Don Bisson tells the story of an elderly woman who had a dream one night in which she died and went to heaven. There she met Jesus, who asked her “how well did you love?” She responded by telling Jesus that he was asking her the wrong question. She went to church; she gave money to charitable causes; she did what she was supposed to do. She was a good person. Jesus replied, “Yes, but how well did you love?”
I find it so much easier to be good than I do to love well. Because of the particular circumstances of my childhood and the constellation of my personality, I have become very good at performing. I always got good grades, set the table correctly for dinner parties, and wore a smile on my face. And often with resentment and self-righteousness simmering just below the surface. It has been and continues to be the work of my adulthood to learn to love.
The facade of goodness so many of us Christians wear is nothing more than an effort to control God and avoid the poverty of our own suffering humanity. God is not interested in our goodness, paltry and false as it generally is. God would rather have real, human companions, alive and vibrant in their imperfection.
In his extraordinary book The Human Condition, Thomas Keating writes of the need to move beyond our facades and personas of goodness.
The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside us for the Holy Spirit to come in and heal. What prevents us from being available to God is gradually evacuated. We keep getting closer and closer to our center. Every now and then God lifts a corner of the veil and enters into our awareness through various channels, as if to say, ‘Here I am. Where are you? Come and join me.’
Like the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-50), we must approach God from our poverty. Only then will we find what we have truly been seeking: not a self-sufficient goodness, but the deep indwelling of the love of Christ. This love, planted in our hearts, grows–often slowly–but when we can stay out of our own way, it bears fruit far in excess of our meager efforts.
I think what we’re truly afraid of is not that God will abandon us if we aren’t good enough, but rather that, despite all of our efforts, hurts, and fears, despite everything that has sought to draw us away from God, ourselves, and one another, God has been there all the time, filling us beyond our imaginings with the abundant life of Christ. To let in such knowledge would truly annihilate our false self that with Milton’s Satan would rather “reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
I think we’re terrified to look down and see that really Christ is bathing our own feet with his tears, drying them with his hair, anointing them with kisses. What then?