There's a phrase that's been stuck in my mind for the past few weeks. But first, a little background. I heard someone talk about the parable of the good Samaritan - a story from the New Testament (Luke 10:25-37 to be exact) in which an expert in the Law (that would be a religious scholar who has studied the Judaic law, including especially the 10 Commandments) asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.
As Jesus often did, he answered a question with a question which the man apparently handled with ease, boiling the 10 commandments down to 2: "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all our soul and with all your strength and with all our mind" (from Deuteronomy 6:5) and "love your neighbor as yourself" (from Leviticus 19:18). Jesus himself later brought these two together in answer to the question from His disciples concerning which is the greatest commandment. So, all is well and good. Jesus tells the expert that he is, in fact, correct and that if he does what he knows to do, he's good to go. The conversation could have been over before it really began.
BUT, it seems, the man is not satisfied yet. The text says, "wanting to justify himself..."
That's it. That's the phrase that I can't get out of my mind. So - I've been thinking about it. When do I want to justify myself? How do I do it? It's been an interesting few weeks as I've become PAINFULLY aware of this tendency to want to justify myself. I'm certainly not done thinking about it yet but I've noticed that there are times when the desire to have others think well of me leads me to want to justify myself. It's almost instinctive - I slip in a bit of information that will help them see a situation from MY perspective and with me as the hero in the scenario. I've noticed that there's quite an art to this sort of impression management and I often do it almost without thinking - at a sub-conscious level. It's not like I'm investing a lot of time or energy into this sort of self-justification - it's subtle and clever and effective and the bonus is, I can do it and people will still think that I'm very genuine! Even as I write this, I'm conscious of the fact that I may be trying to manipulate you into thinking that I'm honest and authentic and transparent. And the more I protest that I'm really not, the more convinced you will be that I am!
Which reminds me of another bible verse that has been stuck in my mind for about 20 years now. It's Jeremiah 17:9 which I once memorized in the King James Version: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" Now that's uplifting isn't it? Someone should warn us when we memorize those verses that they may haunt us for years! But I've come to the point where I'm wary of my own heart for this very reason - it IS deceitful. It keeps wanting to justify me - to myself, to others, to God.
But wanting to justify myself is not just about personal credibility and reputation. It occurs to me that there are all kinds of levels to this justification project. We want to justify ourselves as families, communities, churches, organizations, societies, ethnic groups - this is BIG. Advertisers play on this when they pitch their products. Political parties rely on it when they formulate election platforms. Governments rely on it when they need support for a particular course of action. Churches use it when they come up with mission and vision statements and five year plans and building campaigns. In previous postings I've talked about the overwhelming evidence that the lifestyles we "enjoy" in North America are exploiting the scarce resources of the earth and are condemning billions of people around the globe to lives of incredible hardship and poverty. But we can look at the figures and carry on - maybe making minor adjustments or giving a bit more to charity - because we are so good at justifying ourselves.
Here's the thing. Just because we can convince ourselves and maybe even those around us that we really are very good people - or good Christians - or good atheists - or good Muslims - or good Canadians - or good Americans - or good Germans - or good Iranians - or good Brits - whatever we are - that doesn't make it so.
Abraham Lincoln said: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." Society does have a conscience - we need to learn to listen to the voices which question our justifications - we need eyes to see and ears to hear.
If you've got a minute, check out the Millennium Development Goals for a quick refresher on some of the big issues in our world which - if you're like me - can be too often "out of sight, out of mind". Go to: http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/ and open your heart, mind and soul to the big picture... let's not be fooled into thinking that everything's ok or that nothing can be done!