Sometimes, perhaps too often, the Bible is read as if it was a casting call for what it takes to be a good Christian. For example, those readers who attend church have all heard preachers say things like we need to have to have faith as strong as Abraham’s, or passion for God as wide and deep as King David’s; we ought to dare to be Daniels and have the bravado of the Apostle Peter.
Ironically, most Biblical heroes, including Abraham and David and Daniel and Peter, were actually deeply-flawed humans we really don’t want to emulate. I mean it.
For all his faith, Abraham and Sarah both laughed at God when he told them that they would have a son. And, far worse, they sent Abraham’s eldest son Ishmael, and his mother Hagar, into the desert to die because Sarah was jealous of them. How’s that for a house in perfect order? Would you want to emulate Sarah or Abraham?
When King David saw Bathsheba bathing, he knew he’d have to have her, no matter the price. And the price was steep. To hide his affair and her pregnancy, David had Bathsheba’s husband Uriah murdered in battle. That dysfunction set the pattern for the rest of David’s life. His eldest son Ammon raped his sister Tamar. Another son killed Ammon, and then staged a coup against David. Not a house in order.
Well it is fair to say that, at best, he had a rocky relationship with Jesus. That was never more on display, of course, than on the night Jesus was arrested. Peter screwed up the courage to follow Jesus’ armed guards to the High Priest’s house. Then, just inside the courtyard, by the fire, a servant girl asks if Peter was one of Jesus’ disciples. Peter replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
When a second woman asks Peter if he followed Jesus, Peter doesn’t merely claim ignorance, he flat out denies Jesus. “I don’t know the man!”
Finally, a whole group of people standing round the fire notice that Peter is speaking with a Galilean accent. They figure he just has to be a follower of Jesus and say so. This time Peter calls down curses from heaven. “He swore,” says Matthew. And then, hearing the rooster crow, Peter goes off and weeps bitterly. Some rock. Some model for what it takes to be a good person, never mind a good Christian.
Now, all of these Biblical heroes, and many more: Abraham, Sarah, Daniel, Samson, Gideon, Saul, David, Bathsheba, Solomon, Rahab, Jonah, Peter and the disciples stand as a warning against the idea of treating the Bible as a book full of heroes we should emulate.
Perhaps even more seriously, we can pass on trying to emulate Abraham or David or Peter because, in their failures we see ourselves. We are already like them. We are deeply flawed too.
Now, I am not going to pull out my former Calvinist doctrine of “total depravity,” here, and argue that we are all absolutely divorced from God and good. But I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater either. We need to be honest not only about our strengths, but also our weaknesses.
All of us—every last one of us—no matter how good a dad or mom we are, no matter whether we’ve earned millions or accolades at work, no matter whether we’ve won awards from governments or boards or NGOs—each of us, like every Biblical hero, each of us is also deeply flawed.
We all need new beginnings. Our tempers are short. We take the easy or expedient way out sometimes, rather than stand on principle. We hold grudges. We’re addicted to cigarettes or cigars, porn or praise, alcohol or the internet. We refuse to be vulnerable with our kids when it comes to our weaknesses or emotionally available for our spouses when they need us. We fudge on our income tax. We speed. We get angry too fast and apologize far too infrequently and slowly. We engage in petty white-collar crime. Not everyone of us does all these things, not by a long shot. As it is with most Biblical heroes, none of us has our house in perfect order, either. This just is the human condition.
It can be very depressing. But this is where Christianity can help us. Jesus freely offered an antidote to the reality of our flaws. The antidote is grace. In the big, cosmic picture, the gospel message is this: Try to be like Jesus. But when you or I sometimes fail, as we undoubtedly will, don’t give up, don’t freeze, don’t think of yourself as worthless. God, after all, is not keeping a scorecard. God always welcomes your new beginnings.
Jordan Peterson, on the other hand, says, “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” And what I’d like to know is this. Who has ever set their house in perfect order? This “perfect order,” is a high bar. No one in the Bible, excepting—maybe—Jesus, has ever met it.
And yet. Abraham and Sarah managed—at least according to the myths—birth a nation. David made that nation an empire that eventually gave us the Law and Prophets. And Peter and his pals not only criticized their world, but went on to build a church that has now existed, for better or worse, for 2,000 years. None of these institutions or nations were or are perfect; but all have also made great contributions to human well-being through the centuries. These institutions, like the people who founded and support them, are flawed and need grace but have the capacity to do great things.
The thing us, we can criticize the world, and in fact (and even better), work to make the world a better place, even if we are flawed, because the grace Jesus preached, the clean slate we have with God or the cosmos or karma or whatever you want to call it—the grace Jesus preached is an invitation to keep trying to love neighbour, even when you fail; to keep striving against the injustices of the Roman Empire or the Religious Establishment, even if you are a coward. The grace Jesus preached is an invitation to new beginnings even when last year (or last night) was a bit of an embarrassment to you. Grace is your endless well of motivation to strive for better rather than worry about setbacks. Grace isn’t salvation from sin, it is rather, as John Caputo would say, God haunting our souls with the desire to do better; God whispering in our ears that our families, our churches, and our city and world—all of it deserves our best, if flawed, efforts. Grace is God’s prayer to us to give being God’s hands and feet a whirl, again and again.
So no, Jordan Peterson, I don’t think it is “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” It should be, rather, “Strive to improve the world, while you work on yourself, too.” Working on ourselves and the world together is a single project. Grace makes doing both—working on the world, and working on yourself—plausible and possible, an antidote to our flaws.