Saturday, December 29, 2012

serious saturday: thoughts on grace.

I read an article this week by a man named Michael Cheshire, and it knocked the wind out of me a little bit. In it, he talks about how he became friends with Ted Haggard, a pastor who has been greatly shunned by the Christian community after a scandal six years ago. (You have google if you’re desperate for details and were hiding under a rock in 2006.) Michael decided he wanted to meet him after having the following conversation with an atheist friend, taken from the article (which you can find here.):

“During lunch, he [the friend] pointed at the large TV screen on the wall. It was set to a channel recapping Ted's fall. He pointed his finger at the HD and said, ‘That is the reason I will not become a Christian. Many of the things you say make sense, Mike, but that's what keeps me away.’
It was well after the story had died down, so I had to study the screen to see what my friend was talking about. I assumed he was referring to Ted's hypocrisy. ‘Hey man, not all of us do things like that,’ I responded. He laughed and said, ‘Michael, you just proved my point. See, that guy said sorry a long time ago. Even his wife and kids stayed and forgave him, but all you Christians still seem to hate him. You guys can't forgive him and let him back into your good graces. Every time you talk to me about God, you explain that he will take me as I am. You say he forgives all my failures and will restore my hope, and as long as I stay outside the church, you say God wants to forgive me. But that guy failed while he was one of you, and most of you are still vicious to him.’ Then he uttered words that left me reeling: ‘You Christians eat your own. Always have. Always will.’

After I read that, I kept flashing back to a day a few years ago when I was at the YMCA downtown. I was on an eliptical, watching Oprah interview Ted Haggard, and I was so disgusted. THAT guy, up there making all Christians look like idiots. How dare he be such a hypocrite? Doesn't he know that people are going to judge all Christians by his actions?

When he talked about his path of redemption for himself and healing for his family, I--in all my self-righteous glory--scoffed at how "in denial" he was. Did it ever cross my mind that maybe Ted Haggard had a more radical and personal view of God's grace and power than my own? It had been three years since the scandal. Did I ever think that maybe he really had experienced genuine repentence, forgiveness, and change? Nope. Pounding in my head over and over was this: "He's the problem with Christianity."

 I'm the problem.

He's a flawed man in a flawed world, and he screwed up big time. I know. He was held accountable. He apologized, and sought help. It should end there. That's where grace should take over. Who do I think I am to withhold grace from anyone? Yet, we do this with other people's sins, don't we? It's so much easier to throw stones at someone who doesn't fight the same demons we do.

"Well, maybe I have anger issues, but at least I'm not cheating on my wife."

"Yeah, so I gossip, but that's not such a big deal. It's not like I killed someone."

"I haven't tithed in years, but so what? I'm not robbing a bank or anything."

Psychologists call this downward social comparison, and it's a part of Social Comparison Theory that was established in 1954 by Leon Festinger. Initially, this theory stated that we tend to compare ourselves to our peers and similar others the most, but research since has indicated that we do it to people who are very different as well. The theory posits that we judge people to be better or worse than us in different areas to establish a place for ourselves in a heirarchy. Downward social comparison is a particularly defensive tendency used to elevate our self-esteem by looking for someone "worse off" than us in some way.

So, then, our judgements really aren't about the people we judge. They're about us.

Our identities.
Our insecurities.
Our flaws.


My tendency--and probably that of most people--is to do upward social comparisons to the people I respect or admire, and to gloss over (or at least easily forgive) their problems and faults; with people I don't like, my tendency is to downward social comparisons and, as much as I hate to admit it, judgement--even with people I don't know who screw up. It's not pretty. I know. Confessions usually aren't.

Elbert Hubbard said it best in one of my favorite quotes:
 "If men could only know one another, they would neither idolize nor hate."

It's true, isn't it?

It's easy to look down on agnostics until your close friend walks away from faith.

It's easy to despise drug addicts until you realize your father has been one most of your life.

It's easy to talk about all those "people just living off the system" until your childhood friend's husband leaves her and she has to support her son alone.

It's easy to shame a pastor who cheated on his wife, until your pastor and friend is in front of the church crying and asking for forgiveness.

Then, none of those judgements make sense any more, because these are people close to you.  I despise drug use, but I still love my father.  I hate adultery, but I had forgiven my pastor before I even walked out of the church the day of his confession. The distinction between someone's actions and who they are is much easier to make when he or she is right in front of you. It's so much easier to realize that when you're dealing with someone you care about. It shouldn't be, but it is.

 What I needed to understand is that somebody cares about Ted Haggard. God cares about Ted Haggard. I should care about Ted Haggard.

I'm not saying that we should pretend like these failures don't happen, or that they're okay, or not sin, or whatever. And I'm not saying we shouldn't be affected by them.  Being angry, hurt, disappointed--that's normal. It's part of processing. We need  to feel those things. And then we need to let it go. If we are to truly represent Jesus, this eating of our own has to be replaced with dining in the company of the broken, the sinners, the drug addicts, the adulterers, the Ted Haggards--because all of us will need to be dined with at some point in our lives.

Let's start.
I'm getting out the good china.


  1. good stuff, jess. thanks for sharing!

  2. What a good kick in the butt. Seriously good stuff! Hope you don't mind me sharing this!

  3. Been working way too many hours and haven't written anything on my blog nor have I had any time to read yours. And my profound comment is, WOW! I can't add anything else which would be suitable or worthwhile.


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