1 John 3:1-7
"See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous."
Prayer – God of grace, the world tells us that we have to succeed, we have to prove ourselves, we have to get ahead no matter the costs. It seems that no matter where we turn we are facing how well we measure up. Remind us this day, that our identity, our essence is grounded in being your beloved and that no matter how good we are, or how lawless, we remain your beloved – amen.
We can’t escape the struggle to be good enough, can we? It chases us everywhere we go. The church has made a business out of it, almost as much as the army with its campaign, ‘to be all you can be.’ Our text this morning begins with the declaration that we, all of us, no matter the color of our skin, the ethnicity of our lives, our faith tradition, all of us are children of God. This is not just wishing or pretending, we are what God declares us to be. God lovingly calls us God’s children, and that declaration makes it so. We are God’s children not by our choice, or by our accomplishments, but by the love that God has and declares.
One day this past week Valerie and I were walking out at the north campus around the track and I asked her the theological question – “Why do you suppose so many people struggle with the idea of being ‘good enough’?” She paused for a few moments and responded from the theological standpoint of thinking that in many ways it is connected to the whole notion of the “fall” in the Garden of Eden story. The idea that God would punish people so severely for breaking one arbitrary rule seems to have created a general sense of never being good enough for all of humankind.
As we all have grown older, we have encountered many instances of people doing what they thought God had done in Genesis, rejecting someone for making a mistake, for not being perfect, for not being good enough. As I walk the halls of the hospital I hear countless numbers of stories of people who struggle with not being good enough. Literally thousands of therapists hear on a daily basis from their clients the seemingly human struggle with being good enough.
Rabbi Harold Kushner shares that each year he gazes out at a synagogue filled to overflowing, every seat taken, people standing in the aisles, for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day on which Jews fast and pray that God forgive their shortcomings and send them forth cleanses to begin a New Year. Men and women who attend no other service during the year come to this one. Religion and conscience have given us the message that we have not always been the people we should have been, that we somehow, someway just aren’t good enough, and so it is religion that so many people turn to for a message of forgiveness and acceptance.
As part of our weekly liturgy we have a prayer of the day in which a portion of the prayer acknowledges our need for grace and forgiveness. This is always preceded with the reminder to me, and hopefully to you, that first and foremost, no matter whether we are good enough in our daily journeys, that God is a God of love and grace. This prayer is always followed by a moment for each of us to silently reflect upon the week. Closing this portion of our weekly liturgy is an assurance that no matter what we are loved and forgiven.
The church, religion, sermons, books, messages speak repeatedly of our failings, our neglect of our faithful duties, our hard-heartedness toward others. For many of us, we don’t have to come to church to be told that we aren’t good enough – we know that all too well. Perhaps the most important message each of us can take from our time together on Sunday’s is the assurance that no matter how good we are, or how bad we may be, our misdeeds have not, cannot, will never separate us from God’s love. Too often the church has focused a lot of energy on judgment, perceived as God’s judgment, when all too often it is the judgment of the folks down the pew or in the pulpit that is really happening.
Even acknowledging the church’s spiritual abuse and judgment, there seems to be something in the human soul that causes us to think less of ourselves due to some belief that we just aren’t good enough. It may be the result of parents who expected too much of us, or of teachers who took for granted what we did right and fastened instead on everything we did wrong. It may be because folks in church preached time and time again that we had to be perfect just as Christ was perfect or God would kick us right into hell. Unfortunately all too frequently the church has focused more energy and shouted louder about how we aren’t good enough, rather than offering the liberating message that God finds us worthy of God’s love no matter what we do, or don’t do.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, a physician, describes how psychologist Carl Rogers would approach every counseling session, “There is something I do before I start a session. I let myself know that I am enough. Not perfect. Perfect wouldn’t be good enough. But that I am human, and that is enough. There is nothing this person can say or do or feel that I can’t feel myself. I can be with them. I am enough.” Dr. Remen adds, “I was stunned by this. It felt as if some old wound in me, some fear of not being good enough, had come to an end. I knew inside myself that what he said was absolutely true. I am not perfect, but I am enough. Knowing that . . . allows healing to happen.”
Not everyone is that wise, to know that they are good enough even if they aren’t perfect. There are a lot of people in the world walking around feeling they are not good enough, feeling disappointed in who they are and not believing they deserve to be loved. We seem to make people feel inadequate wholesale and then try to cheer them up one at a time, but the cure never seems to catch up with the extent of their affliction.
Rather than affliction, I have begun to wonder if that feeling of being ‘good enough’ is not in fact our human sin, our human lawlessness that our scripture writer alludes to this morning. My experience as pastor and chaplain has taught me that much of our unhappiness as people is burdened by, much of the guilt, much of the sense of having been cheated by life, stems from one of two related causes – either someone along the way gave us a message that we aren’t good enough, Or, we have come to expect and need more than people around us could realistically deliver. It is the notion that we were supposed to be perfect, and that we could expect others to be perfect because we needed them to be, leaving us feeling constantly guilty, or ashamed, and perpetually disappointed.
Perhaps our common human sin, that stain if you will, could be traced to this mistaken notion – we need to be perfect for people to love us, for God to love us, and we forfeit that love if we ever fall short of perfection. There are few emotions more capable of leaving us feeling bad about ourselves than the conviction that we don’t deserve to be loved. There are few ways more certain to generate that conviction than the idea that every time we do something wrong, or that we aren’t good enough, we give God and people closest to us reasons not to love us. When we let ourselves be defined in our own minds by our worst moments instead of our best ones, we learn to think of ourselves as people who will never be good enough, rather than as people who make an occasional, thoroughly human mistake and thus, are unworthy of God’s love.
When religion, the church, teaches us that one mistake is enough to define us as sinners and consequently puts us at risk of losing God’s love, then none of us can possibly be good enough. If nothing short of perfection will permit us to stand before God; then none of us have a snowball’s chance. Under this definition of good enough, our lives become dominated by feelings of fear and guilt and these two don’t bring out the best of any of us – they drain the joy out of life and make us utterly miserable.
The tension held in our scripture passage this morning of being beloved and good enough is a perfect metaphor to remind myself, and consequently you get reminded as well, and that is this; as people who struggle with the whole notion of ‘good enough’, I, we, need to be reminded, assured, that even when we don’t feel we deserve to be loved, God loves us anyway because God is a loving and forgiving God who knows us to well to expect more from us than we are capable of being, and that is good enough.
There was a young Episcopal priest who struggled his whole life with this idea of being good enough. He says he thought he had to be perfect for people to love him – parents, teachers, God. So he spent his entire life trying to measure up to, to be good enough, to get that love. But as he lay dying of AIDS in the hospital, he said he had an insight he needed to share with his congregation before he died. That insight: “God knows what I’m like and God doesn’t hate me, so I don’t have to hate myself. God knows what I have done and God loves me anyway. The lesson my illness has taught me is ‘you don’t have to be perfect. Just do your best, and God will accept you as you are. Don’t expect your children to be perfect. Love them for their faults, for their trying and stumbling, even as our God in heaven loves us.”
God doesn’t need us to meet God’s needs, and God’s expectations of us are more realistic than are those of the people around us. God loves the overweight woman as much as the slender one, the stumbling youngster as much as the athletically gifted one, the frustrated salesperson as much as the more successful rival. In fact, God may love them more, because of the pain they, God’s children, have endured at the hands of others of God’s children, and because shame, ‘the wound that lets God in,’ has broken through the armor of perfectionist pretense and opened their souls to God’s steadfast love and presence. God accepts us just as we are, good enough and not good enough. God never ever writes us good enough children off. That is why we are God’s beloved and good enough children, each and every day – thanks be to God – amen.