I recently watched a video where random people were being interviewed on the street. The questions focused on personal vices and sins. The responses of one young woman caught my attention. When asked if she had ever lied she replied, “Yes, but that doesn’t make me a bad person.” When asked if she had ever stolen she replied, “Yes, but that doesn’t make me a bad person.” When asked if she had ever lusted she replied, “Yes, but that doesn’t make me a bad person.”
We all have a tendency to look the truth in the eye and deny it. We also have a natural tendency to grade ourselves on a moral curve. We whisper to our innermost selves: “I’m basically a good person. Other people have done worse things.” The sobering truth is that God is not swayed by our comparisons to others.
Tragically, many people get seduced into a false sense of moral health when compared to everyone else. (I compare myself to Simon Cowell when I need to feel better about me.) But comparing ourselves to others obscures the accuracy of our inward gaze. In the Beatitude of Matthew 5:3, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This Beatitude about poverty in spirit is another way of describing the epiphany we have when we finally see ourselves as we really are—morally bankrupt and unable to avoid judgment despite the fact that there are many people in the world who are more reprehensible than us. It is that “aha!” moment when we realize that God does not grade on a cosmic curve when judging our life. It is the first step towards redemption and comes after we gaze inward, without rationalizations or comparisons to others, at our sins and shortcomings.
Ironically, we move further from God when we insist on maintaining the illusion that we are not a bad person. As soon as we admit the truth about ourselves, the heart of God melts and we can move closer to him. I’m not suggesting that we need to toss our value and self-esteem out the window. I am, however, suggesting that the best self-esteem and understanding of our value comes from God’s love and mercy expressed through Christ rather than from our perception of our self-worth compared to others.