We are better and worse than we think

Our own complexity can be befuddling. We are better than we think and worse than we imagine, too hard and too easy on ourselves all at the same time. We are a curious mix.

Jun 15, 2024


Spiritual Reflection - Fr Ron Rolheiser

Our own complexity can be befuddling. We are better than we think and worse than we imagine, too hard and too easy on ourselves all at the same time. We are a curious mix.

On the one hand, we are good. All of us are made in the image and likeness of God and are, as Aristotle and Aquinas affirm, metaphysically good. That’s true, but our goodness is also less abstract. We are good too, at least most of the time, in our everyday lives.

Generally, we are generous, often to a fault. Despite appearances sometimes, mostly we are warm and hospitable. The same is true in terms of the basic intent in both our minds and our hearts. We have big hearts. Inside everyone, easily triggered by the slightest touch of love or affirmation, lies a big heart, a grand soul, a magna anima, that’s itching to be altruistic. Mostly the problem isn’t with our goodness, but with our frustration in trying to live that out in the world. Too often we appear cold and self-centered when we’re only frustrated, hurt, and wounded.

We don’t always appear to be good, but mostly we are; though often we are frustrated because we cannot (for reasons of circumstance, wound, and sensitivity) pour out our goodness as we would like, nor embrace the world and those around us with the warmth that’s in us. We go through life looking for a warm place to show who we are and often don’t find it. We’re not so much bad as frustrated. We’re more loving than we imagine.

But that’s half of it, there’s another side: we’re also sinners, more so than we think. An old Protestant dictum about human nature, based on St. Paul, puts it accurately: “It’s not a question of are you a sinner? It’s only a question of what is your sin?” We’re all sinners, and just as we possess a big heart and a grand soul, we also possess a petty one (a pusilla anima). At the very roots of our instinctual make-up, there’s selfishness, jealousy, and pettiness of heart and mind.

Moreover, we are often blind to our real faults. As Jesus says, we easily see the speck on our neighbor’s eye and miss the plank in our own. And that generally makes for a strange irony, that is, where we think we are sinners is usually not the place where others struggle the most with us or where our real faults lie. Conversely, it’s in those areas where we think we are virtuous and righteous that often our real sin lies and where others struggle with us.

For example, we’ve have forever put a lot of emphasis on the sixth commandment and haven’t been nearly as self-scrutinizing in regard to the fifth commandment (which deals with bitterness, judgments, anger, and hatred) or with the ninth and tenth commandments (that have to do with jealousy). It’s not that sexual ethics are unimportant, but our failures here are harder to rationalize. The same isn’t true for bitterness, anger, especially righteous anger, nor for jealousy. We can more easily rationalize these and not notice that jealousy is the only sin for which God felt it necessary to write two commandments. We are worse than we imagine and mostly blind to our real faults.

So where does that leave us? In better and worse shape than we think. If we could recognize that we’re more lovely than we imagine and more sinful than we suppose, that could be helpful both for our self-understanding and for how we understand God’s love and grace in our lives.

Aristotle says, “two contraries cannot co-exist within the same subject”. He’s right metaphysically, but two contraries can (and do) exist inside of us morally. We’re both good and bad, generous and selfish, big-hearted and petty, gracious and bitter, forgiving and resentful, hospitable and cold, full of grace and full of sin, all at the same time. Moreover, we’re generally too blind to both, too unaware of our loveliness as well as of our nastiness.

To recognize this can be humbling and freeing. We are loved sinners. Both goodness and sin make up our identity. Not to recognize this truth leaves us either unhealthily depressed or dangerously inflated, too hard or too easy on ourselves. The truth will set us free, and the truth about ourselves is that we’re both better and worse than we picture ourselves to be.

Robert Funk once formulated three dictums on grace which speak to this. He writes:


*Grace always wounds from behind, at the point where we think we are least vulnerable.
*Grace is harder than we think: we moralize judgment in order to take the edge off it.
*Grace is more indulgent than we think: but it is never indulgent at the point where we think it might be indulgent.

We need to be both easier and harder on ourselves – and open to the way grace works.

(Oblate Fr Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He writes a weekly column that is carried in over 90 newspapers around the world. He can be contacted through his website www. ronrolheiser.com)

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