“For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.” Romans 1:20 (NLT)
This verse has always struck me as being one of the more universal parts of the Bible (well, maybe not so much the “People are without excuse” part). I always thought it meant that people could be following the laws of God without realizing it by acting with righteousness, having great concern for justice, and compassion for the weak and the marginalized. In this sense, many atheists perhaps have a better understanding of the Gospel than some self-proclaimed evangelicals who go out of their way to condemn those who don’t see things their way, and favor policies that encourage poor people to pick themselves up by bootstraps they never had to begin with.
We live in a world that defines “goodness” by measuring the number of one’s deeds rather than the condition of his or her heart. Many of us have probably done the right thing out of obligation, or perhaps to preserve our reputations, with not-so-righteous motivations (I’m thinking of twelve-year-old me who didn’t want to follow through with the extra work of a Bat Mitzvah project, in which I was supposed to raise tzedakah for a charity of my choice, because learning the Hebrew was hard enough). To this day I find myself wanting to buy a sandwich for a homeless person out of guilt more than concern for when he will see his next meal. Which, to further complicate things, just makes me feel even guiltier.
Then there are people like my husband, for whom compassion is truly a way of life. Somehow, it became a tradition every time we eat at Cracker Barrel (I don’t recall why it’s always Cracker Barrel) to ask our server for someone else’s check. When his Sebring finally broke down and we purchased a new Honda, I was reluctant to keep up with this tradition because now we had an additional payment to make every month. How easy it was for me to forget that the only change in our lifestyle with having to make monthly car payments was that we would be able to eat out less often. Such a sacrifice, I know.
I know Joshua’s compassion is real because he never wants to be recognized for what he does. He asks the server not to tell the lucky patron who the buyer is. He’s a rare kind of human who exemplifies Jesus without trying, and it’s surely one of the reasons I married him (that, and his wicked talent for making “That’s What She Said” jokes out of almost any innocuous statement).
I think a healthy sense of self-awareness makes one more likely to follow Jesus’ ways without knowing it, as opposed to someone who measures character by the number of good deeds versus bad ones. A healthy sense of self-awareness is realizing that no matter what we do, we can always do more – but we should always do small things with great passion. It’s recognizing that we can’t do everything, nor should we try – and sometimes the people who are most aware of their flaws accomplish so much more, because there is something about recognizing weakness that makes a heart soft. Those who try to build up their resume of good deeds are more likely to look down on others who haven’t done as much.
I know I’m not a “good person,” but that doesn’t mean that I hate myself. It means that I realize I can never do enough to measure up to a universal standard of goodness, and I’m okay with that. Even if I only manage to do one mitzvah per month, that is, to paraphrase the Talmud, as good as saving the whole world. It’s actually quite refreshing to let go of this idea that my worth as a human depends on what I do to prove it. For all my frustration and confusion with Christianity at times, my wonderful husband is quick to remind me that as long as I recognize that my worth comes from being made in God’s image, I am still living the Gospel even if I don’t realize it.