In adolescence we often believe (at least subconsciously) that all the good that has come to us is there on account of our own worthiness, while all the bad things are the result of the failings of those who reared us. The first day of spiritual adulthood truly begins when one realizes, not so much that everyone in the world is innocent, but rather that while we were spending our time assessing the faults of others, we ourselves were accruing a sizable debt.
In the past (or so it seemed), people tended to grow out of this behavior relatively quickly, after all, who would really have the time or patience for this kind of self-pitying narcissism? Today, unfortunately, this “victim culture” is somehow thriving and has much more of a market (as well as an audience).
Somewhere along the line we have taught this generation how to confess everyone else’s sins, but have forgotten the most important lesson (viz. how to confess their own). We have practically given them trophies for existing, while simultaneously teaching them to despise the ones who have given it to them. This modern day Pharisee has no problem dismissing virtues that have been embraced for the past three thousands years, while elevating to the level of unchanging dogma terms that were invented in the previous month.
Practically speaking, this has become a total nightmare for everyday communication. For who knows where and when all of these verbal landmines will be detonated. Indeed, what was once thought to be a pleasantry has inexplicably become an insult. What was once thought to be an act of chivalry is now an act of sexual aggression. And what was once thought to be a simple attempt at humor has now become grounds for firing. This is not to say that there are no examples out there of behavior that is worthy of condemnation; however, the following video should make it quite clear just how far we’ve taken this “art” of being offended by everything:
One has always been able to find people in society who will say just about anything in front of a camera, but what makes our times particularly unique is that the people that are speaking in this video (and the following one) are quite sober and reasonable in their assessment of these issues.
The question is: what has inspired this self-centered obsession with how others have failed us? Let us first consider Jesus’ rather ironic saying about the danger of judging others; “You hypocrite, first take the beam out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from the eye of your brother” (Matthew 7:5).
Here Jesus is describing something that is a physical impossibility, namely the reality of an entire plank/log of wood being lodged into the eye of a human being. The purpose of this hyperbole is to make a point about how hypocrisy distorts and disfigures our perception of the world around us.
In other words, when we enthusiastically set ourselves up as the supreme judge of the goodness of others, we are so comically off base that we are worthy of a kind of satirical mockery (and so Jesus in essence does just that). At any rate, if we had even an ounce of humility we might see just how merciless and disproportionate our judgments are under these circumstances (an idea that is embodied in this saying).
Yet the point here is less about what our neighbor did or didn’t do, and more about our own failure to recognize what needs correcting in ourselves. By neglecting this essential discipline, the faults of others become significantly (and mysteriously) magnified. As we become more innocent in our own eyes, others become increasingly guilty. It’s magic!
In the meantime, we are so preoccupied with our campaign of perfectibility, that we progressively find ourselves incapable of even listening to such “offensive” personages, fearing that even the sound of their voice might taint us. Consequently, not only are we offended by most everything, but we go about looking for further opportunities of being offended, like some child in the first grade (or Pharisee) taking pleasure in tattling. Indeed, these hypocrites love the sin, but hate the sinner.
However, what Jesus is saying here is not merely that personal hypocrisy is a bad thing, but rather even more importantly, that self-recrimination is something which is good and necessary. To put it another way, if we do ponder our faults and failings before launching into an attack on others, we may well see their faults in the proper proportion (faults that are quite frequently more forgivable than we first thought), an initiative that might genuinely lead to the resolution of the problem as opposed to a shouting match.
There is a tremendous difference between pointing out failings and trying to resolve them. In this case, Jesus isn’t simply looking for his followers to have a proportionate response to the wrongs committed by others, but an attitude of remedying the situation. To remove a splinter from someone takes tremendous caution and care (I think of a mother trying to remove a tiny splinter with tweezers), not the reckless bluster that we often bring to these occasions.
For these reasons (and many more), the Sacrament of Penance is needed more than ever today. Where else in our society is this form of self-accusation encouraged? Where else do we encourage individuals as a practice to critique themselves? To many individuals today, such criticism amounts to masochism, or a kind of self-harm, but to the one who practices it in reasonable measure, it is the key to seeing everything, including ourselves, in the proper light.
According to Scripture, before we can take an account of anyone else’s transgressions, we must take a full accounting of our own. And if after we’re done judging ourselves with sufficient care and circumspection we still have the strength to pick up stones and hurl them at others, then we should proceed with utmost caution, knowing that we too must be forgiven for our failings.
However, if (on the other hand) you find yourself a little less ferocious and little more humble after examining your conscience, you may want to use the rest of your strength to figure out how to heal a particular situation as opposed to exacerbating it.
By pointing the finger at ourselves before blaming others, and by marshaling our efforts towards a regimen of self-improvement, we develop a healthy sense of conscience. This is not to be confused with a destructive negativity which seeks to turn everything into a sin, as our “victim culture” is wont to do, but rather to turn every moment into an opportunity to be the best version of ourselves.
As an adult, there are far fewer opportunities for genuine self-critique (in childhood it is built into the natural framework of things), but by developing a gentle spirit of self-examination, we can learn to hold ourselves to account and work towards improvement. In Confession we get to observe the plank in our own eye, because we actually stand outside of ourselves and see our lives “flashing before our eyes”. We take, as it were, a God’s eye view. It is a judgment day of sorts, but on the bright side, when we take the initiative to call ourselves out first, we know that the story will end in our favor.
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