The Sacrament of Ambiguity by Ed Burns

Many years ago, I had a conversation with a Congregational minister who told me about one of his favorite sermons. It was based on a book that was quite popular at the time, I’m OK – You’re OK by Thomas Anthony Harris. The book described several positions or personal stances we tend to assume in our relationships. One position would convey a certain air of superiority towards another person. That is, “I’m OK; you’re not OK.” A Gospel equivalent of this position could be illustrated by the story of the two men who went up to the Temple to pray. The first man spoke to God about all the wonderful things he did: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men, robbers, dishonest, adulterers, or even like this publican . . .” He looked down upon the other person whom he regarded as unrighteous in God’s sight. Of course, in God’s sight, according to Jesus, it was the second man, the one who prayed, “O Lord, be merciful to me a sinner,” who went away justified.

A second stance we can assume in our relationships with other people is just the opposite; namely, “I’m not OK; you are OK.” This is also a distortion of how we ought to regard ourselves in relationship to others and even in our relationship with God. It reflects an excessive sense of self-effacement and unworthiness and a poor self-image. It operates out of the feeling that everyone else is better or more intelligent or more talented than we are. Pushed far enough, this position can lead a person to become socially isolated and isolating; lonely, unhappy, depressed, and even resentful toward others. It is a very unhealthy way of being in the world, surely not the way that God intends.

The ideal relationship Harris describes is that people should regard themselves—and approach other people—as equals. That is, equal in dignity and worthiness. “I’m OK; you’re OK.” In such relationships, there is less likelihood or need for people to take positions of superiority or inferiority, less need for “the games people play” in their interactions, less need for the competitiveness or the pettiness that so often creeps into our social relations. In theory, at least, Harris was certainly onto something. In coining the expression, “I’m OK, you’re OK,” he was describing what mature adult relationships ought to be and how they should look. In practice, however, this stance is not always easy to achieve. We all carry within us certain biases and hidden agendas, sometimes hidden even from ourselves.

My friend said he would introduce a fourth model of human relationships—one which was never mentioned by Harris. It is a model that I would describe as theologically sound and much more in keeping with the Gospel message of the compassionate Jesus. This fourth model is: “I’m not OK; you’re not OK—but that’s OK!” This attitude clearly reflects what Jesus has taught us about ourselves, and what he lived out in his own life, when he said things such as: “I have come to call sinners, not the just. It is not the healthy who need the physician but the sick. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Let the wheat and the weeds grow up together lest pulling up the weeds you destroy the whole crop.”

For Jesus, people and their relationships were always a mixed bag, ambiguous, never completely clear, innocent, or certain. In the eyes of the religious leaders of his time, his greatest transgression was that he took away from them the security of knowing exactly where they stood in their relationships with God and with each other. He challenged their ability to make absolute judgments about each other, and even about themselves. He shared table fellowship with the outcasts, and marginalized, the unrighteous, with those considered to be outside the boundaries of appropriate religious piety and rules of behavior.

Jesus was not naïve in his interactions with the people of his time. As the Gospel of John says, “He knew what was in the heart of man.” He knew he was challenging the rigid, black-and-white, righteous-versus-unrighteous, “I’m-OK-you’re-not OK” religious legalities and standards of his contemporaries.

On the other hand, he was not so sentimental or liberally minded that he made no demands on others nor called them to task—or to conversion. He did not offer them what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called “cheap grace.” Jesus did not just forgive the woman caught in adultery; he told her to go and sin no more. He didn’t just say that discipleship would be a pleasant and comfortable way of life; he warned his followers that “in the world, you will have affliction.” He said, “The disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher.” That is our constant challenge: to be like the teacher, to be like Christ. Not an easy vocation, but one to which each of us is called.

So how did Jesus regard people? As being “OK,” with no need to change? Or as “not OK” and with a sense of shame and unworthiness? Did he regard everyone as being so naturally good and altruistic that they had no need to overcome their “shadow sides” and self-centered tendencies? Reinhold Niebuhr once characterized the latter form of ultra-liberal Christianity as “a God without wrath bringing men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without the cross.” We would do well to recall that the first words Jesus ever uttered in his public ministry were, “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus recognized that each of us has some work to do in order to be faithful to the teachings and values of the Gospel message and to be faithful to each other.

The main things Jesus did in the course of his life were, first, to show us how to live, and second, to promise that he would be with us always through the gift of his risen presence, calling us out of ourselves into a community of equal discipleship. He knew what was in the heart of man, but he also recognized the fundamental goodness that was in us and continually challenged us to live up to that goodness.

One of the historical errors of our Christian churches throughout the centuries has been the attempt to decide who stands in the right with God and who does not. These kinds of judgments have resulted in horrible things being done to people in the name of God, and not only to people of other religious beliefs. This is not just a historical problem but a contemporary one as well. It is surely not the way for a Christian people to be in the world. The words of Saint Augustine ought to humble us here: “Not everyone that the Church has does God have; and not everyone that God has does the Church have.”

I can appreciate what that Congregational minister said many years ago. A disciple of Jesus can legitimately, without fear or shame or duress, say, “I’m not OK, and you’re not OK, but (because of the infinite love and compassion and forgiveness that God has for us) that’s OK.”

Ed Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families.   

 

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