If we make a list of the moments in our lives that have shaped us as individuals, our list will comprise good and bad things we’ve done. On the “Good List” might be getting married, having children, earning a degree. On the “Bad List” might be going through a divorce, betraying a friend, getting a DWI. Things we do, actions we take, alter the course of our lives. They shape us (and sometimes warp us) into the people we’ve become.
This is right. But it’s only half-right. There’s a whole other, darker side.
It’s not so much the things we’ve done (good and bad) that have profoundly molded us into the people we are, but the things we have not done. Indeed, I would argue that what we deem our worst deeds—the thing we do—are but the final and inevitable byproduct of years upon years of things we didn’t do. Or that others didn’t do for us.
- What did that wife not do, all those years, that led to her husband walking out after 25 years of marriage? And what did he not do that brought him to this point of betrayal?
- What did that father not do, all those years, that culminated in his children writing him out of their lives? And what did his children not do that made them so dishonor him?
- What did that boy not do, all those years, that led him to think sexually assaulting a girl was okay? And what did others—his family, his friends, his classmates—not do that helped create or reinforce an environment where such assaults happen?
These are uncomfortable, and potentially inflammatory, questions, but they need to be asked. Because it’s not enough simply to point fingers at others. God knows there’s more than enough of that.
The good we’ve left undone, the truth we’ve left unsaid, the love we’ve left ungiven, the attention we’ve left unshown, have a profound impact on those around us. And the more we contemplate the limitless array of these individual sins of omission, the more we have to face the hard truth that every good we’ve not done has helped to create or foster every evil done in our society today.
So ask yourself the questions you don’t want to ask, much less answer. Like: how far has the ripple effect of my own self-centered life extended? To my spouse? My children? My spouse’s friends and their spouses? My children’s friends? My coworkers? My coworkers’ families?
Consider the following scenario: Suppose I’m a boss who neglects to care for my employees. One of my workers, Carl, hates his job as a result. He works hard and I show him no respect. I don’t necessarily do any evil to him. I don’t yell at him, belittle or insult him. I just act like he’s a tool in my company, not a person. So Carl goes home every night half-angry, half-depressed, to his wife, Julie. Over time, their marriage suffers. He’s so stuck in his head that he neglects her. And, Julie, in turn, feels unloved and so neglects him. Their increasingly frigid marriage spills over into the kid’s lives, who carry the negativity to school around teachers, friends, and teammates.
It’s high time we acknowledge, in our culture of victimhood, that we are all perpetrators.
On and on the effects go. How far? Who knows? But this we do know: my sins of omission, as a boss, don’t stop at the door of the business. They leak into the marriage, the family, the school, the community. All of this not because of any outward evil action I’ve done, but the good I’ve left undone. My sinful DNA and iniquitous fingerprints are on the cubicle, the kitchen counter, and the school locker.
It’s high time we acknowledge, in our culture of victimhood, that we are all perpetrators. Perpetrators by omission. Failing to forgive and thus trapping others in cages of guilt. Failing to speak the truth and thus leaving others chained to lies. Failing to love, to be charitable, to put the best construction on situations, and thus leaving others wallowing in shame, neglect, and scandal. Failing to treat women as daughters of God, created in his image, queens of creation, and thus, by our omission, bolstering the twisted image of them as objects of lust and dominance and violence.
Until we can look in the mirror and see the person reflected therein as a particular embodiment of what’s wrong with the world, then we are living a lie.
Until we can look in the mirror and see the person reflected therein as a particular embodiment of what’s wrong with the world, then we are living a lie. Our fingerprints are all over the crimes of the world.
This acknowledgment, this confession, when faced with brutal honesty, is unbearable.
But it is not unredeemable.
This is where the church offers a unique gift to the world—one the world can never give itself. Because while we agree that we are all, every one of us culpable, we also offer a way out to the guilty. This “way out” is actually a “way in.” It’s the way in to a different mode of being, a different way of living in this world, a different way of seeing ourselves.
The Christian sees himself or herself as one just as guilty as the rest of the world. But we see ourselves not just as what’s wrong with the world, but in the One by whom the world has been redeemed. And that one, ironically, is the God who became everything that’s wrong with the world on our behalf.
The apostle Paul says that we preach Christ crucified. In other words, we preach the God who became our lack of love, became our sins of omission, became all the good we didn’t do, in order to do good for us and to us. That “good for us” is forgiveness for our failures as parents, spouses, bosses, friends. That “good for us” isn’t just a clean slate—as if we just needed a second chance to be decent people—but a slate on which is written all the good that Christ has done on our behalf.
This divine love, freely bestowed, is the only gift that can truly change the world. Laws won’t change hearts. Cultures of outrage won’t change hearts. Policy changes and political machinations won’t change hearts. And hashtag activism won’t change hearts, either. The only catalyst for inner change in the hearts of those who bear the image of God is incorporation into the image of God made flesh—Jesus Christ.
This particular man, this enfleshed God, is our only hope in this world for love, for peace, for wholeness, for living the lives we were created to have. To lose ourselves in him, so that he lives through us, loves through us, forgives and gives through us, is to see God at work, changing the world, in little and big ways, through his unrelenting hand of mercy.