Friday, February 01, 2008

Pride, Humilty and Accountability

In 1976, then candidate Jimmy Carter gave a famous interview with Playboy magazine. In the interview, the soon-to-be president admitted, “I've looked on a lot of women with lust.” Over the subsequent years, many have giggled at Carter’s confession, but I was impressed with his refreshing humility. I had never read the interview, and frankly, I didn’t particularly care. Nonetheless, James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal’s opinion website (here and here) referenced the interview twice this week. The first was a poor attempt at humor. The second was an attempt to criticize Carter’s views on foreign policy.

For the first time, I read the quote in context. Carter’s words are less about lust and more about the sin of pride.

"Because I'm just human and I'm tempted and Christ set some almost impossible standards for us. The Bible says, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Christ said, I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery. I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times.... This is something that God recognizes, that I will do and have done, and God forgives me for it. But that doesn't mean that I condemn someone who not only looks on a woman with lust but who leaves his wife and shacks up with somebody out of wedlock. Christ says, don't consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife. The guy who's loyal to his wife ought not to be condescending or proud because of the relative degree of sinfulness."

Carter is a devout Christian. He clearly loves his wife, his church and his Lord. I am not criticizing the man nor his faith. Instead, his words in 1976 got me thinking about the sin of pride.

Carter mentions Jesus’ words on adultery from Matthew 5:27-30. The man who looks at a woman in lust has already committed adultery in his heart. Jesus has already used a similar analogy on murder. “You have heard it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5:21ff). Jesus declares that the law of Moses does not merely apply to outward action alone, but it also applies to our motivation and intent. Jesus’ words should drive us to humility. Any honest self-examination will lead us to echo the Apostle Paul: “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:1).

Carter says more than a healthy appraisal of our sinfulness makes us humble. He gives the example of two men who act upon their lust. The first man leaves his wife and lives with his mistress. The second man has a series of sexual relationships. In both cases, enacted sin has greater repercussions than a sin of the heart—a broken marriage and family, women objectified and then thrown away. Moreover, Carter seeks forgiveness for his sins of the heart. These two men with their willful disobedience do not. Nonetheless, Carter says that he cannot look upon those two men in judgment. According to Carter, the faithful husband cannot rebuke the actions of the unfaithful husband. By this understanding, the community of faith must tolerate all sin in the name of humility.

Although Carter does not quote the Scripture, he probably would apply it here--“Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). In discussing this passage, John Calvin writes,

“These words of Christ do not contain an absolute prohibition from judging, but are intended to cure a disease, which appears to be natural to us all. We see how all flatter themselves, and every man passes a severe censure on others. This vice is attended by some strange enjoyment: for there is hardly any person who is not tickled with the desire of inquiring into other people’s faults. All acknowledge, indeed, that it is an intolerable evil, that those who overlook their own vices are so inveterate against their brethren…

“This depraved eagerness for biting, censuring, and slandering, is restrained by Christ, when he says, Judge not. It is not necessary that believers should become blind, and perceive nothing, but only that they should refrain from an undue eagerness to judge: for otherwise the proper bounds of rigor will be exceeded by every man who desires to pass sentence on his brethren.”

Holding brothers and sisters accountable is not antithetical to the gospel. Instead, Christ gives us guidance as to how we hold each other accountable. He states,

For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, Let me take the speck out of your eye, when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.” (Matthew 7:2-5)

This is not a witch-hunt. Instead, we examine our own lives first and come to our brother in humility. Our humility leads us to treat others as we would want to be treated—with sensitivity and respect. We seek reconciliation rather than condemnation. We come not in hate but in love.

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