Finding God when we fail

In 2011 the Coalition Government in Britain defined what they saw as fundamental British values. Schools are now at the forefront of promoting “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” The values are all important, but are they succeeding in making us more tolerant of other people?

Whilst we all know that others must make allowances for our failings, the standards we demand of others are very high. We don’t tolerate failure. Politicians who fall short must resign. Heads of large organisations, both private and public, must be held to account for the failings of everyone under them. Managers of football teams who do not deliver the success the owners and supporters demand are sacked. Yet all who resign, or are sacked, are replaced by equally fallible people!

Jesus gave special encouragement to those who had failed. He was severely criticised, and ultimately condemned to die, by self-righteous, hypocritical religious leaders. They were extremely intolerant of those who failed to keep the man-made rules they had imposed. But people who knew they had failed by breaking God’s commands were drawn to Jesus. He gave them hope of forgiveness and a new beginning.

Jesus told them a story to show what God, his heavenly Father, is really like. He is wonderfully gracious and offers us a second chance when we seriously fail and mess up. In the story a son rebelled against his father, took his share of the family inheritance and went to a distant country where he threw himself into wild living. He denied himself no pleasure but soon spent all his money and was struggling to survive. Then he came to his senses and realised he had to go back to his father and admit that he had sinned against him and against God.

While he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and am no longer worthy of being called your son.” But his father said to the servants, “Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet and kill the fattened calf. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.”

The wonderful offer of forgiveness

Today well-known public figures are subject to scrutiny as never before. Those who stand for major offices of State, for example to be President of the USA, can expect details of their private life to be made public and to be critically assessed. The reason for this is to see if their public persona and private life match. What they have said or done in the past is seen as a reliable indicator of the kind of people they really are.

It is not only public personalities who experience inconsistencies in their private lives. All of us are familiar with the struggle to live a private life that is consistent with our public image. When we are away from the public gaze it is only too easy to drop our guard and to do and say things we would not do if people were watching us. The fact that we don’t want people to know the wrong things we have done in private is a sign that we are ashamed of them.

In God’s sight there is no distinction between our public and private lives. Our whole life is seen and known by him. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable.” Jesus said, “For everything that is hidden will eventually be brought into the open, and every secret will be brought to light.”

Religion can sometimes be a cloak for hypocrisy. Some people who take a strong public stand for righteousness do not live according to the standards they lay down for others. Cult leaders, with many followers, have sometimes been exposed as men who have used their power to satisfy their sexual desires and greed for money. Jesus spoke against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day who performed good deeds “to be admired by others.”

None of us can stand in the face of God’s scrutiny but, in Jesus, there is the promise of his grace and forgiveness. In Psalm 130 the psalmist says to God, “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive? But you offer forgiveness, that we might learn to fear you.” It is a wonderful thing when we experience God’s undeserved love and grace and know that there is no longer any need to pretend because we have confessed everything to him and he will never count our sins against us.

Living in the Light

The News of the World has been published for the last time. After 168 years, the most widely read newspaper in Britain has closed because of a scandal over alleged phone hacking and bribery. The decision to close the newspaper may not to be an act of contrition on the part of the owners, expressing sorrow over what has happened, but rather a hard-headed business decision which seeks to limit the damage done to the parent company.

Many people are very interested in knowing what happens behind closed doors. We are told that people have “a right to know” and that exposing the weaknesses of prominent people is “in the public interest.” This scandal has revealed the lengths to which some people are willing to go in order to pry into, and then expose, the private affairs of celebrities, politicians and even victims of crime. The hacking and bribery was done in secret, but has now been brought into the open. The hunters have become the hunted.

Jesus warned people against the danger of hypocrisy by which we pretend to be something we are not. He said, “The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what has been whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear.” He was referring to the day when God will judge everyone’s secret lives. Ultimately we are all accountable to God.

Jesus also warned against hypocrisy in religion when people do things in order to win the praise of other people. He said that people who give money to help the poor should not “blow trumpets in the synagogues and streets” to call attention to their acts of charity. He said that although such people may receive praise from other people, they will not receive praise from God. Then he said, “But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”

The words of Jesus challenge us all. Instead of finding pleasure in the weaknesses and failures of others, our lives need to be open before God. We need to live in the light as God is in the Light.

Do not judge

The teaching of Jesus is very challenging. The Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapters 5-7, can make uncomfortable reading. In that sermon Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Jesus had observed something in the people amongst whom he lived which is true of us today. They had no televisions, newspapers or internet, but they loved to talk about the sins and failures of other people. They highlighted even minor blemishes and talked in a self-righteous and negative way about others. In doing this they conveniently overlooked their own sins and failures, which were often much more serious.

Much of the news we read and hear today focuses on the alleged failures and sins of politicians, sports men and women, famous, and not so famous, people. The intimate details of their lives are exposed to public scrutiny, all in the cause of the “public interest.” It is strange paradox that on the one hand we have, as a society, cast aside God’s moral law and on the other we rigorously impose our own version of morality on others.

We need to take the teaching of Jesus to heart and begin with our own lives. This is true for us all whether we are religious or not. Are there big issues in my life which I am conveniently overlooking? Am I quick to point out the faults in others to draw attention away from my own faults? How would I cope if the same standards I use where applied to my life? Can my life stand the scrutiny of God’s all seeing and all-knowing judgement?

Personal integrity begins with self-examination and a humble recognition of our own faults. This makes us aware of our need for God’s forgiveness through Jesus and makes it possible to get alongside others who have the same frailties we have.