The Devil Quotes Scripture
I think I’ve admitted before that I’m a huge perfectionist. You’d think, on the surface, that would be a great thing; I would spend so much time working on something, like a sermon, that even if it wasn’t up to my standards, it would be pretty good nonetheless.
Except, I’m sure we all know, it really isn’t. I’m constantly self-criticizing; I can’t take a compliment; and I can occasionally let myself get just as critical of others as I am of myself, holding them to the same impossible standards. It’s a lack of grace, is my problem.
So, obviously, I’m trying to work on that and I’m being a real perfectionist about it. If I catch myself being hyper-critical, I come down hard on myself: “Stop that; being critical is making you a bad person.” You can see how this isn’t exactly helpful.
When it comes to repentance, there’s this tension within the history of the church. On the one hand, the United Church has this Calvinistic heritage of the idea that humans are “Totally depraved,” and it is only by the mercy of a just but potentially wrathful God that we are not flung into damnation for all eternity, as we so justly deserve. Fall on your knees and beg for forgiveness and maybe, just maybe, God won’t send you to hell right away.
Obviously, this strikes us as horrible, especially if we heard it as children. Who says this kind of thing to one another person? But too often the church has used it to say, “You’re going to hell, but if you do as I say, maybe you won’t.”
Five hundred years ago, the church was saying, “You’re going to hell unless you give us some money to build the big fancy new church in Rome,” and this angered a German monk so much that he nailed a piece of paper to a door and now we’ve got churches of every size, shape, and description.
And, “You’re a bad person” is something many marginalized people have heard again and again; women for having a sex drive, people of colour for being “criminals,” indigenous people for being “drunks,” LGBT people for being “sinful.” It’s prejudice, and phrases like that echo in our souls and make us almost believe it.
So, obviously, we want to shy away from this. There are United churches among others that don’t have a prayer of confession or anything resembling it. The one I grew up in didn’t use it. And it doesn’t fit in a culture that talks about the need for self-esteem, having pride in one’s accomplishments; and certainly not in a culture that encourages us to be the best we can be and have the best things we can be: get the best job, the best husband/wife, the best car, and the best house you can, and then you’ll have “made it,” our consumer culture tells us, and encourages us to judge others by their “achievements.” We want to be perfect.
But on the other hand, there’s narcissism, and we’ve all known someone who can never admit they’re wrong; can never acknowledge when they’ve hurt someone else, and thinks they’re absolutely perfect.
So, one the one hand, we have absolute self-hatred and on the other, we have narcissim. The middle ground is where we find God’s grace.
We aren’t perfect. We can’t be. But we want so desperately to pretend that, even if we’re not, we can be. We think that if we find the right self-help guru, the right diet plan, the right philosophy, the right political leaders; if we make lots of money, or find our one true soul mate, or live life in just the right way; then we can be perfect.
Even a lot of churches and religions sell this narrative, which I call the self-help God. All you need is God; all you need is to fill the God-shaped hole in your heart. Come to our church; we’ve got the right answers that will meet your needs. Or, at the very least, they preach on this text and say that, with God’s help, we can resist temptation just like Jesus.
But we can’t be perfect. No one of us would have a hope against the Devil tempting us with all the kingdoms of the world. We would come up with endless justifications: “I would be a just ruler, so it would be for the best in the end.” And have you ever been really, truly, 40-days-without-food hungry, on the verge of death? You would do anything for food. And who wouldn’t, if they knew absolutely it would be safe, wouldn’t want to jump and see how fun it was? (I’m looking at the people I know have gone skydiving before)
And we fall for temptations less than this every single day. So I don’t know where we get this idea that we can be perfect. This story is about Jesus resisting all temptation; not about us being able to resist all temptation. If we fill the God-shaped hole in our heart; if we rely on God and God alone . . . we’ll still fail, again and again. We will never be perfect.
Faith, as I’ve said before, doesn’t give us all the answers, but helps us to be okay with the mystery. Faith doesn’t make us perfect, at least not while we’re still on earth; faith helps us to be okay with being imperfect, with failing again and again, because God is forgiving.
Repentance is not about hating yourself for all the bad things you’ve done; it’s about having the grace to acknowledge that you aren’t perfect, and that’s okay. You aren’t perfect; I’m not perfect; and that’s okay.
The church often uses “Sustainer” as another descriptor of the Holy Spirit: “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” in place of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Because that’s what She does; she sustains us in our mission, whatever that mission may be, as disciples of Christ. God loves us, even when we fail. God knows that we aren’t perfect, but she keeps helping us back onto our feet when we stumble, so we can try again. That’s what grace is; that’s what the freedom in God is; the freedom to keep trying. We are all stumbling toward the Kingdom of God; keep stumbling.