Q. Since we do not fully obey [the Ten Commandments], are they useful at all?
A. Since we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption.
– An Outline of the Faith, commonly called the Catechism, from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979, Episcopal (USA), pages 843-862.
My wife and I have a friend who owns rental houses. Let’s call him Jeremiah. Last fall, one of Jeremiah’s friends lost his job and got a divorce, so Jeremiah let this friend move into one of his rental houses and live there rent free “until he could get back on his feet.” The friend got back on his feet quickly in one respect, as he has started dating scores of women and entertaining them at Jeremiah’s rental house. But he still doesn’t have a job, and he still doesn’t pay any rent. Nor has he indicated any plans to move out any time soon. Jeremiah is understandably frustrated with the situation.
Last week, my wife asked me this question: At what point can Jeremiah, consistent with the command to love our neighbors as ourselves, kick his friend out of the rental house? In other words, when does Jesus say, enough is enough?
The answer, as best I can tell, is never. In Matthew 5:40, Jesus says, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat as well.” If Jeremiah wants to live up to this commandment, then he has to keep on giving, even when giving starts to hurt him. But Jeremiah can’t do this. I can’t do this. Jesus’ commandments are too difficult for us to fulfill, even when we sincerely want to do so.
My favorite blogger, Andrew Sullivan, has been transcribing a late-night conversation he had with Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens latches onto this truth about Christianity but concludes that it is “nonsensical or evil”:
A: It’s wicked to love one’s neighbor?
H: It doesn’t ask one to love one’s neighbor. That was said by Rabbi Hillel, in fact, long before. It says, “Love the neighbor as oneself.” An impossible—you see, the real wickedness of Christianity, or one of many, is it demands the impossible: To ask me to love you, Andrew, sometimes seems too easy…
H: But to ask me to love you as I love myself is an impossible demand, I cannot possibly, cannot conceivably do that, and it would be wrong of me if I did because I have other things I have to do. I have a wife, children, others.
A: But as an aspiration—
H: No, absolutely not, it’s a dissolution of the personality, it’s the abolition of the individual.
A: No it’s not.
H: Of course I’ll have enough self-respect to like myself more than I love you. I’ll have to do it. It’s a morally impossible demand. The demand to give up all possessions and to forget the future is not just unlivable and impossible, but would be, if it could be done, cruel and stupid.
A: Because it would abrogate responsibility.
H: It would mean there’d be no investment, no thrift, no thought about subsequent generations. There’s no saving Christianity from the charge, it seems to me, that as stated even at its strongest by its warmest believers that its recommendations, its precepts, are rather nonsensical or evil. Sometimes both.
Given Hitchens’s tradition, his criticism is valid: Christianity’s demands are impossible and, even if they could be met, they fly in the face of common sense. They don’t give people their just desserts. They don’t say enough is enough.
Would we be better off if we were given a set of achievable goals? I’m not so sure.
A few weeks ago, my wife gently suggested that it might be time for me to watch what I’m eating. Because I’ve been gaining about five pounds a year for the past few years, this is not the first time she has suggested such a thing. This time, though, she brought a friend: My Fitness Pal.
My Fitness Pal is an iPhone app that serves as a calorie counter. You tell My Fitness Pal how much weight you want to lose, and it tells you how many calories you can have and how long it will take. When you eat a food, you enter that food into My Fitness Pal, and My Fitness Pal locates the food in its extensive database and adds it to your calorie total for the day. If you meet your calorie goal, My Fitness Pal tells the world that “Michael Sansbury completed his food and exercise diary for the day and was under his calorie goal.” If you exceed your calorie goal, My Fitness Pal tells the world (passive aggressively) that “Michael Sansbury completed his food and exercise diary for the day.”
My Fitness Pal worked. Playing off of my hatred for keeping track of my activities, My Fitness Pal convinced me that it is better not to eat something than to eat it and then have to log it. So, in just a week, I lost five pounds.
Good for me, right? I have shown that I am a good person, that I have control over my will, and that I am master of my domain. Not exactly.
While my success has been limited, but tangible, it has disproportionately increased my judgmentalness. I find myself walking by Chick-Fil-A, scoffing at the weaklings munching on waffle fries. If these people just had the willpower to follow My Fitness Pal’s commands, they, too, could lose five pounds in a single week.
Thank God, then, for God’s unreasonable commands. Without them, I would use every success, no matter how small, as an opportunity to pat myself on the back and look down on my neighbors. With them, I realize that my minor triumphs cannot come to bridging the chasm between me and God and that, from God’s point of view, the weight of my sin is indistinguishable from anyone else’s. Five fewer pounds isn’t going to help.