(written 1 June 2016)
It was pointed out to me many years ago, and over the intervening years, it is one of those things that has tenaciously stayed with me.
I guess one reason why I’ve not forgotten it, is because I’m still dealing with the multifaceted ramifications of it. Internally, in my mind, I call it ‘three fingers’ or ‘the three finger salute’.
You see, whenever I point at someone – let me interrupt myself to state that I am not continually, habitually, daily physically pointing at people, but it is a recurring activity and the odd time it may actually be a physical pointing. But, most often I am pointing mentally, speaking to myself, or verbally to someone else, and I as I do so, I have a mental picture of my pointing hand.
Now, back to where I was, whenever I point at someone and invariably it is a someone, or someones, – I can be quite inclusive when I point – the fact is the act of pointing my index finger results in me automatically curling my middle finger, ring finger and little finger back and in, closing over my palm, and as a natural result, they in turn, are pointing directly back at me. This is what was shared with me so long ago, the precise ‘when’ I heard it is lost in the mists of time.
Since that time and slowly, ever so slowly – almost at a glacial rate – I’ve become cognisant of the fact, that I can easily identify the faults in others, and often propound the solutions that they should employ, and at the exact same time be guilty of the very same – or even a worse – default, error, infraction, defficiency, sin or whatever you wish to label the cause of my censure.
Now, I may frame my condemnation in a context of being ‘helpful’ or ‘correcting’ or ‘cleansing’ or ‘concern for my brother or sister’, or even ‘concern for the testimony of the church’ but in reality, it is nothing more than extremely thinly veiled judgement.
Now, in life we are all subject to judgement, for none of us are perfect. At any given time someone can, justifiably, pass judgement on me – without question – for I am guilty.
However, whenever I consider myself and my, er, deficiencies, I am far more lenient and far more forgiving. I can turn a blind eye. I can express prodigious patience and long-suffering forgiveness for my failings. I can excuse, or diminish whatever my fault, failing, indiscretion, or down-right sin, may be. I can do this IF it is in my life – not yours.
More frightening I suppose, is the fact that I can be completely, blissfully, ignorant of many (or should I say ‘most’?) of my faults, failings, indiscretions and, well, yes… sins.
Additionally, there is a frightful dichotomy, for on the one hand I can actively diminish my failings, but then, on the other hand, I confess that their are times when I can acknowledge how wrong and disappointing some act or word or deed is and I then stubbornly fail to forgive myself for the repeated act, or action, or unbroken habit, or word or whatever. This is the polar opposite to my other reaction, which is to diminish or deny either the existence of or importance of a problem or, if acknowledging it, to excuse it. No, in this response, the fault is fully acknowledged and then I steadfastly refuse to forgive myself for this transgression even though, in Christ I have been forgiven and even though I have confessed and turned from whatever it is I have thought, planned or done, and even though I have been forgiven (note: this is in the past tense) and I have been received into the very presence of Almighty, Righteous, Holy, God, I will not forgive myself. This a key aspect of this dichotomy that should be the subject of, and deserving of, another meditation.
But, back to this particular meditation…
If I am pointing, whether mentally, verbally or physically, the natural question arises, ‘Why do I judge so easily?’
Of course, when I engage in this activity, one of the immediate perceived ‘benefits’ is (to me, that is, and not really a benefit at all), it assists me in taking the focus off me and my failings and my laziness, my failures and my lack of interest in correcting many of my own acknowledged and stated short-comings – leaving aside for the moment the legion of faults and failings that I am not currently apprised of, and I focus my attention on the so-called faults and failings of others.
It is, rather perversely, comforting to me if I can be ‘righteously indignate’ at the actions, statements, activities or behaviour of someone else, for then I am not as focused on, nor even conscious of my own multitudinous points of failure.
Additionally, when looking at others – let the reader understand ‘when judging’ – one of the easiest things for me to do, is to take a point where I am comparatively strong and using that as my focal point, to examine someone who is struggling in the same area. I will be in a strong position of comparative success, and they will be in a weak position of struggling or failure.
Let me illustrate that by taking an example from my ‘Life with Diabetes’.
Of a truth, I am not unduly tempted by sweet foods even though Turkish cuisine is host to a fine variety of scrumptious sweets and and a plethora of truly phenomenal sweet pastries. By and large, when the temptation comes, I can cast it off with relative ease and the battle is generally not long nor very strenuous.
And so, if I encounter another diabetic, but a diabetic who really struggles with a temptation for sweets, I can easily judge them from my self-selected position of success (solely in regard to this one, limited, type of temptation). In this comparison and now dressed in my ‘righteous superiority’, I can cast my eyes down on them without the remotest trace of understanding or compassion and triumphantly declare how simple it is to ‘do the right thing’ – let the reader recall, for me, this is a point where I am strong.
Let me hasten to add, that this is ‘natural’ strong, not the result of my doing the right thing in the face of overwhelming temptation, nor of my choosing the right course over the wrong by strength of my character – it is a gift that in this particular temptation, the temptation is not very strong.
And so, in acting in this way, as far as my diabetic brother or sister is concerned, I am of absolutely no help to them whatsoever. Rather I am only able to increase their sense of failure and self-condemnation, sowing seeds of discouragement, undermining faith and eroding hope. As far as extending any real aid in overcoming their struggle – nada, zilch, nothing – but I may feel smug, satisfied, superior.
However, if, instead, I had considered, as a diabetic, my struggles with, let’s name names, potato crisps – that salty (I have elevated blood pressure and hence I am to reduce my salt intake) potato based snack (potato quickly raises blood sugar and hence is not to be recommended) – ahh.. now here is an example of where I struggle, and fail, and repeatedly fail, and my feelings of demoralisation and condemnation – and the reality of the verse “if anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” which only is doubling-down my sense of failure by my not measuring up to what I know to be true: disappointing myself and disappointing Almighty God.
Now, no longer am I on my righteous charger, sitting proud in my self proclaimed ‘Righteous Superiority’. No longer can I, even remotely, claim the high ground. No more can I gaze, scornfully, down my nose as a superior and curl my lip in an insensitive sneer of disdain at someone’s weakness.
Of a truth, if I honestly share with my brother or sister in the Lord who is struggling with their ‘sweet’ temptation, my own struggles, albeit with a different temptation, and share my struggles and my wee successes and aspirations and hope for ultimate success, then there is potential to actually be in a position to encourage one another in our struggles. There may be something that they have been doing with mixed results in their struggle, but this is exactly what I need to hear and emulate in my struggle. It is possible that something that I have been doing, or contemplating doing in my struggle, that may aid and be helpful to them.
Ah…. but this calls for honesty, for humility, for vulnerability…
And, besides, judgement comes so easily, so naturally….
…..almost like it is an integral part of the ‘old man’ – which, of course it is.
For God so loved the world…. this world which is absolutely brimming full of things that stand already judged because they are unequivocally worthy of condemnation and judgement…. and He loved the world so much as to give His one and only Son… to save the world – to redeem the world, to give life.
And yet, I so easily judge my brother and sister, the Church at large – basically anyone I can think of… and in the process, leave myself above the fray…. and, oh, I can pontificate on what the answers are and what people should do, as if I were the shining light of truth…..
Even if I could see clearly and articulate exactly what is wrong in some individual’s life, in spite of my ‘superiority complex’ and if I could identify the correct remedial action required to set it straight, they would be hard-pressed to respond, for a causal examination of my life will highlight areas of failure, struggle and glaring examples of things not right and actions and activities that continue unabated and unhindered in my life so as to deter them from even listening to my counsel….
They would be rightly put off by what they see.
Indeed, the fact of the matter remains that the bad they see in me, is only the tip of the reality. I, too, like most of mankind, present my best mask forward, covering up and obscuring my many legions of faults and failings, as best I can. Only Almighty God and I know the thoughts that course through my mind – the ones that I have embraced, or specially called up and dwelt on and entertained and strengthened by my attention…….which, thankfully my fellow man is ignorant of…
When I vocalise my observations on the failings of an individual, or an organisation or the Church at large or a particular part of the Church, I am in no-wise helping the situation, in no-way aiding in the correction of the perceived fault. However, I can be a fermenting agent, engendering discontentment and bringing discord and dissension and fanning the flames of division and strife.
Someone may query: “Do not problems ‘in the church’ need to be brought to the fore?”
Okay, let us say that I, correctly, identify a problem in the greater church. In articulating it, how is that going to sort the problem? How will coherently declaring the problem be part of the solution?
People, people whom I do not know, do not have a relationship with, who believe (as we all tend to do) that what they are doing is right, and true and, well, from God – what will be their response to my declaration be?
To address the greater problems of the ‘church’ or society or whatever group, it is my conclusion that first I must be wholly self-obsessed. I need to be absolutely selfish. I need to focus exclusively on, well…. me.
Not in the sense that ‘everyone needs to listen to me’, or ‘focus on me’, or ‘do what I say’, or ‘understand me’, or desiring that all ‘love me’, or ‘be patient with me’, or ‘forgive me’ – this is the normal, twisted, self-obsessed selfishness wherein the centre, the ‘me’ at the heart, is the practical and functional lord and master: it is the ‘me’ that is calling the shots and is demanding to be catered to and obeyed. The ‘selfishness’ I am referring to is not this sinful, rebellious selfishness which denies the Lordship of Christ and declares its own rebellious independence from Him.
No, when I say wholly ‘self-obsessed’ it is in regard to the multitude of faults and failings residing in, living in and all too often prospering in me. To do this to the exclusion of focussing on the the faults of others, to examine the problems closer to home, to the faults that I am both responsible for and faults that I can exert direct action against.
Balance: again, I am not propounding this as an absolute: of course we need a balanced focus – we must also be focused on God, the Light of our life, the new man He has made, on the character and nature of God, His great promises to us, resting in the fact of His love for us, and our acceptance in the Holy of Holies, of our status as people he has ‘declared holy’ and ‘made fully acceptable’ and our adoption as children of God and joint heirs in Christ. At all times, we must be focused on the grace of God – the unmerited favour He bestows on us again and again. These, too, are a major, essential, part of the picture. But, when it come to the inevitable fault-finding, rather than examining others, to turn my primary focus on myself, where I can, on the basis of the above, with the Grace of God, and the Spirit of Almighty God providing both the ‘will’ or desire and the power and strength, I am enabled to do what needs to done in my life.
When I am aware of my faults and failings and my struggles to set things right and when, through diverse trials and tribulations I grow in grace and in the knowledge of God, when, with a large portion of humility, I can honestly share my failings and then my little victories in Christ, then I can offer hope, a way forward to my brothers and sisters, my fellow pilgrims walking the narrow road.
I can then be part of the solution and rather than saying ‘the problem is…’ but, by being an example, I can by life and word declare, ‘the solution is….’
Now that will be an encouragement and help to the church that I rub shoulders with and, ultimately, the greater church.
The only life that I have a direct input into changing, the only life that I can directly affect, is my own. To another I can speak, they can believe or disbelieve, they can act or reject – they will make the ultimate decision. But in my life, it comes down to my choice and in that I have direct responsibility.
Indeed, in life, if rather than giving myself a silent ‘pass’ in questionable areas, and rather than occupying my mind with all the perceived faults and failings around me, in individuals and organisations and the church and the greater church, but if I allow the Holy Spirit to work in me and if I join together, being a co-worker with the Holy Spirit, then He will bring change in this one life of mine – then there will be progress and true comfort to be shared with those I encounter.
This kind of ‘selfishness’ calls for brutal honesty – something which does not come easily or naturally to mankind. I, and I think most, like to talk about my successes, to focus on what I do well, and to draw attention to when I get it right. I, and I dare say most, do not want people to know of my inner struggles, my doubts and failings. Nor do I want people to have a glimpse of the ‘real me’ for I fear they will reject me – and sometimes I would have to confess, that I would be rejected with good cause.
One thing my passing years on this globe and living in many different societies and countries has shown me, is we are all alike. We all have points of strength and points of weakness. We all have areas where we do well and others where we do so-so and others where we utterly fail. We all have personal, individual points of strength and struggle.
I am convinced that this includes all of us. No one gets a free pass – there is none who does all things well with no struggle and no failures.
Whether one has been educated to the highest level, or if one is barely literate – I believe that this is the shared human condition. Education does not eradicate it, nor does simplicity of life or thought eliminate it. This basic human struggle of our strengths and weakness, our successes verses our failures, our points of pride and areas of shame, is common to all. Common in all cultures. Common regardless of wealth or poverty. Common with everyone we meet….
It may only be my point of weakness, that I have, especially in the past, felt inhibited and that I needed to project a happy, successful, trouble-free, sinless, struggle-free experience to those around me – especially to those in the household of faith.
That would be my failing. I am trying to bring balance in this area of my life.
But when I succumb to my natural inclinations to mask over my failings and struggles, a natural consequence is it prevents me from being a true aid to others, for if they do not know of my struggle, they can not identify with me and as scripture says, I can not share with them the comfort that I have received from God in my struggle – if they are unaware of my struggles….
On occasion, when sharing from the pulpit, I have said: ‘Oh, yes, I have a struggle…’ and people are immediately intrigued and lean forward to hear more….
But then I cop-out and take the easy path and continue: ‘Yes, my prayer life isn’t all that it should be…’ and people slump back and say, ‘so what – whose is: that is nothing like the struggles I have with jealously or resentment or pornography or impatience or fear or anger or impetuousness or jealousy or covetiveness or lying or deceit or theft or shop-lifting or lust or…….’
In my hesitation to share, to be open, to be vulnerable…to run the very real risk of people delighting in gossiping about me, and so to protect myself, I can refrain from doing the very things that could prove to be of the greatest value.
My three fingered salute appears every time I mentally, verbally or physically pass judgement on my brothers or sisters. It quietly speaks ‘who are you to judge’ and reminds me ‘and you? Are you sinless? Or are you guilty of the same? Are you guilty of worse?’. It also speaks to me saying ‘are you part of the solution?’.
I perceive so many problems in the world, and often they may very well be real problems and problems that require real solutions, but if, in my perception, assessment and declaration, I lack a real understanding and the essential compassion, grace and the overwhelming sacrificial love of God, my perception is not helpful, not pleasing to God, not part of the solution, but, in essence, is part of the problem.
God didn’t just pass judgement on the world. He sacrificed His one and only Son that the world may be delivered, redeemed, saved and adopted.
This has to be the foundation and the end of any ‘judgement’ that I may be moved to make in this world. Anything less is not on the model given by God Himself and anything less does not contribute to the solution of the problems.
I have noted in the past that sometimes something that a brother or sister says or does or approves or disapproves of or behaves in a certain way really irks me, really bothers me, really gets under my skin, really winds me up.
My first, natural response is to utter some, in one sense valid, judgmental statement. Sometimes my spoken or unspoken utterance may include a suggested remedial action, but not always.
What I have noted is often that what I am observing in others is actually present in the same or similar way within my own life – but I am ignorant of it.
It has occurred to me that my observations in others was in fact the Holy Spirit trying to get me to see the failing in my own life. He has tried to wake me up to something that needs my attention, my repentance, my trusting Him for a change that will remove that blight, that eye-sore, that fault, that stumbling block from my life.
Rather than ranting: to myself, to the Lord, to those around me, or worse, to a wider audience, the Lord’s intention was for me to undergo surgery, to have treatment, to have that problem excised from my life.
By focussing on others, I am actually hindering my own growth and development in the Lord and, sadly, exasperating the problems in the Church as I manifest the same or similar failing which then continues unabated and unaddressed in my life.
Time, methinks, for some ‘righteous selfishness’ focussing on my particular failings with a view, in Christ and by the grace of God, to change and be remade in the image of Christ. In this way, I can actually model the way forward and be an encouragement for my brothers and sisters.
What is needed is for far more than a declaration of what is wrong but a demonstration of the solution – an insight into the solution that is ours in Christ.
Jesus said He came that we might have an ‘abundant life’, a life filled with peace, joy, love, patience, long suffering, endurance, hope, contentment and grace. This comes about as He changes us from our ‘natural state’ to be ‘like Him’.
This requires honesty. This requires ‘righteous selfishness’.
The three finger salute is, for me, a constant reminder of the basic equation and where my focus and my efforts need to be.