From Hugh Hefner to Mother Teresa
Sinner or Saint
Many people falsely think that in order to be serving God they must have the level of devotion and piety demonstrated by the likes of Mother Teresa, and when they fail, they give up.
Christianity is not all or nothing or none of would make it, not even the best among us. Making a change to live a better life is not always an easy or quick progress, and is more of a journey than a destination. Any progress in the correct direction is good and worthwhile.
Recently I have been reflection on why some people give up on religion so easily, and I think a large part of it is that a lot of people have it in their mind that in order to be acceptable in the sight of God they have to reach a specific standard of holiness, which falsely attributes salvation to our personal works and righteousness instead of the grace of God where it rightly belongs; no person has ever been or will ever be perfect and it is only through the Lord Jesus Christ that we can be saved. When people are trying to reach a specific standard of holiness they use the Reverend Billy Graham, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and other such people as examples, never knowing what personal demons or struggles they may have had, not realizing or acknowledging that they were just as flawed and as human as the rest of us.
When we compare ourselves to an impossible standard, a standard that those we look up to didn’t even attain, we are setting ourselves up for failure. When we are trying to reach an unattainable standard we quickly realize that it is hopeless, and instead of aiming for a realistic standard and trusting in the grace of God, a lot of people get discouraged, loose heart and give up to live a life of sin, or at very least, a live without trying to please God. A lot of people have set up the false dichotomy in their heads that either you do everything right and go to heaven or else you go to hell, and when we have that mindset when we realize we can’t be perfect we give up on being saved and give up on God, but we don’t have to be perfect and God hasn’t given up on us.
There are two main points I want to cover, one of which is that we don’t have to be perfect to serve God or to be saved, we just have to have faith and try to please God the best way we can, knowing it is his grace by which we are saved and not of our own works. The other point is that while a positive change is difficult, it is worth the effort and sacrifice that it requires; we should not aim for an impossible standard, but we should try to be the best person we can and follow the example of Christ to the best of our individual abilities, knowing full well that we will never be perfect but God still loves us.
I heard a pastor say once that every true encounter with Christ convicts us of some sin in our lives and makes us want to change, and I think that is true. When some people get convicted and know that parts of their life is not in harmony with God’s will and they need to make changes, instead of treating it like the monumental task it is, they treat it like something that can be accomplished overnight and get discouraged and give up when it is harder to change their life than they initially thought and things don’t go the way they assumed they would. We should always be striving to make positive changes in our lives, but if we take on too much at once we will be overwhelmed and will be fighting a battle for which we don’t have the time, energy or resources to accomplish. We can’t get in so much of a hurry that we fail to be realistic; we have to accept the difficult task for what it is and commit to it, after all, Rome was not built in a day. Everything worth while takes effort and has a cost associated with it. If it were easy everyone would be doing it. Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it,” (Matthew 7:13-14).
People get discouraged because they wrongly treat their goals of bettering themselves as a sprint instead of a marathon, and in fact, a marathon isn’t even the perfect analogy. The point is not how fast we get there but rather that we get there. Tripping and loosing momentum is a fatal mistake in a sprint or a race, but when the goal to finish and not to beat everyone else to the finish line, tripping is just a minor inconvenience. Slow and constant progress in the right direction is better than a sprint at breakneck speed that fails short of reaching the finish line.
When people think of Mother Teresa they typically think of her during the point of her life when she was older and was already viewed as a saint by many people, not considering the lifetime it took her to get to where she was at. Mother Teresa didn’t just wake up and become the woman much of the world admires, it took her a lifetime to get there, Even after Saul was converted on the road to Damascus and became Paul the Apostle, he was far from being perfect and was full of pride, he still sinned and he had doubts. Even the great Moses had many struggles before becoming the man three major religions look up to, and even then, he was far from perfect. None of the people we look up to reached their goals of righteousness overnight and we should not expect to either, but as long as we keep at it and are making some progress than we are doing well.
When we endeavor to better ourselves in any way, be it getting in shape, saving money or growing our relationship with God, we often don’t have realistic expectations of what our growth rate will be and the difficulty involved and, when we learn how painful and how difficult change can be, we get discouraged, loose interest and give up to live the type of life we vowed to give up only a short time earlier. For some people, all it takes to give up is for the new to ware off and than they either go back to old ways or move on to something else they will fail at. No one ever accomplished a thing by giving up and the climber on the top of the mountain didn’t just fall there, he or she worked long and hard, facing many dangers and discomforts, to get up there.
When people make promises to themselves, or to God, to change aspects of their lives they usually start the task with great enthusiasm and gusto, only to completely give up a short time later. Many people, when they decide to change aspects of their life, they do so at the start of the year as a New Year’s resolution. People aren’t good at resolutions, a lot of which is due to how they approach them, and upwards of 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail within the first few weeks of January (1). New Year’s resolutions and the vow to live a better life fail for the same reasons, ranging from everything from lack of conviction and not actually wanting to change to poor time management. Even if our vow to live a more spiritual or holy life is not part of a New Year’s resolution we often fail at it because we don’t approach it properly. There are many reasons why we fail, and I am going to talk about some of them, not in any particular order, however, this list is not all inclusive.
One of the biggest reasons we fail is that our goals are not specific or measurable, which make determining success little more than guesswork. “I want to be more righteous this year” is not a specific goal and it is difficult to measure success. “I want to give up porn,” or “I want to read from the Bible and pray daily” are specific and measurable. The more specific we are with our goals the easier of a time we will have accomplishing them. Tracking our progress will help to keep us motivated, and will help us to know areas where we need to put in more effort or to change the approach. Keeping a daily journal, especially if we are honest with ourselves, is a great way of tracking our progress.
In addition to having a specific and measurable goal, the goal must be written down, and the more prominently the written goal is displayed in places where we will see it as a constant reminder, the more likely we are to accomplish it . When I served a mission for the Mormon Church, my mission president would always say that “an unwritten goal is but an idle wish,” and while I no longer believe in the religion we once had in common, he was absolutely correct about goals. My mission president was one of the most successful people I have ever met and succeeded in everything from his personal goals to being the executive vice president of Times Mirror Magazine and the CEO of General Mills. That man knew a thing or two about achieving goals. I am not taking a position on whether my mission president’s goals were good or bad, just acknowledging the fact that he knew how to accomplish goals.
Another major reason people fail is they make to lofty of a goal so that it is unrealistic, or they expect to accomplish it in an unrealistically short span of time and don’t have small steps leading up to it. If my goal were to make a 100 mile ride in one day on my bicycle I would have to set that as a goal, and work toward it by reaching smaller milestones such as riding ten miles per week and increasing the weekly miles at an achievable and sustainable rate. One of my goals for this year is to read the Bible every day, and in order to do that I set realistic milestones such as completing small Bible reading plans, studying a topic or reading a specific book in the Bible, and if I miss a day I don’t beat myself up for it I just make sure I read it the next day. For me it is not about reading a specific amount of material but rather learning more about God and gaining a closer relationship with him.
Goals have to be realistic because if we set goals that are not attainable we are setting ourselves up for failure and get so discouraged that we don’t make any positive progress. Setting the goal to be like Moses is not a realistic goal because the type of work God needed Moses to do is not what is needed today, and because I can’t force God to choose me for such a grand position. Setting a goal to read 100 pages per day in the Bible, while technically achievable, is probably unsustainable and is more likely to foster frustration than growth. I will get into this more in a bit, but we have to have a reason for our goals and not be doing it just for the sake of doing it or we will have no motivation.
A worthwhile and attainable, long-term, goal I have is to be the type of person I am happy to live with, the type of person I want to see in the mirror, the type of person I would have no qualms about setting up on a date with someone I love, or rather, to be the type of man worthy of the type of woman I am praying for God to put in my life. In order to reach my realistic goal of being a better person I have set measurable goals or mile posts such as not being so sarcastic with people, striving to see every interaction from the other person’s point of view and not judging people, among others.
Years of driving a bus, as well as the many difficult and painful things happened to me in life, and my struggles with faith, made me cynical and snide, and to be quite honest, a bit mean and heartless. I would often say rude and condescending things to people in response to something less than intelligent they said, but when I was born again I decided to change. I was not even aware of the fact that everyone noticed my behavior, nor did I tell anyone that I was trying to change, and one day someone asked me a questions that was so incredibly dumb that the most stereotypical blond would have rolled his or her eyes and knocked themselves into yesterday with a weapons grade face palm. However, I was nice and polite with the person and did my best to answer their question in a respectful way.
When the person left, my uncle who had heard the conversation walked over to me and said, “Wow Gene, I am surprised you didn’t say something condescending or sarcastic.”
“Yea,” I said, sighing, “ I am too, but I am trying to be nicer to people and treat them with kindness and respect.”
If I had told those I am close to or spend a lot of time with that I was trying to be nicer to people my progress would, in all likelihood, have been faster because my friends, family or co-workers could have gently reminded me that I was trying to be nicer when I said something that was not nice.
Accountability is extremely important in making any real change, and not just self accountability, we need another person to hold us accountable. Life was not meant to be a solo sport and God even said that it is not good for man to be alone, (Genesis 2:18). If we don’t have some sort of accountability it is simply too easy to give up and pretend that we didn’t commit to the change in the first place. Not only that, but another person who is on a similar journey can be a great help to our journey and we can be a great help in theirs. In addition to having another person to hold us accountable, as I mentioned earlier, it is also important to keep a journal and to be completely honest in our writing. Lying to others or to ourselves will only prevent change and keep us stuck in the position we wanted to free ourselves from.
Discouragement is another major reason we fail, and discouragement is all but guaranteed if we don’t take into consideration the points mentioned previously. One way to keep from letting disappointment make us throw in the towel is to, as I have already mentioned, to have a realistic idea of how difficult the task at hand. In line with being realistic we also have to view small relapses for what they are, momentary setbacks, and nothing more. Falling is not failure unless we allow it to be and we have not failed so long as we keep getting up. While we should strive to live right and keep from making mistakes and to keep ourselves free of sin, we should not be tempted to give up and throw away all of our progress because of a moment of weakness. The devil puts the flawed idea in people’s idea that since they made a mistake and compromised on their goals they might as well just give in and live it up. Logically though it makes no sense to say, “I sinned by allowing my wife’s sister so kiss me, so I might as well sleep with her since I have already sinned.” Logically that line of thought makes no sense, but most of us have done it at some point, though probably not to the extreme of my illustration.
Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.
Another reason we sometimes fail at our goals is that we don’t have any faith in ourselves, and, as a natural result of thinking we can’t do it, we don’t put much effort into it, after all, yo would not try to do repairs on a house that was burning down around you. We need to have faith in ourselves because whether we think we can or we think we can’t, we are correct, assuming, of course, that we are considering a realistic goal; no amount of self faith will transform us into a unicorn through meditation or something ridiculous like that.
We must also have faith in God, not just believing that he is, but that he wants to help us and will help us if we will but ask him. We also have to realize that God mostly helps people through other people; I may be the answer to your prayers or you may be the answer to mine. It is not common for God to answer prayers in the form of an angel or other divine manifestation, and while it is true that at the birth of the Savior the shepherds got an angel, it is important to remember that everyone else got a Sheppard .
A lot of people don’t go to God for help because they think they need to get right with God before they can approach him and before he will help them, especially if they just messed up, but that is the exact opposite of the truth; we will never be right with God until we accept the grace he freely gives. Quite honestly, probably one of the biggest reasons people fail at their goals, fail at spirituality, and fail at life is that they don’t involve God enough. God is a lot more eager to help us than we are to be helped.
Another reason people fail at reaching their goals for spirituality and give up on religion and God is that finishing the race does not seam as important as running a perfect race. For some people, if they have any minor relapses they throw in the towel and say, “Oh well, I guess I will try it again next year,” and that is mostly, I think, because those people are not ready to change. If we are not ready to change than we will never change. We will only ever change if changing is important to us, important enough to pay the cost.
Some people, myself included, have a habit of trying to change without the proper motivation because we like the idea of the change despite the obvious fact that we are not actually ready to make the change, and that will always lead to failure. Sometimes I need to change something in my life but don’t actually want to so I pray that God will change my heart so that I want to change. Unless what we stand to gain is more important to us than what we are giving up to get it than we will ultimately fail because, even if we don’t consciously realize we are doing it, we will sabotage our success so that we don’t have to give up whatever it is we are trying to give up.
In order to have the motivation to change our lives for the better we must have a clearly defined idea of why we want to change or else we will fail. If the goal is to give up alcohol than the motivation has to be something more important than just looking good to others, because a person could simply make people think they gave up alcohol, but if they are motivated by having a closer relationship with their family or keeping their job than they are more likely to give it up. If we have a goal to read the Bible daily, simply for the sake of reading the Bible, we are likely to loose interest and give up, especially when we come across passages we find boring or don’t understand. If we are reading the Bible daily to get a better understanding of God than we are more likely to make the effort. Knowing why we want to change and keeping our eye on the prize will lead to victory, but without a clearly defined goal we have no motivation.
Even if we are ready to make a change and want to actually see it through, we have to plan and prepare. When we are at our strongest we have to plan for and put safeguards in place for when we are at our weakest. Today when we say, “never again!” we may truly mean it, but next week when temptations encircles us about we loose our resolve and are likely to give in if we have not adequately prepared. When the temptation comes to fall back on old habits, if we have not put safeguards in place we will fail as willpower alone is rarely ever enough and most of us don’t have as much will power as we think we do. Instead of trying to overpower the temptation it is better to either remove the temptation or to remove yourself from the temptation. Having a written action plan for temptations is always a good idea because a failure to plan is a plain to fail. However, a plan only works so long as we follow it, otherwise it is just scribbles on paper. Not having a plan and just winging it works in the movies, but in case you haven’t noticed, life rarely goes as it does in the movies.
Odysseus and the sirens
Since Odysseus was the only one who could hear and was tied to the mast they passed by the island in safety.
In the Odyssey by Homer, Odysseus is given detailed instructions by Circe on how to get back home to Ithaca. Circe tells Odysseus that one of the places he must pass by is an island inhabited by sirens, dangerous creatures that lure sailors to their death with their enchanting and beautiful songs. The sailors were so enchanted by the beautiful and haunting songs that they would follow the sounds of the music to certain death, running their ship aground on the rocky shore. The only way a mortal could pass by unscathed was to not hear the siren’s songs, so Circe to told Odysseus that he needed to have all of his men plug their ears with wax so they would be unable to hear the songs. Odysseus was told that if he wanted to hear the songs and live he had have his men tie him to the mast of the ship before reaching the island and his men had to swear not to untie him regardless of how much he begged or threatened.
Odysseus listened to the council of Circe and had all of his men plug their ears with wax and then he ordered them to tie him to the mast of the ship and when he inevitably begged or threatened to be released to tie him tighter. Odysseus did not plug his ears so he was the only one on the whip who heard the sirens, and as soon as he did he tried to break free but was unable so he begged his men to untie him, and then threatened them, but his men stayed true to his command and tied him all the tighter, ignoring his begging and threats. Because Odysseus had planned ahead when he was strong he did not fall victim when the temptation took him and he was weak. No amount of willpower would have saved Odysseus from the enchantment of the sirens, but planning ahead saved him. If a goal is worth achieving we need to ensure that we don’t throw it all away when we are tempted.
Odysseus was given some truly useful information, but off course, no amount of knowledge would have saved Odysseus had he not put it into practice, and so it is with us. The shear number of self-help books on any given subject is proof enough that information alone is only half of the solution. A person can read a thousand diet books but will only start to get healthier when they put some of the ideas into practice. All thinking and no action will never get you there.
If we don’t follow the teaching of the Bible, even if we have read it hundreds of times and can quote the entire book, we might as well be reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar for all the good it does. Without putting into practice what we read in the Bible it is just another book.
One of the stories I like to tell is that of the chicken pastor who taught his congregation the exact same message every week, which was to look both ways before crossing the road. One week the congregation complained and said they would stop coming if they did not learn something new, the chicken pastor asked what they wanted to be taught and the chickens overwhelmingly demanded to be taught how to fly.
That Sunday the chicken pastor spend the entire morning teaching the chickens how to spread their wings, how to get a running start to take off, how to fly, how to avoid obstacles and how to land. After a long morning of instructions and practice, all of the chickens were dismissed and headed home, and as they crossed the street thy all died when they were run over by an eighteen wheeler. You see, the chickens did not put into practice what they had learned about flying, and they certainly didn’t practice what they had been taught continually which was to look before crossing the street. Again, no information is of any use if it is not implemented.
Of course, even if we are putting into practice what we are learning we have to ask ourselves if we a are making the right changes for the right reasons. In the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Elizabeth Swann agrees to marry Commodore Norrington, an honorable man but a man she does not love, in order to save the life of another man. Governor Swann, Elizabeth’s father, is pleased that she finally agreed to marry Norrington but suspects she did it for the wrong reasons and says to her, “Even a good decision, if made for the wrong reasons, can be a wrong decision.”
A while back I had a conversation with a friend who lamented that she was not sacrificing enough for the Lord or living a righteous enough life, based on some extreme examples of sacrifice among Christian missionaries abroad. I stopped her and asked what type of sacrifices she thought she should make and how she thought the proposed changes would help anyone else or the Lord’s work. I then asked my friend to consider whether or not the proposed changes were in an effort to get closer to God or just to make herself feel better or have a better self image or so that others would view her as pious or righteous.
Of course, everyone I know who knows this friend, including myself, view her as one of the best examples of a person living a Christian life. As far as I can tell, she is only wanting to make changes in her life because she is comparing herself to people who she views as more righteous or holy than she is, and her assessment is probably flawed and the people she is looking up to are probably beating themselves up over their failings and wishing they could be more like the people they are comparing themselves to.
I am not, not would I ever, discourage anyone from making positive changes in their life, but the change has to be motivated by a good reason and not just be change for the sake of change. If we are making what looks like a good change but it is not a change that God wants us to make than it is a bad change.
Most of us have some standard in mind that we would like to reach, and that is not at all a bad thing, but we should not compare ourselves to other people, for a myriad of reasons ranging from not knowing what struggles the other person is dealing with to accepting and being happy with being the person God made them to be. God did not want only one type of person and we should not strive to be something God did not make us to be. If we are living a life that is in line with the teachings of the Bible, even if our walk with Christ does not look like someone else’s walk, we should be happy and take comfort in the fact that Christ is with us.
“There is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything were dead,”
-Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Many of us look up to people like Mother Teresa and think we have to be like that to be approved in the eyes of God, but Mother Teresa was the exception rather than the rule.
We all perform different functions in the family of God and In 1 Corinthians Paul compared the body of the church to a physical body and said that all are necessary and one part can’t say that it doesn’t need the other part as all perform valuable functions and no one part is better than the others. If a body had three mouths and no ears, or six hands and no nose it would be a disability. All parts are important, as are the functions they perform.
As full of faith and devotion as she was, Mother Teresa had doubts and struggled like the imperfect human she was, and she once said in a letter to an advisor, “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself — for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work,” (2). Even the best among us have doubts and are far from perfect.
There are a lot of people who compare themselves to others and don’t think they are making enough progress because they are not as spiritual as those they are comparing themselves to. No two people are the same and, as a result, the journey is different for each of us. Instead of comparing ourselves to others we should compare ourselves to how we used to be. If we are better than we were last week or yesterday than we are making positive progress. We don’t need to have the “best” calling or all of the gifts so serve God and should be happy with what we have instead of always wanting more than what God graciously gave us.
I know a person who loves pumpkin pie and always expects to eat a lot of it during Thanksgiving dinner, but one year she arrived late and a slice of pie was saved for her. She was so upset that she could not eat as much pie as she wanted that she threw the piece of pie in the trash in a fit of rage. Getting absolutely nothing is what an all or nothing attitude will get you every time. In the parable Jesus told of the master giving each servant talents of gold, based on their individual talents and abilities, the servant who was given one talent was upset and buried the talent instead of using it as he was expected to do, and it did not go well for him, (Matthew 25:14–30). If God made us great at one calling we should not be upset that he did not give us another instead and refuse to use the gift God gave us.
We can’t all be the Mother Teresa, the pope, Billy Graham, Paul the Apostle or Moses, but the role we play is just as important to us and to those whom our time and talents will reach. I can’t find the story to give the proper credit, but a while back I read a story about a tiny screw in a massive clock that decided he was not valued or important since he was inside of the clock where no one would see him and, in a fit of rage, worked himself loose and fell from the clock to the ground below. The little screw had no idea how important his role truly was and when he worked himself loose the spring unwound and the clock stopped working.
There are people who are so full of pride that when they start at a new company or join a new church they immediately think they should be in charge and they only want a position where they will receive the praise of men, just like the pharisees in the time of Jesus.
I used to think that my calling was to be a pastor, or at least I tried to make it so, but I discovered that was not God had in store for me, at least not at this time. Instead of trying to force the issue and becoming a pastor when that is not what the lord wants for me, I decided instead to use the talents of writing and creativity that God has so graciously given me to reach others while keeping my job as the webmaster and shipping manager of a small company. A pastor recently pointed out to me that I am reaching people that I could not reach as a pastor and that is precisely why God gave me the talents he did instead if the ability or opportunity to be a preacher.
Some people who are motivated to be a better person for the right reasons think that Christianity is all or nothing and that if they can’t reach the standard they are aiming for than they might as well give up and life like the world. Some people think if they can’t be as good as Mother Teresa or do something as meaningful as the missionaries who first brought Christianity to India or the other countries of Asia that they might as well give up and live like Hugh Hefner, but if that were true than not a one of could be saved as we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If we were saved by works none of us could be saved because our works are like filthy rags.
Even the best people in the Bible were still people, and as a result, they were deeply flawed and often committed sins. Some of us think we have to reach a certain standard of perfection or goodness in order for God to use us, but God intentionally uses broken and flawed people to accomplish his work because it ensures that he gets the credit and the glory for it.
Luciani, J. (2015). Why 80 Percent of New Year's Resolutions Fail. Retrieved from https://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/articles/2015-12-29/why-80-percent-of-new-years-resolutions-fail