A few weeks ago, during a Sunday afternoon chat with my siblings, the topic of Bernie Madoff came up. The discussion was winding down when my sister Liz concluded with a shake of her head, “I guess if something seems too good to be true, it really is.” Up until that point, I hadn’t said much, but as everyone else gravely nodded, I managed to squeak out, “Except Easter.”
Naturally, the faces they turned toward me were quizzical, and somehow I mumbled that Jesus’ resurrection and our chance at heaven are things that sound too good to be true yet actually are true. But my words sounded anemic and my face felt hot. My siblings smiled at me with loving indulgence, and we moved on to another subject. As you might guess, we don’t talk about religion much.
Though the conversation was short and my contribution clumsy at best, it did get me thinking about expectations: namely, people’s tendency to expect too much of ourselves and too little of God. When we see headlines about moral train wrecks like the Madoff scam or A-Rod’s steroid use, or when we finally realize just how rotten we’ve been acting lately, I believe the degree of our shock might indicate the amount of trust we place in people that should be placed in God.
Think about it. According to the gospels, Matthew was a dirty crook who exploited the poor and Peter was a two-faced coward who wouldn’t even admit he knew Jesus when the going got tough. Today, they’re saints. Churches are named after them; Christians around the world read their testimonies and hope to become more like them. How did that happen?
The people in Alcoholics Anonymous can tell you. In the seventh of the twelve steps, people in recovery “humbly asked God to remove their shortcomings.” Alcoholics who have hit bottom have learned that gritting their teeth and vowing to do better just doesn’t cut it, but countless of recovering alcoholics promise them that getting down on their knees and begging for help works. The only thing more powerful than the most powerful addiction, it seems, is the God who made a Virgin pregnant and then brought her Son back to life after every drop of blood had been drained out of Him.
I believe I can measure my progress as a person by how little surprised I am when I mess up. If I agonize, bang my head, and say, “I can’t believe I did that!” I am way off the mark. After all, Why can’t I believe I did that? Haven’t I done that, and worse, a hundred times before? Who do I think I am, anyway? What I should say is, “Yes, I did that, and it was wrong. I’m human; humans screw up. And, dear God who made Matthew an evangelist and Peter a pope, if You don’t help me, I will definitely do it again.”