with us and where our real faults lie. Conversely it’s in those areas where we think we’re virtuous and righteous that, most often, our real sin lies and where others struggle with us.
For example, we’ve have always put a lot of emphasis on the 6th commandment, sexual ethics, and haven’t been nearly as self-scrutinizing in regards to the fifth commandment (that deals with bitterness, judgements, anger, and hatred) or with the 9th and 10th commandments (that have to do with jealousy). It’s not that sexual ethics are unimportant, but our failures here are easier to see and harder to rationalize. The same isn’t true for bitterness, anger, especially righteous anger, nor for jealousy. We can more easily rationalize these and not notice that jealousy is the only sin that God felt it necessary to prohibit in two commandments. We’re worse than we imagine and mostly blind to our real faults.
So where does that leave us? In better and worse shape than we think! Recognizing that we’re more lovely than we imagine and at the same time more sinful than we suppose can be helpful, both for our self- understanding and for how we understand God’s love and grace in our lives.
Aristotle used to say that “two contraries cannot exist within the same subject”. He’s right metaphysically, but two contraries do exist inside of us morally. We’re both good and bad, generous and selfish, big- hearted and petty, gracious and bitter, forgiving and resentful, hospitable and cold, full of grace and full of sin, all at the same time. Moreover we’re dangerously blind to both, too unaware of our loveliness as well as our nastiness.
To recognize this is both humbling and freeing. In essence, we’re, “loved sinners”. Both goodness and sin constitute our real identity. Not to recognize the truth of either leaves us either unhealthily depressed or dangerously inflated, too hard on ourselves or too easy on ourselves. The truth will set us free and the truth about ourselves is that we’re both better and worse than we picture ourselves to be.
Robert Funk once formulated three dictums on grace that capture this well:
*Grace always wounds from behind, at the point where we think we are least vulnerable.
*Grace is harder than we think: we moralize judgement in order to take the edge off it.
*Grace is more indulgent than we think: but it is never indulgent at the point where we think it might be indulgent.