Compared to Whom?

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. – I Timothy 1:15

Americans have a nasty habit. We are constantly measuring our little personal worlds with the worlds of those around us. “Your kid made honor role? Mine is captain of the football team.” “Your wife is a successful realtor? Mine makes her own clothes and has a popular blog.” “My life is going down the drain. Well, it could be worse. I could be you.” Iterations of this last are especially common among Christian people. When someone is going through a difficult time we often encourage them to look on the bright side by pointing out various ways in which their life is better than someone else’s: “Hey, you flunked out of college but at least you aren’t working in a Chinese garment factory!”  What this line of reasoning boils down to is this: somewhere, somehow, it’s worse for somebody else and that is something you should be grateful for. If we arranged all the people of the world in a hierarchy of misery I wonder how this line of thinking would resonate with the guy at the bottom?

We don’t always employ this technique of comparison negatively though. Sometimes we look at someone else and lament that they “do more for God” than we do. “Fr. David is a great preacher and I’m not. I wish I had that kind of talent!” This kind of aspirational or covetous comparison is no better than the other, rooted as it often is in vanity and insecurity. In fact it calls to mind the story of Simon Magus who, because he loved power and glory, sought to buy from the Apostles the ability to lay hands on people and give them the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:18-19)

Imagine trying to construct a building in a world where the definition of an inch varied from place to place. The result would be a building neither safe nor beautiful if you ever got one at all. So it is with us. When we compare ourselves to others, positively or negatively, we are basing our perspective on a continually changing standard of measurement – us in relation to other human beings. Such a perspective will not yield in us either beauty or truth.

Contrast this way of thinking with the quote from St. Paul above. St. Paul refers to himself as the “first,” “foremost,” or “chief” of sinners. How is that possible? Is it possible that St. Paul thought he was worse than Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus!? If we think about it in those terms St. Paul’s statement doesn’t make any sense. But that’s because we’ve got the perspective wrong. St. Paul isn’t saying that he’s the worst by comparison to other people at all. The comparison for St. Paul isn’t horizontal but vertical: him compared to God. What does it mean to compare yourself to God? It is to measure your love, your mercy, your patience, your wisdom, and your obedience against that of His Son, Jesus Christ. From this perspective it is not hard to understand how St. Paul could have said that he was the first among sinners and it shouldn’t be hard for us to imagine saying it either. What is my love compared to Christ’s? What does it matter if I’m more generous than my bishop if I’m more selfish than my Savior?

Or course, none of us comes off so well in such a comparison but that, I would submit, is part of the point. The purpose of a human life is to become like God but we cannot become like God until we are absolutely clear that we are not Him.

A Thought on Prayers for the Departed

Well meaning people sometimes say that prayers offered for the departed are of no account. I used to be one of them. Now such an assertion strikes me as odd for two reasons. First, if prayers can be automatically discounted churches should probably be obliged to make lists for their people of what prayers and types of prayers are licit and illicit and under what conditions. Second, I am afraid that if such a list existed most of my prayers would not pass the test, stemming as they do from a very fallen and selfish heart. Prayers for the departed can be found in scripture (II Maccabbees 12:40-46 to be specific) and are undeniably part of the tradition of the undivided Church of the first millenium, but to reduce the question to text and history is to miss something important and beautiful. We are all together bound in a perichoresis of love; and to love is to remember.

The Cross and the Cup

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” – Matthew 16:24

This verse cuts to the quick of Christian life. No beating about the bush. If you want to be a Christian you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ. But what exactly is the cross we are commanded to take up?  Very often people speak of some difficulty in their life – a mean boss or poor health – as “my cross to bear.” They equate suffering (which is what you experience on a literal cross) with the cross that Jesus says his followers must take up. This is, in my opinion, mistaken. If we equate the cross with suffering we are obliged to admit that God forces the cross on Christians and non-Christians alike since suffering is a universal experience. Since all Christians agree that Christ went to the cross voluntarily and being a Christian is also something we voluntarily embrace, this cannot be the case. But if suffering is not the cross we are called to take up, what is it?

It is clear from the scripture that the cross is simply obedience. In Philippians 2:4 St. Paul says that “[Christ] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Similarly, when Christ prays in the Garden of Gethsemane he says, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Mt. 26:39) In saying this Jesus demonstrates that by choosing not to choose something else He is conforming His own will to the will of the Father. His cross, the cross that will lead him to the tree itself, is the cross of obedience; It is the cross of conforming His will to the will of God. So it is for us. Our cross is choosing not to choose our own will instead of God’s.

Suffering does indeed have a role to play though. In the passage just quoted Jesus refers to the suffering He is about to endure as the “cup” from which He would rather not drink. This is the common cup that everyone who takes up the cross of obedience drinks from. Here we have a paradox. Not all who suffer bear the cross but all who bear the cross suffer. It is the price of loving in a fallen world. So what is the will of God that we must obey if we are to follow Him? The prophet Micah tells us in broad strokes: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Carry the cross. Drink the cup. Live forever.