Women in the Trenches: Carita Witmer, Los Angeles

January 12, 2015

The Things That Woman Gave Me

January 26, 2015

The Sweat-Grimed Poppies I Hold in my Hands

January 19, 2015

criminal with gunA criminal and I have one thing in common.

Like any good criminal, I view myself as a good person. Better than most others, probably.

“Perhaps the most surprising discovery in my early years of trying to understand the criminal mind was that, without exception, offenders regard themselves as good human beings,” writes Dr. Stanton Samenow, author of Inside the Criminal Mind. “No matter how long their trail of carnage, no matter what suffering they caused others, every one of them retained the view that he is a good person.”

“If I thought of myself as evil, I couldn’t live,” he quotes one murderer as saying. “Just because I killed someone doesn’t mean I’m a bad person,” stated another.

This mindset is not common only in the criminal world. The phenomenon of self-approbation is universal, and easier to detect in others than ourselves. Probably all of us have sat and listened to someone reiterate a long list of someone else’s offenses, and been all the while thinking, “Well, what about you?”

Or been scandalized by some story, only to hear the other side of the story later.

The majority of people, according to Muel Kaptein in his book Why Good People Sometimes Do Bad Things, “consider themselves more honest, more trustworthy, more ethical, more fair, more open and more helpful than average.”

There is another thing I have in common with a criminal: if I want to come to God, I must come in humility.

An ancient, bloody king, after committing adultery and murder and covered in remorse, sought to make amends and found there was none.

“You don’t desire sacrifice,” he wrote, “or else I would give it. You don’t delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, oh God, You will not despise.”

Too often–subconsciously perhaps–we measure our value to God by the good that we do, whether it’s in helping others or in obeying the tenets of a certain religion. These are our “sacrifices” and they give us a sense of security.

We are like children waving poppies–squished and grimy between our sweaty fingers–in the face of the queen of flowers.

She is surrounded by perfect petals and delicate blossoms. Their scent fills the air.

Our flowers are tarnished. The petals broken.

Jesus told a story once.

There were two men who went to a place of worship to pray.

They met at the door coming in. The one man neatly dressed: a family man, and his wife ironed his shirts. The other man whiskered and rough–a beard gives one presence without revealing too much. An embarrassing tattoo from his teen years covered by a shirt sleeve. He had thought he should, coming to church.

Jail had changed him, made him less self-assured.

They recognized each other.

His reputation gone for a slip-shod embezzlement, the family man thought. What a waste of a life.

They went in and sat down, the family man in his normal seat, mid-bench, the embezzler at the back. He felt uncomfortable.

The worship leader walked to the front, and the singing began. The family man lifted his hands.

I thank you, God, he prayed, beneath the words of the music, that I have been given good teaching and not ended up like so many others. The sight of his old acquaintance had moved him to pity, and he thought of others that he knew. Some dishonest in business practices, some caught by addictions, others committing adultery.

So many people care only about money and themselves. My old friend back there, money more important than honesty, and all that time in jail–was it worth it? I give to the poor; I live a clean life; I visit my children’s school.

Standing in the back, the embezzler did not join in the singing. He stared at the back of the bench ahead of him, and a line from the song caught his ear. An old song–he knew it from radio programs of his boyhood, and from chapel at the jail. Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

A sob rattled up from inside him, surprised him. He swallowed before it could surface. “God,” he whispered, beneath the music, “be merciful to me a sinner.”

When he walked out of the church building, he knew God had forgiven him.

The other man went home still holding his poppies, sweat-grimed, in his hands.

7 comments

  1. I like this. Truth. It reminds me of something my dad told me…”When people give you a compliment, it’s like they hand you a bouquet of flowers. You have a choice…you can either hang onto that bouquet and glory in it and yourself, or you can say, ‘Here God, this is Yours. You’re the One that really owns it.'” And though they be but pitiful poppies, He does.

  2. I am intrigued by the idea that most people think themselves better than average. That is mathematically impossible, not to mention laughable.

    Do you think it’s possible to fall into the ditch on the other side–to see yourself as much worse than other people?

    Is this also a form of pride? Or is it good to see yourself as nothing and broken and terrible?

    (I like to ask hard questions. You aren’t obligated to manufacture answers if you have none.) 🙂

    1. I don’t know if it’s possible to fall into the ditch on the other side or not!

      I know I’ve spent a lot of time in my life feeling inferior, but I’ve always had it mixed with a sense of, “They just don’t understand me.” I never lost a sense of intrinsic worth, and I never thought I was more sinful or wrong-headed than others. Never that.

      Inferiority only made me more self-aware. It had nothing to do with humility or brokenness.

      When I started to value myself more, I started to value others more also, and not be so crippled by self-image. So self esteem IS important.

      Is it possible to think yourself worse than other people? I don’t know!

      Pretty rare, anyway.

      I don’t think it would be good to constantly see yourself as nothing and broken and terrible, because in the light of the Word, that’s not how God views us.

      Redeemable and redeemed are the words that come to mind.

      1. Redeemable. I like that. Anyone and anything redeemable is not beyond hope.

        I’ll be honest: I struggle with feeling like I need to earn God’s favor because he couldn’t possibly love such an awful sinner as I am. I have a daughter who is exactly the same. She came to me the other day in tears after some bad behavior and said, “Mom, I’m such an awful person.” She went on to list, ruthlessly, all her weaknesses and struggles. It stunned me how insightful and harsh she was. She is only seven.

        But I’m not sure that this is the same thing as what you’re talking about here, because I can still battle feelings of superiority in areas where I am not as weak. The devil likes to get us any way he can.

        I think when I esteem God as I ought, when I see Him as the loving, merciful, just Father that He is, my “self” issues fade away.

        1. Yeah, I do identify with what you’re talking about, though I don’t think that’s so much my personal struggle.

          “I think when I esteem God as I ought…my “self” issues fade away.”

          Yes. And that is a huge commitment and growing process in itself.

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