The Differences That Make No Difference
Introduction: How We Judge Others
In 2009 I entered the field of Marriage and Family counselling. I had studied individual counselling way back in the 1980s, but now I decided to get upgraded into what had been described to me as the ‘gold standard’ in the counselling field. Between courses and supervised counselling and my own reading, there was lots to learn.
One of the interesting things I came across was something called the “Theory of Attribution”, which sounds to me like a simple observation, dressed up as a psychological theory. At any rate it sounds like this:
When explaining their own ‘negative’ behaviour, people often point to external circumstances, whereas people often explain the negative behaviour of other people in terms of the other person’s own inner character or personality.
So a child walks into a glass wall, say at a restaurant, some people might assume that he’s clumsy, or inattentive. The parent might say, “Junior, watch where you’re going!” Now if we walk into the same glass wall, we’d be more likely say, “I didn’t see it. They should put some mark on it.” That is, it wasn’t me, there’s nothing deficient about me, I’m not clumsy (like that kid over there).
Or, if we neglect to include some small amount on our tax return, it’s because it was so little, but let someone else do the same, and we might conclude they’re engaging in tax evasion.
As I eased into the practice of marriage counselling, I was intrigued to see this kind of explanation happening – all the time! Couples would come armed with accusations and explanations.
She works hard around the house all day, but when he comes home from work, all he wants to do – according to her - is to put his feet up! Notice, ‘he’ is being accused of being deficient in character. His defence, as you might guess, is that he is simply tired after a long day of work. His character is beyond question; he’s simply exhausted.
Or, he is a good husband (according to him), but she went and publicized details of their most intimate struggles. His conclusion? She is deficient in character. Her defence is that she has nobody else to talk to about these things, so rather than talking to their friends (how noble of her!), she asked an expert – who just happened to be on a talk show.
This kind of explanation isn’t limited to arguing couples. I began to hear it in all kinds of conversations. That man at work who constantly argues with the boss; obviously he’s a trouble-maker who can’t accept his subordinate role. Or, that woman micro-manages everybody in the office. However, if you ask that man or woman to explain their behaviour, you’ll hear how capable they are, and how frustrating it is that others refuse to do the obvious, because they’re “lazy”.
As one writer put it, we tend to canonize ourselves, and demonize others. Seriously, I have sometimes been shocked after hearing one spouse going on and on about the other who hasn’t yet come in to a session. And then, armed with decades-worth of insight and suffering, I finally met the offending spouse – the nicest person you’d ever want to meet, and reasonable! And I’ve sat there, wondering, “Do I have the right file? This couldn’t be the monster I’ve been hearing about!”
Not surprisingly, this tendency to think well of ourselves and a little less of others isn’t something recent in human history. In fact, Paul mentions such a group of people in the early chapters of his letter to the Romans. Paul not only mentions this one group, but a few other groups which he eventually includes in the ‘all humanity’ type of summary we read about in today’s key verse,
“So that He [God] might show mercy to all”.
What I’d like to do is to put our quarreling couple on hold, to step back into the past, and look briefly at the different groups Paul weaves into his discussion, and what he does with them. Then I’ll step back into the present with how this may help us in how we see ourselves, and others, in relation to God.
The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly
Paul’s concern in Romans is to argue that all of humanity has failed to live up to God’s standards, so God has done the one thing on behalf of all humanity. In the gospel, God provided a way so that every kind of person could be freely reconciled to God. Paul is concerned to argue that there’s only one solution to the problem of how all of humanity can come into relationship with God.
Getting his readers to all agree that there’s only one problem for all of humanity, and therefore only one solution applicable equally to all, was a challenge for Paul. The challenge was that not everyone thought they had a problem, maybe somebody else had a problem, but they didn’t have a problem. It wasn’t just individuals, entire groups had this same point of view.
There were the culturally different groups. In Romans, there were a few times that Paul refers to ‘the Jews and the Greeks’. For example, in 1:16 he says the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Far more often in this letter, Paul speaks about the Jews, and the Gentiles. While the Greeks were a specific nation, the Gentiles were basically all the non-Jewish nations. These cultural differences were hugely important in the first century, and for many Jews this made a big difference with respect to who was ok, and who wasn’t.
Besides this cultural difference, Paul emphasised moral differences, namely between the moral person, and the immoral. For the sake of speaking about the gospel, Paul combines these cultural and moral differences into three groupings. I’ve nick-named Paul’s groups as the morally good, the morally bad, and the morally ugly. Again, for many of Paul’s readers, these differences made a big difference with respect to who was ok, and who wasn’t. Close to be beginning of his letter, Paul starts with the morally ugly.
This first group, found in Romans 1:18 – 32, are those who not only know that they’re morally bad, but they heartily encourage others to do wrong as well. Paul’s description is probably taken from Jewish writings done a few centuries earlier about highly immoral Gentiles. These people were morally ‘ugly’, and Paul’s readers would easily agree that these people were definitely ‘under sin’.
Unlike the first group, Paul’s second group (2:1 – 16) condemns wrong-doing in others. Paul includes both moral Jews and moral Gentiles in this group. The challenge with this group is that they themselves are still guilty of doing wrong. They reflect the human tendency to be critical of everybody except themselves. They are like those who ‘canonize themselves while demonizing others’. All those experiences I mentioned in my introduction sound suspiciously like this, but on an individual level. They condemn others, but they’re not so good themselves, there is a bit of bad happening. So I’ll name this not-so-good group as the morally ‘bad’.
In Paul’s last group (2:17 – 29) he doesn’t include Gentiles. Instead he specifically focuses on the overly religious Jew. This is the self-righteous person, the “good” person, who believes that religious practices alone are enough to be ‘ok’ – with God. This type of person was exemplified in the teaching of Jesus in the parable we read earlier. Recall how that Pharisee, in his prayer to God, expressed how thankful he was that he so different from others who are morally ‘ugly’ – “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” – and then he speaks about his religious habits, including fasting twice a week and giving a tenth of his income.
Paul aims to include every kind of person in his presentation of the gospel. In order to do this, he has discussed these three groups: the clearly wrong, those who condemn others, and those who believe their religious practices exempt them from the regular moral requirements of ordinary people. Paul’s point regarding these different groups, as he puts it in Romans 3:23, is to assert that “there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This is same point being made in the key verse for today: “God has shut up all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (v 32). To change my ‘good-bad-ugly’ naming a bit, Paul has argued that the religiously good, the morally questionable, and the morally ugly – all alike are in need of God’s mercy.
So far we’ve seen how Paul described all of humanity along cultural lines, and also along moral lines. But he doesn’t stop there. At another place in Romans Paul makes use of yet another three different ways people could be described as being in relation to God. In 5:6–10 he puts it this way:
6 while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… 8 while we were still sinners Christ died for us.. 10 … while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son…
Again, all of humanity could be placed into three groups: the weak and ungodly, the more habitual sinner, and those at out-and-out enmity with God. Paul actually identifies with all three groups.
Overall, I think it’s true that we human beings have an infinite way of seeing or making up differences, ways of describing, ways of distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’. But no matter how we slice up the pie of humanity, the Christian gospel is for the whole pie, that is – all of humanity, without distinction. When it comes to God, our differences make no difference. The large picture is expressed in an early Christian confession found in 1 Timothy 2:5-6:
There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humanity,
Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.
Here we have the cosmic drama: on the one hand there is God, and the other – all of humanity. Between God and humanity there is only one mediator – Jesus Christ. This is the Christian gospel.
The Prayer of Confession: or Going From “Me” to “We”
So we left our couple quarreling on the counsellor’s couch, unhappily accusing each other with a variety of wrongs. But now we can see how this divisive ‘me’ focus can be put onto a larger context; the canvas of ‘we’ - as in all of humanity. No matter how you divide humanity up, before God we are a whole group. If we describe humanity along the lines of moral differences, one person might be in the morally ugly group, and another in the moral but self-justifying group. If we describe humanity along the lines of religious practices, some might belong to a group which avoid excessive wrongs, and engage in many religious practices. And there are other ways to describe differences within humanity. In Galatians 3:28 Paul spoke to those who “were baptized into Christ,” saying, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Here we see another partial list of cultural, economic, and sexual differences. Again the point is that these differences, as real as they are, don’t make any difference when it comes to our relating to God.
How can this way of viewing ourselves and others as an inseparable part of humanity as a whole help us when it comes to the challenges of living with other people? I wish to briefly mention two points here, which actually relate to our usual practice of corporate worship.
Firstly, consider our custom every Sunday with respect to the Prayer of Confession. Why do we all join in reading the Prayer of Confession together? Unfortunately, it’s because there’s something in there for everyone. Confession is a time when we tell the truth, to God. Consider a few situations. Maybe you’ve clearly done wrong. You made it worse by initially condemning the other person, and excusing yourself. Wow, are you in trouble! This is what many of us might think of when we think of Confession.
However, since we’re gathered together with ‘all humanity’ as it were, I’d like to add more situations for our consideration. Perhaps you’ve suffered a wrong. The other person is clearly wrong, condemns you, and excuses himself, or herself. In the Prayer of Confession, you can name the ways in which others have made you suffer. Remember, you’re standing before God, as a fellow sinner. Nevertheless, this can be part of truth telling. Another situation might occur when not only were you wronged, but you made things worse by doing even more wrong. This could bring us very close to counselling with disgruntled couples, but unfortunately I’m close to the end of my sermon. Simply to say that doing counselling might proceed a whole lot differently if it was done during the Prayer of Confession.
Secondly, we customarily take part in the Lord’s Supper. This is the good news part of the bad news of the gospel. As Paul argues, no matter how we might elevate one group over another, all of humanity is ‘under sin’ before God. But God’s purpose isn’t to make all of us feel bad, as opposed to merely some of us. His purpose is - as our key verse points out - so that He can show mercy to all. In the Lord’s Supper we consider the other part of this ‘all’, the new creation, the new humanity the God is creating. A humanity where the differences don’t make any difference when it comes to relating to either God, or to others. The ‘others’ could be individuals different from ourselves, or groups different from ourselves. The goal is not to obliterate differences; the goal is to be reconciled to God and to each other.
I started with the observation that we can so easily ‘canonize ourselves while demonizing others.’ Somehow I find in this vision of all humanity a softening of such a tendency. There is something in being gathered together before God in Confession that smooths the hard edges of even legitimate complaints, and can even encourage acceptance of enemies, as we are directed in the teachings of Christ.
“God has shut up all in disobedience, so that He may show mercy to all.”