I find it to be true that the more aware I am of my own faults and shortcomings, the kinder I can be to the faults and shortcomings of others.
When I was a much younger person, I was a lot more perfectionistic than I am now. I noticed the shortcomings of people in my parishes, but not the incredible miracle that those people were actually in my parishes, unlike most people, who weren’t there. I noticed the faults of my parents, conveniently ignoring the fact that I was far from being a perfect parent myself. I criticized the institutional church and ‘organized religion’, conveniently ignoring all the good that it does, and the fact that God only has sinners to work with; there are no other kinds of people available.
The Apostle Paul says,
Therefore as God’s chosen people, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity (Colossians 3:12-14).
I’m reminded of the story Jesus told of the unforgiving servant in Matthew chapter 18. A servant in a position of trust had been embezzling funds to the tune of millions of dollars from his master the king. The king discovered what had been going on, and ordered that the man and his family be sold into slavery to pay his debts. In desperation, the man pleaded for more time: ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything’ (a rather vain promise, as his debt was equal to more than the annul revenue of the kingdom). But the king gave him more than he asked for: he had pity on him, and forgave the whole debt!
The servant, however, was not so merciful when he saw a fellow-servant who owed him a few dollars; he demanded repayment, and when he in his turn was asked for time, he refused to give it, but had the man thrown into jail. When the king heard about it he was angry; “I forgave you millions, and you can’t forgive a few dollars?” So he reversed his judgement and had the servant thrown into prison, as he had originally planned.
I wonder why the servant was so anxious to recover the small debt that was owed to him? Did he, perhaps, not really believe that the king had forgiven him the whole debt? Was he still acting on the assumption that he needed to gather all the money he could to repay – that he had just been given a little more time, as he had asked, and not the free pardon he had in fact received?
And then I think to myself, I wonder how often I think like that? I wonder if, when I ask God for forgiveness, I’m not really seeing myself as I am: hopelessly in debt to God, a debt I can never repay in a million years, and one I keep adding to every day. My only hope is the free pardon; any promise of repayment is simply an exercise in self-delusion.
I have been a committed Christian now for over forty years. In all those years I have prayed and asked God to help me have victory over my sins. And it’s true that there has, I believe, been some improvement – just a little bit more patience, perhaps, or charity for others. But make no mistake, I’m still a sinner. There has been no dramatic increase in holiness that I can see. When I see God face to face, I won’t be able to say, “I’ve basically been a good person, Lord, so you can give me what I deserve”. I know it won’t be true; I’ve spent many years in selfishness and self-centredness, and if the Lord gives me what I deserve, then I have no hope at all.
But fortunately for me, the Lord is kind and patient, merciful and forgiving. And that being the case, I must treat others in the same way. People are a mysterious mixture of good and evil, sins and virtues, strengths and weaknesses. The best of people often have character flaws that they keep well hidden, but they are there just the same. The worst of people often have surprising virtues. This is the human condition. These are the people that make up church congregations. These are the priests and bishops who serve the church. All God has to work with are sinners; there are no other kinds of human beings available to him. Fortunately for us, he is patient and merciful. It is good for us to remember this when we are tempted to be harsh and unforgiving toward the faults of others.