A certain phrase needs to be banished from our minds and our mouths: “Oh, I would never do that!”
Opportunities to say this abound when we hear about the mistakes of others: Tiger Woods’s extramarital affairs; Ben Affleck and Jennifer Gardner’s impending divorce; Josh Duggar’s incestual predations; Miley Cyrus and Lindsey Lohan’s antics; Justin Bieber’s fall from grace; Tom Brady’s out-of-wedlock child; Anthony Weiner’s massive infidelity; Adrian Peterson’s child abuse; Mel Gibson’s implosion; Bill Cosby’s shocking past; Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of minors; Hilary Clinton’s dishonest emails; the Catholic priesthood’s scandal of sexual abuse of minors; any woman getting an abortion (or any man who forces one); or, worst of all, the mistakes and struggles of our family members.
There are whole TV channels dedicated to broadcasting people’s mistakes – some of them easier to forgive, some of them deplorable. But, usually, in the back of our heads, we say, “What is wrong with people? I mean, I would never do something like that!”
Yes, you would. Yes, I would. Without God, there is absolutely nothing under the sun – no sin known to man – that I would not do. It’s nothing but pride to think that you are safe from any kind of disgustingly twisted sin because, “Well, I just don’t do that, I’m not that kind of person. That’s what ‘those people’ do, I’m too good to do that.” That is essentially to think that you are your own savior, which is, ironically, perhaps the worst of sins. If not for the Holy Spirit’s action in our lives and the Mercy of God that has saved us from the slavery of sin, all of us would be the worst of sinners.
Instead, every time we hear of others’ failures, our response ought to be sadness for sinners and their bondage to sin, tremendous hope for their future, gratitude to God’s saving work in our life and massive humility because, “But for the grace of God, there go I.”
One of the reasons this is so natural is because sin shocks us. But, really, we should never be shocked by the sin of our brothers or sisters, for the same reason we should never be shocked by our own. We are weak, broken, sinful people who have the capacity for every kind of evil. Just what is it that we think we do without God? Of course we sin!
The fact that you sin should not surprise you. Rather in a spirit of humbleness, you should be surprised that you don’t fall. If you are surprised or discouraged by your falls [or another’s], that means that you trusted in your own strength instead of allowing yourself to be carried in Jesus’ arms. (Fr. Tadeusz Dajczer)
To be scandalized by our sin or the sin of our neighbor is to have too high opinion of human capability. “Wait, we’re supposed to be better than this!” Yes, but we aren’t except for God’s movement in our lives. Aquinas goes so far as to say that being scandalized by our own sin is itself a sin. It is to think and believe and act as if we have earned some level of holiness that precludes us from sin. There is no way to earn any kind of holiness. It is pure gift – one we cooperate with, but, nonetheless, pure gift. Any way in which we have triumphed over sin in our lives is not because of us – our willpower, our strength, our talent.
This is really freeing. It bears the liberating mark of humility. Hopefully it does not lead us to the false humility of, “I am a sinner and thus total crap: unlovable and destined to sin,” (that’s not humility at all) but to real humility that says, “Yep, I am a sinner and capable of great evil: but God is real, He loves me and He really is bringing me from darkness to light.” Humility is freeing because it says, “There is light in me and, thank God, is does not come from me! I don’t have to earn it!”
This is the same for you and I and for every celebrity and person of ‘prominence’. Just because somebody is on TV doesn’t mean they are different. Therefore, once we have allowed ourselves to not be shocked by our own sin, we can more freely realize that our neighbor is not so unlike us – he’s not one of ‘those people,’ but someone who is also in need of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.