Several years ago, I was driving one of my sons somewhere when he engaged me in a conversation that I have never been able to forget because it was funny, at least to me. He was in grade school at the time.
He simply asked me if his teachers at school were telling him the truth. He sounded very serious, so I took it seriously. I asked him why he wanted to know. The following is a verbatim rendering of the conversation as I remember it: “I think they are lying,” he said, “They keep telling me that when I grow up I can be anything I want. Is that true?”
I started to affirm his teacher’s message because I wanted him to be encouraged and have a positive self-esteem, only to walk straight into his comic trap. Before I could get much of a word in edgewise, he said, “All I ever wanted to be is a dog.”
There you have it. The lie exposed. When people are not telling their children “you’ll never amount to anything” (which is also a lie), they are exaggerating the case by telling them they can be anything they want. Unfortunately, not all of them are able to see either one of the lies, and they develop either too low or too high an estimation of themselves.
It is the season of Lent. The time of repentance and preparation when in anticipation of Easter, we are given the opportunity to think about our positive and negative potential in realistic terms. We have the chance to understand both the high reaches of our capabilities and the unfortunate but inescapable possibilities for harm and destruction.
I must confess to be borrowing ideas that are close enough to someone else’s that I should give them credit, one can refer to the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian of the mid-20th century.
It seems natural for people to overestimate their potential for good and underestimate their ability to do wrong, or vice versa. The goal is to find the right balance. The term used to name Niebuhr’s ethics is, “realism,” which refers to the down-to-earth middle-of-the-road acceptance of two theological ideas, that human beings are made in God’s image but are corrupted by sin. Sometimes people are not very cool. We say, after all, they are only human.
I was laughing at his punch line and trying to explain that what his teachers meant was that within certain limits, he could achieve much if he worked hard and put his mind to something, showed a little determination. But after I finished laughing, I got to thinking about the dilemma of being human in a world of good and bad things. In the spirit of Lent, here are a few guidelines to follow.
Remember to apply the same standard to everyone. We tend to judge our enemies with a different standard than we judge ourselves. Better yet, perhaps we might refrain from judgment altogether and accept the grace we find in the balance between the two extremes.
And when thinking about sin, remember that the idea of sin is not meant to impose guilt on anyone but to explain why the guilt is there in the first place. Confession is meant to be liberating not debilitating. We can not grow up to be dogs. But we can grow up to mature faith, grounded in God’s grace and mature enough to love our neighbors by putting their concerns ahead of our own, and by forgiving them, even when we do not understand them.
Phrases like, “There but for the grace of God go I,” and, “who am I to judge?” are good reminders. Who knows, maybe at some point all the dogs will get together and ask, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be a human being?”
Dr. Mark Allison is pastor of the First Baptist Church in Delaware.