It has been my experience that the line between admitting that we are in need of forgiveness and repentance and celebrating God's gracious and transformative gifts offered freely to us can be a very fine one on which to balance. I could tell stories about my brief dip into a more evangelical expression of faith that greatly emphasized one's own sinfulness, sometimes in damaging and hurtful ways; many others have similar tales as well. I could also point to those within my own tradition who have critiqued what they have seen as an overemphasis on grace to the point where there is little change that takes place in the life of the individual; nothing that moves one from admitting one's wrong behavior and attitude toward reforming it to be more in line to what Jesus calls us to be in the world.
Move too far toward a focus on sinfulness, and you can do real harm to people. Move too far toward a focus on grace, and you risk forgetting the effect that it is meant to have on people.
I had this line and the tricky balance that it brings in mind as I began to read The Truth About Us: The Very Good News about How Very Bad We Are by a longtime favorite of mine, Brant Hansen. Brant is a radio host, sometimes-blogger, advocate, and musician whose offbeat observations about life, faith, and the church can be insightful and hilarious at the same time. This combination has served him well in previous books, and so I was interested in how he would approach an issue that immediately risks alienating people.
This risk is illustrated by the very beginning of the first chapter, where he first quotes Psalm 14:3 ("there is no one who does good, not even one") and then follows that up with this:
Dear Everybody,Those still trying to shed baggage from a bad brush with Christianity may be tempted to put the book down right then, if they hadn't already placed it back on the shelf after reading the subtitle. I don't blame them. But if one strives ahead, one may be able to see that Hansen's intentions are far from wanting to beat people over the head with their own flaws. Instead, his interest is more in trying to get people to consider that maybe we're not as great as we think we are.
We have a serious problem:
Al of us think we're good people.
But Jesus says we're not.
Brant P. Hansen
The rest of the first chapter, for instance, references a series of polls taken where a majority of respondents rate themselves as smarter, friendlier, more ambitious, but also more humble than the average person. He uses this data to make the case that we tend to rate ourselves as better than others, which can easily move us toward a self-righteousness that in reality can work against the high opinions that we hold about our own thoughts and actions.
As another example, chapter 3 is about pantyhose. No, really. Hansen cites a study where researchers stood outside a department store and asked people which of four pantyhose samples were the best. The secret was that they were all exactly the same, and yet even after respondents chose one and then were let in on the trick, they still would insist that their choice was superior. They refused to change their minds because they wanted to be correct. We are often convinced of our own rightness to such a high degree, Hansen argues, that we won't change it even when presented with an objectively correct counter-argument.
Hansen often cites studies and examples like these through his book, which I found very effective and a gentle way of getting people to see what he's talking about. He also discusses examples from scripture, particularly from Jesus and his interactions with people who thought they were much better than everyone else. One profound example that he uses is when he applies Jesus' act of foot-washing to a real experience that he had in Costa Rica, where he washed the feet of another person in his group. The longer he washed, he said, the more concerned he felt for the recipient. This humble action began to cause real change for him in that moment, making him more considerate toward another.
The longer I read, the more I realized that this book is not about guilting people into feeling bad about themselves. Well, in a way it is that. But more specifically it is a book meant to encourage the reader to consider their own self-righteousness, their own lack of humility, their own self-illusions about themselves, especially in comparison to others.
With a gentle touch that I have long known and appreciated him for, Hansen makes the case that we're not as great as we think we are. And admitting that is the first step in pursuing what we truly could be doing better, both for our own sake and for others. It turned out that this book is less about the line, and more about our tendency to enforce it by our own self-selected criteria.
The Truth About Us releases on April 21st.
(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own.