Through my years of pastoral ministry, I have had conversations with many people covering wide array of topics including, but not limited to: family, suffering, service, anger, jealousy, marriage, divorce, children, salvation, and sin. Responses to these conversations have ranged from warm and welcoming to cold and dismissive. Perhaps the most interesting and uncomfortable responses come when the subject of personal sin and responsibility for it are discussed. Sin. Not a topic that many want to acknowledge and deal with. However, an issue that can not be ignored.
One of the responses that I have heard quite a bit is one like this, “I’m not as bad as ________”, or something similar. The problem with that statement is found in the individual’s belief of what “bad” is. We like to think “bad” has a specific face. We like to think we would recognize “bad” walking down the street or sitting beside us in a restaurant. We like to think that we would recognize “bad” sitting in the car next to us at the traffic light or living next door to us in our closed-gate neighborhoods. When we think of “bad” people, certain names come to mind rather quickly. None would doubt that Slobodan Milosevic is a “bad” person. After all, for his part in the ethnic cleansing campaign during the Bosnian War, he was indicted for war crimes and stands as a portrait of hate, violence, and inhumane treatment. That’s bad. None would doubt that Charles Manson is a “bad” person. A convicted murderer, his very name invokes images of hate, depravity, and as some say, is evil incarnate. That’s bad. None would doubt that Josef Mengele was a “bad” person. For his part in the attempted extermination of the Jewish race in a German concentration camp during World War II, his name will always be synonymous with evil, sin, and suffering. That’s bad.
When compared to these three for example, we are tempted to say, “I look pretty good” or “I’m in pretty good shape”. The error here – something I call “comparative righteousness”. This is allowing the conduct and actions of another person to set the standard for how we find approval from and right standing with God. It is easy to lower the bar and look to other sinful humans as our example and try to be one step better. The problem: the example. We are told that “all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God” 1 The problem is further complicated by the fact that not only have we all sinned, but inherently there is nothing within us that would allow us to stand approved before God. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “As it is written: There is none righteous, no, not one”. 2 The prophet Isaiah further reveals our inadequacy, “But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away.” 3
If comparing ourselves with others is the wrong answer, what then is the correct one? If lowering the bar is the wrong answer, what then is the correct one? The answer is to fully understand that all sin, no matter what scale or degree we attach to it, grieves the heart of a holy God. The sin of murder is equally as grievous as lying. The sin of theft is equally grievous as adultery. The sin of lust is as equally grievous as gossip or slander. The sin of pride is as equally grievous as racism. Because we are all sinners, and all sin grieves the heart of a holy God, our only answer is Jesus Christ. Paul wrote, of Jesus, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him”. 4 In Him, contentment and peace are found. Paul again wrote, “Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.” 5 So yes, our names may not be Milosevic, Manson, or Mangele, or any other “bad” name. However, we are all “bad” people for whom the Son of God has willingly laid down His life to redeem, save, and rescue. That is good.
1 – Romans 3:23
2 – Romans 3:10
3 – Isaiah 64:6
4 – 2 Corinthians 5:21
5 – Philippains 3:8-9