By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 3/09/12 in The Madera Tribune
A fictional little boy who was being punished studied his mother with fascination. Finally he asked, “Why are some of your hairs white, mom?”
Irked by the day and the reminder that a few strands of her hair were indeed turning gray, she replied, “Well, every time you do something wrong and make me upset or cry, one of my hairs turns white.”
He pondered this a long time and then said softly, “How come all of grandma’s hairs are white?”
I suspect many of us can easily forget the words of a Jewish rabbi spoken less than two millennia ago: “as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” (Matthew 7:2)
One needn’t wait until Judgment Day before God to discover the truth of this warning. In a different and far lesser sense, it occurs even now.
A 2010 psychology study by Dustin Wood, Peter Harms, and Simine Vazire concluded “how we perceive others in our social environments reveals much about our personality.”
How do our judgments expose us? As an ancient text on Jewish laws and history, the Talmud, said: “We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.”
In the study, university students were asked to rate the good and bad traits of acquaintances. Researchers found that those with more positive characteristics themselves, according to a self-rating and the opinions of others, were much more likely to see others positively.
Yet the sunnier students didn’t simply assume others were similar to themselves. Instead they were able to recognize good in others even if they did not share in it.
How positively students saw others also matched their own level of likability and their satisfaction with their own lives. In contrast, those who viewed acquaintances darkly were more likely to have a personality disorder, such as narcissism or depression.
The students were not merely tested once for this study. They were tested across a year, and surprisingly the results were stable. The fickleness of momentary moods didn’t seem to have an impact.
Nonetheless, I trust Jesus had something deeper in mind than psychology when he spoke long ago.
Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) of Savannah, Georgia, wrote popular short stories, novels, and more, often in a style known as Southern Gothic. The genre uses macabre twists to highlight the values of the U.S. South. Her tales often featured an ugly and morally flawed character who unpleasantly received God’s help to see more clearly.
She explained in a letter, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
You’ll never see her dramas illustrated by painter Thomas Kinkade or in television movies sponsored by a greeting card company. She confronted and challenged rather than soothed. But she was unapologetic and even defiant when faced with the critics of her day.
“Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter,” she said.
“Few have stared at that long enough to accept that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliche or a smoothing down that will soften their real look.”
Some, such as Pope Benedict XVI, would say the greatest danger to Christianity is we Christians, who wound self and others as we fall short of its ideals.
According to a vision by the apostle John, Jesus lamented those followers who were neither hot nor cold. He preferred either of those to the lukewarm, which he viewed as vomit worthy (Rev. 3:15-16).
That points to a deeper truth behind the admonition of Jesus to not be judgmental of others. How many Christians are truly and completely on fire for God? We should pray no one gets what he or she deserves from God, but rather that they receive God’s mercy — for that is our own best hope as well. We all sin.
As rock band Reliant K sang, “The beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.”
So how can we be hot and not lukewarm? With God’s daily help, love self and others as God loves you, and love God most of all.