In keeping with the recent theme of the difference being a Christian makes, I was reminded of how little I "get it" the other day. I was driving and a car veered over from the other lane and then slowed down so I had to hit the brakes pretty hard to avoid parking in their trunk. To say I was a bit disappointed in the other driver would be an understatement.
Being annoyed with other’s isn’t exactly a rare occurrence for me (though I expect others to forgive my mistakes since, after all, I’m only human) but as a Christian is that an acceptable response?
I know, I know. You’re probably expecting me to say that Christians are supposed to be magically immune to getting angry when people inconvenience us but I don’t think that’s the case. While part of the goal certainly is to draw so close to Christ that the little stuff is seen for what it is—nothing—it’s also true that at any given moment we’re not necessarily going to be in a position to look at life that way.
What I will say is that as Christians we believe that all of our fellow humans were made in the image and likeness of God and that gives them an inherent dignity. This is the reason for the call to love and to react with patience and grace; we’re not just dealing with masses of skin and tissue but with images of our creator God. Even when they (and we) screw up that dignity remains.
This presents a bit of a paradox for us. On one hand we know others have an inherent dignity and we’re called under all circumstances to love them and on the other hand it’s clear that many of these people range from annoying to virtually unlovable. How do we reconcile these two realities?
There’s a statement in Catholicism that’s so common it’s nearly a cliché but it bears repeating here: “hate the sin but love the sinner”. Under the cute surface of this little saying is a real practical concept. The idea is separating the behavior from the person so we can react to them separately. Whether it’s being cut off in traffic, forgetting to put the toilet seat down (or up, why do men always have to touch it?), or something more serious, mastery of this concept allows for responding appropriately to the action while still loving the offender.
Consider the difference between a child breaking a household rule and the parent enforcing the rule and reminding the child of the infraction for the rest of the week to the parent simply reminding the child of the consequences of his actions and quietly enforcing them. Contrast a prison where inmates have restricted freedom (consequence of their actions) but are fed and have their basic human needs met to a prison where inmates are deprived of food or sleep or are otherwise mistreated.
I think this aspect of Christianity isn’t to pretend bad things don’t happen to us or to ignore injustice when it occurs; there must be appropriate consequences for actions. The goal is enforcing those consequences without interrupting our love for those who offend us. Master that and I’m not sure what more there is to do.