Do you know who made these famous statements? One thing is certain, these quips did not come from poor men! The first quote comes from media mogul, Ted Turner, and the second from publishing billionaire Malcom Forbes. Their thoughts betray our human nature to measure our worth by comparing ourselves to others.
If two people pull into a parking lot, one driving a sports car and the other a clunker, who is the somebody and who is the nobody? We live in a materialistic society, which makes it very hard not to judge ourselves and others by material things. To make matters worse, advertising blasts us with the idea that our possessions say something about us. The media assures us that if we buy the right products, we will gain importance. It is a mindset that is difficult to escape.
We have other ways of keeping score. Our culture is obsessed with youth and beauty; and therefore, we give greater worth to the attractive and the young. This concept is so ingrained in our psyche we fear getting older, and we spend countless hours keeping up appearances. Again, much of this mindset comes from to the limitless images that bombard us every day through television, the internet, and movies.
Additionally, society defines us through our successes and failures. The world values winners more than losers and the strong more than the weak. Audiences love the testimonies of those who make great plays to win the game, but no one wants to hear the story of the guy who fumbled the ball. We recognize success and idolize those who achieve their dreams. Yet, for there to be a winner, there must be a loser, and if there is someone above, there are many below. Competition is not always a bad thing, but when the prize is human worth, we can venture down dark paths.
Then there are likes on Facebook! Social media is one of many ways to keep track of what others think of us, and it is a rare person who needs no recognition. If we are not careful, we can come to measure our worth by other’s approval. Even those who serve God are not immune. When people learn that I am a pastor, they often want to know how big my church is. Translation: what is your value as a human being?
Some of us look to deeper things to define ourselves such as our relationships. If we have good relationships, we feel good about ourselves. Yet, what of those whose personal lives fail, sometimes due to little or no fault of their own? Do we look at ourselves as higher than them?
Obviously, our sense of self is very complicated, but more so for the religious and people of conscience. If we are religious or if we had a religious upbringing, we measure ourselves by good and evil. Only, our standard doesn’t come from society’s opinion alone. Those zealous for God often judge themselves by God’s Law. If we believe we pass the test, we will be proud of ourselves, but if we fail, like Adam, we will hide in shame.
I have always been good at being good. I was the kid in school who did nothing wrong and the one who made straight A’s. Yet, as I have grown older, I have realized that my drive to be perfect was really a quest for acceptance and worth before God and others. I took years to realize this was not the path to God. In fact, if we base our egos on our own goodness, we will have trouble with God, sometimes even more trouble than less well-behaved people. Who had the greatest problem with Jesus, the Pharisees or the tax collectors?
There are other ways of defining who is righteous. People with strong opinions grant worth to those with correct beliefs and demean those who have the wrong views. These include not only doctrines but also political viewpoints. In our day, there is a great rift between liberals and conservatives, each side looking down upon the other. We associate self-righteousness with behavior but it can apply equally to beliefs and worldviews.
Everyone has a different measure of their own value and their neighbor’s which lends a clue who the scorekeeper is. Self in all its facets, conscious and unconscious, is the one who gives and takes away worth. We can give it to our neighbor or take it away. We can do likewise to ourselves.
Ironically, the scorekeeper in us can draw strength from our view of God. People who assume God is also a scorekeeper will feel justified in judging others. After all, if God looks down upon someone, we must follow suit. Tragically, this paradigm leaves us isolated from our neighbor and from God, and it can lead us into self-loathing. We will end up with a God who occasionally visits us, but only when the score is in our favor. It leads us to presume we can make God present, but we can also make Him go away.
Scorekeeping is the way of the world. Christians view worldliness as certain bad behaviors, but just as much, it is a realm in which we live, and the king of this domain is self. Self is the scorekeeper. We reward ourselves if we suppose we measure up, but we also punish ourselves with guilt and shame if we fall short. Here envy and lust are also masters. If we base our ego on finite things, we will always need more.
Popular messages tell us God wants to help us get along well in this domain. If we trust Him, He will make us winners and not losers. The Lord wants us to be among those who have, not among those who have not. We hope that though our measure might be low, God will give increase. Not only that, we think God is on board with our desire to rid our lives of our weaknesses. He certainly desires us to go from evil to good, and He must be at work to make us someone He would want to be around.
Most of us have one thing above all others we trust to give us worth. It could be wealth, fame, money, good behavior, good relationships, or even a great ministry. We call it our dream, and we reckon God is in the business of making dreams come true. Preachers tell us if we don’t give up our dreams, God will give us the desires of our heart. He will reward our faith and make us into someone we can accept. (Notice I said, “…we can accept.” How often we confuse God’s acceptance with our own!)
Yet, what if this mind, which is so prevalent in the world, is not the mind of God? As shocking as it may sound, God’s definition of human worth and prosperity differs greatly from ours. In fact, He wants us to leave the world’s definitions behind for a higher one. His purpose is not for us to gain the whole world. The Lord desires us to live in a higher realm together with Him.
However, if we are above others in our domain, it might be hard for us to comprehend a better home. Those who are rich in their own righteousness often have a hard time forsaking it for the righteousness of Christ. Likewise, those who are wealthy in finite things, often have trouble receiving infinite things.
Sometimes it takes an awakening, and it can be a rude one. The Lord can use a devastating encounter with human weakness where He strips us of our measures of righteousness. Or perhaps He will give us the opposite of our dreams. If we imagined we would be someone great, God will make us small. If we thought we would have a huge following, He will take us to the wilderness of loneliness. We have plans, but God’s plan is much different. Christians love to say God has a wonderful plan for our lives, but one of the Lord’s greatest revelations is that His design differs from ours. It is higher. Humanity’s heart is set on finite things, but God’s is on the infinite. When we see God’s purpose, it is indeed an awakening, and soon our whole lives look different.
If God subtracts rather than adds, we might assume the Lord has forsaken us. How could God make me so weak? I was supposed to be so strong, an overcomer! I was supposed to be one who had it all, not someone who has nothing. We might conclude others are more chosen than we are, but the opposite is true. If God has stripped you of all the world’s measures, it is so He can give you a higher measure, and that measure is no longer self but Christ. He shakes the finite that He might give us the infinite.
Evangelists tell us that salvation is God accepting us as we are. When Jesus died for us, God stopped keeping score. If the Lord has accepted us, we can accept ourselves. We say, “God loves me just the way I am!” While this is true, redemption is much more. It doesn’t mean we simply avoid wrath, and it is more than just a pardon.
When Christians speak of salvation, pardon often gets the overwhelming emphasis. Scholars call it Penal Substitution. God has punished Jesus in our place, so we don’t have to face God’s wrath. I have heard people describe the way God now relates to us as kind of like a lens. God has put on His Christ glasses, and though we are still worthless sinners, all He sees is His Son.
While this view of salvation may have merit, it is at least incomplete. Some would throw it out altogether, but I think this perspective has its place and its time. It can be a useful first step, but it is not the final word. Our understanding of salvation should grow until we see no separateness or distinctions between us and God because the fullness of God’s plan is not just a pardon but union. The two become one.
The unconditional love of God does not end with mere acceptance. Its final word is not “you are okay the way you are.” It means God has given Himself to us unconditionally. We are not God, but are joined together with Him through Christ. The measure of who we are is who He is. At the cross Jesus destroyed sin, and in doing so He destroyed separateness. This is not only forgiveness but life from the dead.
Consequently, the scriptures speak of salvation not only in terms of pardon but also in terms of death and resurrection. This is the only way to union, and union is the only way to find the full measure of our forgiveness and worth. If we don’t leave the old behind, we will struggle to forgive ourselves. We will labor to gain God but find no rest, and we will continue to carry the weight of comparisons. The way to freedom is the power of the Lord’s death and resurrection.
Galatians 2:20 speaks of being crucified with Christ, but we must be careful to include the context to Paul’s statement. Bible students often take this passage to mean we die to all the bad things in our lives. Yet, the subject of Paul’s declaration is the Law. The Law was the strength of the scorekeeper, so Paul is not just talking about the journey from evil to good. He speaks of the death of the scorekeeper. Part of dying to self is losing self as the measure of who we are. God raises us into a new measure, no longer us, but Christ. The Lord doesn’t just improve the finite. He gives us the infinite. He doesn’t make our world to our liking and His; He takes us some place higher, together with Christ (Ephesians 2:1-7).
The New Covenant is a new paradigm. The old mind where self was the scorekeeper left us at war with ourselves, our neighbor, and God. The new brings peace. It redefines God, not as the one keeping score, but as the one working to give us a new measure, Himself. This transforms our relationship with God. We see Him as the present one, not the one who only visits. He is at work even in our greatest weakness. At the point of our worst mistake or greatest transgression, He will meet us, and He will offer us not just a pardon, but a cross, and the cross is the door to the infinite.
The New Covenant demands we give up self-definition. This is a real death and is part of dying to self, maybe the biggest part. This both humbles us and elevates us at the same time. True humility is not demeaning self but letting go of the measure of self for the measure of Christ. It is looking away from who we are, what we have, and what we do to Who Jesus is and what He has done. When we do so, we see God.
For this reason, humility leads to exaltation, an infinite measure of who we are. If we continue to punish or demean ourselves, we walk in pride. If we have trouble forgiving ourselves, self-focus rather than Christ-focus is at the heart of our problem. We are trying to measure up in separateness rather than in union. Demeaning ourselves or holding onto guilt is refusing the cross.
The New Covenant demands we not only redefine ourselves, but also our neighbor and even our enemies. We do not live in the realm of God alone, but together with our neighbor.
In this passage, Jesus talks about the sin of contempt, but why would looking down on a fellow human being be such a crime in God’s eyes? It is because it does such violence to the Kingdom of God. The more a crime is counter to the highest values of a society, the greater its consequences. At the core of the kingdom is God’s tie to humanity. If Christ has become the measure of human worth, devaluing our brother becomes the epitome of blindness, and an insult to Christ and the cross.
Jesus requires that we leave behind the old system where “we got what we deserved” for the new system of grace, where we get the opposite of what we deserve. We cannot hold two measures in our hand at the same time. If we reckon the measure of our brother’s worth is who he is or what he does, we will give ourselves the same measure. A judgmental or condemning heart does not negate grace; it blinds us to it. And if we cannot see grace for our brother, we cannot see it for ourselves.
Suppose our neighbor wrongs us, or maybe he is weak where we are strong. We could let go of the new measure of grace and once again pick up the old measure of self. Consequently, we would build a case against our brother, becoming his judge by weighing his worth according to what he has done or not done. And while we may be certain we are raising God’s Law as the standard, we are really raising ourselves as the standard. If our neighbor’s crime was to diminish us, we diminish him, declaring him unworthy of God. Where self is the measure of worth, the way to raise or preserve our own worth is to devalue someone else. In a sense, a judgmental heart is about self-preservation. But if God’s Law were really our criterion, it would condemn us, too.
When Jesus said not to judge, He was not saying there are no longer consequences for our brother’s actions. Rather, He was warning us not to imprison our brother in the old system, for in doing so, we imprison ourselves. The moment we pick up the old measure of worth for our brother, we drop the new measure for ourselves. We cannot live in the Old Covenant and the New Covenant at the same time.
One of the great ironies of the Kingdom of God is that the way we preserve our own worth is by preserving our brother’s—even if he has wronged us. Blessing those who seek to steal our worth keeps our own worth intact. Though they wrong us, we respond according to the grace in Christ, giving them the opposite of what they give us. Though they see us as valueless, we see their value as infinite in Christ. Though they take from us, we bless them. And when we do so, grace becomes our fortress and our worth, something no one can steal. In freeing our enemy, we free ourselves.
This passage offends the scorekeeper. It sounds like living in God’s kingdom will turn us into a doormat. People will walk all over us if we bless those who wrong us.” Worldly logic says that if we give, we will just end up broke, and if we do not hit back, we will just get beaten up a lot. But make no mistake. Jesus is talking about overcoming in this passage, and in the kingdom, we overcome evil with good.
When we put Jesus’s words in their context, they become all the more extraordinary. Oppression and cruelty were the order of the day in first century Palestine. If the Romans, with their soldiers and tax collectors, were not making life miserable, some other local ruler was. Many concluded the solution was to fight violence with violence, and Jewish zealots hoped God would honor them with victory if they took up the sword against Rome. There were also men known as bandits, but they were more like Robin Hood, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Another resistance group was the Sicarii, or “Dagger Men,” who would hide short knives underneath the layers of their clothing. At opportune times, they would strike against Roman sympathizers. Rome labeled all these rebels traitors and crucified them liberally.
To make matters worse, many false prophets and messiahs promised victory over Rome, often claiming the title “Savior/King.” The Jews had a litmus test to decide who was telling the truth, however. If a would-be Messiah ended up on a Roman cross, he was a false prophet. It was unthinkable that God would allow the Romans to humiliate His anointed one.
Into this chaotic world, Jesus came with His astonishing words. He said that when someone strikes you across the cheek, turn the other one. He was talking about Rome because that was the way Roman soldiers treated people. He said that when someone made you carry their pack one mile, carry it two. This was also a reference to Rome because a Roman soldier had the right to conscript anyone to carry his pack for one mile. Jesus said the way to deal with your enemies is to love them, forgive them, and even treat them with astounding generosity. In light of the turmoil of first century Palestine, these words must have been troubling—they still are today. How can giving our enemies the opposite of what they give us be victory?
To God, if we become just like our enemies, they have beaten us. If someone says unkind things about us and we say unkind things in return, what is the difference between them and us? Their hatred has made us hateful and dragged us right back into the old system where worth is tied to self. In that old realm, people build up themselves by tearing down others.
When we place Jesus’s advice to turn the other cheek in its cultural context, it’s easier to understand. The ancient world was an honor- / shame-based culture. Today, when we imagine a backhand across the face, our first thought is “Ouch!” In the first century world, however, the shame would be much more hurtful than the physical pain. If a Roman soldier stuck you across the face, he wanted to hurt you, but even more, he wanted to dishonor you.
If you turned the other cheek, almost asking him to slap you again, you would be proclaiming that he could not diminish your worth. Your honor would be attached to Christ, and no backhand can break that tie.
The old system, where worth came from self, gave strength to insults and hate. Christ took away that power. Consider Paul’s words in Romans, chapter 8:
Many call turning the other cheek being weak, but the early Christians called it reigning with Christ. It was living in a kingdom where their honor was untouchable.
Returning a good deed for a bad one furthers our triumph. Jesus said when a Roman soldier makes you carry his pack one mile, carry it two. The way you overcome in that situation is not to hate those who wrong you but to show stunning charity instead. God was giving the gift of worth in Christ, even to the soldier. Though your oppressor might be blind to your importance, you must not be blind to his. Your response, therefore, would be to treat your persecutor as a person of value, giving him a blessing rather than a curse, and loving him rather than hating him.
In a way, returning love for hate is an act of defiance. Such an encounter between a child of the kingdom and his opponent is a clash between two powers. In the old kingdom, we overcame evil with evil, but in the new, we must overcome evil with good. Imagine how a Roman soldier who received such kindness would feel. He might not drop his sword, but he would certainly be disarmed. He would have a hard time hating the one who served him—he might even be ashamed.
We must not let those who wrong us steal the gift of worth from our hearts. If we withhold it from them, we once again imprison ourselves in the system where worth is earned. The way to be free is to forgive. Our acts of kindness may not change our enemies, but they will change us. They will open our hearts to God’s grace, and His love will become our dwelling. We will be free.
The gift of worth in Christ Jesus is subversive; there is no defense against love. Astonishingly, our relationship with God is strongly tied to our relationship with our enemies. While we may think our lives would be better off without those who offend us, our enemies can be our best teachers. Return love in the face of hate, and victory reigns infinite in the kingdom.
God’s love for us extends beyond mere pardon. He gives Himself to us even when we reject Him. Likewise, He calls us to live beyond mere pardon for our enemies, and to love and bless them, giving them the opposite of what they deserve, for such is God’s love for us. It is a high calling, but the Kingdom of God is a realm beyond this world. It is a place where the scorekeeper is dead, and we live accordingly. It is a place where God is all and defines all. In the death and resurrection of Christ, God redefined everything, and He beckons us to live in what He has finished. Living there is life.