Last week I told a story about taking the wrong trail on a
backpacking trip and ending up in what could have been serious
trouble. I should have
known better, I should have turned back sooner, but one of the
reasons I didn’t is because I didn’t want to admit I was wrong.
I’ve thought about it since then and realized that if I’d had
a GPS that never would have happened:
my GPS has no trouble admitting that I’m wrong.
Her name is Shania, and I inherited her from my daughter,
Elllie, who gave her that nickname.
Most of the time Shania just sits there, glued to my
windshield, but if I get distracted and miss a turn she says,
so gentle. She doesn’t
tell me I’m an idiot, that I should have been paying attention, that
she’s been telling me that turn was coming for the last ten miles.
She just says, “Recalculating.”
It’s her own, gentle way of saying, “Jim, you were wrong.”
She doesn’t have any trouble admitting it, but I do, and I
don’t think I’m the only one.
Why is that? Why
is it so hard for us to admit that we are sometimes, and perhaps
even frequently, wrong?
I have a theory.
I may still have on my shelves a book called
Coping with Your Anger by
Andy Lester in which there is a diagram that explains what makes us
angry. It shows a large
circle, representing the self, and then an arrow coming toward it,
representing a threat.
“When we feel threatened,” the diagram explains, “we become anxious,
and prepare ourselves to either fight or flee.”
But somewhere else I learned there is a difference between
our real selves and the ideal self we construct in our heads.
My ideal self would never take the wrong trail on a hiking
trip, but my real self did, apparently, and the reason it was hard
for me to admit it was that I felt my ideal self was under attack.
It was threatened by the very suggestion that it could be
wrong. It became
anxious, and prepared itself to fight or flee.
But eventually the facts stacked up against it, overwhelmed
it, and allowed my real self to admit: “I was wrong.”
My real self doesn’t have any trouble admitting it was wrong.
It’s often wrong, and it knows it.
It has a way of shrugging its shoulders and saying, “Oops!”
Maybe I need my ideal self to hold my real self to a higher
standard, but more often than not it’s my ideal self that is the
problem. It’s the
critical voice I hear when I look in the mirror in the morning and
the reflection looking back doesn’t look so good, or when I run the
Monument Avenue 10K and don’t finish as well as I hoped I would, or
when I do something I shouldn’t have done or fail to do something I
should have. But Jesus
once said if we want to follow him we have to deny the self, and
maybe he meant the ideal self.
Maybe he knew that it can become a kind of idol, one that is
never satisfied, one that makes more and more demands on us as time
If that’s true then we need to knock that idol off the
mantelpiece, let it fall to the floor and smash into a million
pieces, and one of the ways we can do that is to quit listening to
it, and to stop getting angry when we look in the mirror and don't
find the ideal self looking back.
We are real, after all.
We are human, we are fallible, and the sooner we make peace
with that reality the better things are going to be.
I still remember the girl who said, "You know how some
people, when they trip on the sidewalk, take a few quick running
steps, as if they suddenly decided to break into a run?"
Yes. "Well, I
have a friend who doesn't do that," she said.
"When she trips she says, 'Look at that!
I tripped over my own two feet!' and then we laugh and move
We laugh and move on.
That's what you can do when you accept the real you, but when you
are constantly trying to defend the ideal you there's not a lot of
laughter. It is deadly
serious business, and it leaves God out completely, because if you
are perfect you don't need God.
Can you see how all of this is connected to sin?
In the Garden of Eden the serpent told the woman she wouldn’t
die if she ate the forbidden fruit.
No, she would become like God.
And that’s all she wanted: to be like God.
That’s all the ideal self wants: to be like God.
It’s practically the definition of sin.
But the more we pursue that goal the more lost we become, the
further we stumble down the path to perdition.
We have to stop at some point and admit: “I was wrong.”
Or, as my GPS would say, “Recalculating.”
I don’t want to trivialize the seriousness of this.
Some of you are dealing with situations right now that you
got into through a series of wrong turns and now you don’t know how
to get out. I talked
with a man recently who admitted—and these were his words—that he
was in “a hell of his own making.”
I counseled with a woman who said she sometimes sobs into her
pillow at night because she doesn’t want to wake her neighbors.
I heard a story about a young man who had way too much to
drink, got into his parents’ car, and wrapped it around a tree on a
county highway. When
the paramedics pulled him out the GPS was still saying—without any
hint of judgment—“Recalculating,” because it isn’t the GPS’s job to
judge: its job is to get you where you’re going.
God’s job is not to judge us.
He makes that clear in today’s Epistle lesson.
Paul says we were miserable
sinners, actively engaged in evil, the enemies of God, and yet in
that moment God did not judge us or condemn us—he died for us.
So, why do we sometimes seem to assume that it’s God’s job to
judge us, that he’s just waiting for us to slip up, to make a
mistake, to take the wrong turn, so he can damn us to hell forever?
What if your GPS did that to you?
What if it were wired so that you were fine as long as you
were following that big, purple line on the screen, but if you ever
got off the line your car exploded?
Who would want to ride in a car like that?
And who would want a God who would send you to hell as soon
as you made a mistake?
God’s job is not to judge us, but to get us where we’re going, and
he sent his son Jesus to do that job: to pull us from the wreckage,
set us on our feet, and point us in the direction that leads to
life. “While we were
still sinners,” Paul says, “Christ died for us.”
This is incredible, actually.
We have been around so much religion that assumes God wants
to roast sinners in the fires of hell for eternity that we might
easily miss what Paul is saying here.
He is saying that this is what God does when faced with the
problem of miserable sinners sinning their miserable sins: he dies
for them. But just so
we won’t miss it, he repeats it, twice.
In Romans 5:6 he says, “While we were still weak, at the
right time, Christ died for the ungodly.”
In verse 8 he says, “While we were still sinners Christ died
for us.” And then in
verse 10 he says, “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God
through the death of his son.”
In this season I’ve been pointing out that the Bible uses three
different words for sin.
One is transgression,
which means open rebellion; one is
iniquity, which means
doing evil; and one is sin
itself, which means “missing the mark.”
If you have ears to hear it, Paul speaks to all three of
“Enemies” of God would be those who openly rebel against him.
“Sinners,” in the active sense, might be those who actually
do evil. And the “weak”
might simply be those who miss the mark, who sin in a more passive
sense. But in every
case, God does not judge us or condemn us, he sends his son to die
for us, to redeem us, which means that he sees something in us that
is still worth redeeming, no matter how badly we’ve messed things
I was thinking about that regarding this story of the woman at
the well of Samaria. We
sometimes think of her as a sinner because she’s had five husbands,
and the man she is living with is not her husband, but we don’t know
her circumstances. Her
husbands may have all died.
She may have been widowed five times.
And now she’s afraid to marry her fiancé for fear the same
thing will happen to him.
It’s not impossible.
There are stories like that in the Bible.
We don’t know this woman’s circumstances but we know she
comes to the well in the middle of the day when no one else will be
there and, to her surprise, finds a Jewish man who asks her for a
drink of water. “How is
that you, a Jew, ask for water from me, a woman of Samaria?”
Because Jews and Samaritans don’t have anything to do with
each other. But Jesus
says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it was asking you for a
drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you some
Jesus already knows that she’s had five husbands.
He knows that she’s living with a man she hasn’t married.
But he also knows what she’s looking for—living water—and
without judging her or condemning her he offers her the gift of God.
And this is almost unbelievable too, isn’t it?
One of my colleagues pointed out that Jesus doesn’t ask her
to repent, and really, in the most literal sense, she couldn’t.
Repent means to turn around; it means to go back to where you
started from and start again.
Sometimes my GPS tells me to do that.
I missed a turn on an interstate in New Jersey a couple of
weeks ago and all I could do was drive to the next exit, five miles
down the road, do a U-turn, and come back and give it another try.
But sometimes my GPS can get me back on track a different
way. “You missed that
left,” she says, “try the next one.”
In some ways that’s what Jesus does for this woman: he lets
her start from where she is, and change the course of her life.
She leaves her water jar behind when she goes back into town.
Her thirst has been quenched.
She asks the townspeople, “Could this be the Messiah?”
Whether we have to turn around completely, and start back in the
direction we came from, or make a few small course corrections that
will put us on the right track, God doesn’t seem to have any
interest in judging us or condemning us.
God wants to help us get where we’re going or, rather, to get
us where he wants us to go.
One of the things I love about my GPS is this button right in
the center called “Home.”
When I push that button, no matter where I am, Shania starts
figuring out how to get me home.
And if get tired, or distracted, and miss a turn, she doesn’t
say, “You idiot! How
could you miss that turn?
I’ve been telling you it was coming for the last 10 miles!”
Instead she says, in that patient way she has,
that’s the most hopeful thing God could say to us when we wander off
course, when we miss the mark, when we sin.
Maybe God could say in that patient way of his,