Viewing Other People's Messes
Somebody shared this quote with me recently: “God, give me patience and compassion for people who sin differently from me.” I appreciate that take on viewing other people’s messes. Instead of being like that Pharisee in the Bible, “I thank you, God, that I’m not like other people” (Luke 18:11), it acknowledges the fact that I’m a mess, too, just a different kind of mess.
I thought of that quote a few weeks ago when I was in a recovery discussion group. One of the people there, Tom, shared how he’d been able to stop drinking, but he wasn’t having the same success with smoking. Immediately, other people in the group piped up with suggestions, including, “Try praying over your cigarettes,” “Try evicting the demon of smoking,” and “Try picking up your Bible every time you want to pick up a cigarette.” I watched Tom as he listened patiently to all the advice, and I could see a look of amusement coming onto his face. He finally spoke up and said, “I’m noticing that all these helpful suggestions are coming from non-smokers.”
Oops. I see his point: You never want to look at the human weaknesses of others and think, That’s simple! if you’ve never struggled with it yourself.
The people we work with in Institutional Ministries are often dealing with sins that are big and obvious — things that the rest of us have possibly never gone near. They “sin differently from me.” So, since I’m still giving in to my own human weaknesses (holding onto resentments, or saying things that damage someone’s reputation, or being oblivious to opportunities to be kind to people who need my kindness), am I really any different than that Pharisee in the temple, if I think or say things like, “Anybody who really wanted to quit drinking could quit,” or “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t these people understand?”
The apostle Paul said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). If we take these words of St. Paul to heart, then perhaps we will also remember that what we all have in common — being sinners who are loved and forgiven by God — far outweighs what’s different about us and the human weaknesses that we all struggle with.
Chaplain Philip Merten