Grading Our Lives on a Curve

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

No matter what any of us believe about God, for some reason, it still matters greatly to us (or most of us, any way) that we believe ourselves to be basically, good people. In fact, I would go as far as saying that we derive a big chunk of pride and our sense of self by how good we judge ourselves to be.

You can agree or disagree with that statement, but give yourself a minute or two to see if it doesn’t resonate, at least on some level, in your own life.

Here’s what I find most interesting about that statement (assuming, for a moment, it is a true one): we don’t make that judgement about ourselves in a vacuum but strictly in comparison to others.

This is not an original thought.

In his classic best seller ‘Mere Christianity’, C.S. Lewis wrote more than 70 years ago that “pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.”

Consider a few illustrations:

1 The high achiever takes pride in how hard they work and how much they achieve. They can’t help but look down on those who don’t work as hard as they do and don’t have as much to show for their efforts.

2 The progressive: takes pride in the charities they support; the way they vote, their compassion for the disenfranchised; the issues they care about, and the candidates they support. They do many good things but they can’t help but look down on and judge those who are not as charitable, or are not progressive in their politics.

3 The conservative takes pride in their moral imperatives. This is who they are. This is where they derive their sense of self. They are proud and confident in their beliefs. But they can only be proud and confident in their beliefs if they look down on those who think differently than they do.

4 The moral and/or religious take pride in their piety and how well they follow the rules (at least in comparison to others).

Most believe if there is a God, we get to go to heaven if we live a relatively good life. It’s certainly what I grew up believing. If I thought about it (which I admit wasn’t all that often), I believed our lives were judged on this giant Bell Curve where our good deeds were measured against everyone elses. And by everyone else, I wasnt thinking of the Mother Theresas of the world, but of the really bad people: the Hitlers, the murderers, the guy who invented the speed camera.

But according to the Bible, the good/religious person who thinks they are building a resume and that God will accept them because they are better (or not as bad) as the “other guy”, are as spiritually lost as everyone else. In some ways, even more so because they labor under this false security that they are already in the club!

Let me try to illustrate: imagine we are passengers on a slowly sinking luxury liner. By all outward appearances, everything appears as it ought: the sun is shining, seas are calm and the ship seems to be functioning perfectly well. The steward just handed you your favorite drink. You have a really good book in hand and you’re looking for a lounge chair in the perfect location and spending the next several hours reading and maybe later, a nap!

So the decision to leave the seemingly safe and secure confines of the ship to face the uncertainty of your fate in a tiny lifeboat is not one easily made. In fact, until you actually feel the boat start to list, it may be an impossible one. But if we wait until then, it could be too late.

If you read the Gospels (these are the four eye-witness accounts of the life of Jesus — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), you’ll see that Jesus directs his most severe anger at the religious leaders of the day because they were telling people the only way to earn God’s approval was to obey all the rules and to be better than the other guy. As long as they can check off all or most of the boxes of the religious/good person (i.e. go to church; pray; donate; don’t commit any grievous sins) then they’ve paid their dues; God has to accept them.

But Jesus paints a very different picture of our situation. He says our life, our soul, like the luxury liner, is in imminent danger. And we need to get into the lifeboat.

Now.

The Christian narrative tells us that behaving badly, from the kind that makes headlines to that which “merely” offends, is the result of a world that has declared its independence from its maker, either by shaking a fist denying God’s very existence and claim on our lives, to a more nuanced, passive indifference where our concept of god is more comfortably “re-imagined” and we create for ourselves a malleable, but socially acceptable moral code.

The spectrum of bad behavior is long and varied, but it can be argued the same DNA from which springs forth murder, can be found in different doses, lesser strains with the seeds each of us plant every day of gossip, lying, envy, resentment and malice. The prophet Jeremiah writes in the Old Testament the “human heart is desperately wicked, deceitful, who can know it?”

Whatever your belief, it is hard to refute if it were possible to cure what ails the human heart, you would cure much of what plagues humanity.

At its core, Christianity is a restoration project where God seeks to restore the relationship between himself and his creation. And it is only within the context of that relationship that God can heal the human heart.

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