The longer I live and reflect on human nature, the more I believe that we are interesting creatures, more lovely than we think and more sinful than we imagine too hard and too easy on ourselves, all at the same time.
On the one hand, we’re better than we think. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are beautiful, at least most of the time, in our human and moral qualities.
Most of the time we are quite generous and warm and hospitable. Inside of everyone lies a big heart, a big soul, ready to respond to the slightest touch of love or affirmation. Too often we look cold and self centered, when we’re really only hurt and wounded.
We don’t always look good, but we are. We’re often frustrated because, due to circumstances or wounds or sensitivity, we find it almost impossible to pour out our goodness as we would like, or love those around us with the warmth that’s in us. We’re not so much bad, as frustrated. We’re more lovely than we can imagine.
There’s also another side to us: We’re sinners, too, more so than we think. An old Protestant saying about human nature, based upon St. Paul, puts it accurately: “It’s not a question of ‘are you a sinner?’ It’s only a question of ‘what is your sin?’” We’re all sinners and, just as we possess a big heart and a magnificent soul, we also possess a petty one. Inside us there’s selfishness, jealousy, and a pettiness of heart and mind that is close to the surface.
Generally, we are blind to our real faults. As Jesus says, we too easily see the speck in our neighbor’s eye and miss the plank in our own. There’s a real contradiction here: Where we think we’re sinners is usually not the place where others struggle the most with us. On the other hand, it’s in those areas we think we’re virtuous that, most often, our real sin lies and where others do struggle with us.
For example, we’ve always put a lot of emphasis on the sixth commandment, sexual ethics, and haven’t been nearly as self-scrutinizing in regards to the fifth commandment, which deals with bitterness, judgments, anger, and hatred; or with the ninth and 10th commandments, which have to do with jealousy.
It’s not that sexual ethics are unimportant, but our failures here are easier to see and harder to rationalize. The same isn’t true for bitterness, anger (especially righteous anger), and jealousy. We can easily rationalize these and not notice that jealousy is the only sin that God felt necessary to prohibit in two commandments. We’re worse than we imagine, and mostly blind to our real faults.
So where does that leave us? In better, and worse shape than we think. Recognizing that we’re lovelier than we imagine and at the same time, more sinful than we suppose, can be helpful, both for our self-understanding and for how we understand God’s love and grace in our lives.
We’re both good and bad, generous and selfish, big-hearted and petty, gracious and bitter, forgiving and resentful, hospitable and cold, full of grace and full of sin, all at the same time. Moreover we’re dangerously blind to both, too unaware of our loveliness, as well as our nastiness.
To recognize this is both humbling and freeing. In essence, we’re “loved sinners.” Both goodness and sin make up our real identity. To not recognize the truth of either leaves us either too hard on ourselves or too easy on ourselves.
The truth will set us free, and the truth about ourselves is that we’re both better and worse than we picture ourselves to be.