Specks and logs. That’s what I’ve been thinking about since yesterday’s Ash Wednesday services, when we heard Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in Luke 6: Want to know how to be merciful like God is? You can start by not getting worked up about the speck in somebody else’s eye when you’ve got a whole log sticking out of your own.
David preached a great sermon on the passage. He talked about how hard it is to cultivate mercy toward others when so often we look at others and judge them on the basis of things we know we can “beat them” on. So we criticize others for being greedy or deceitful or lazy because we perceive ourselves to be generous or honest or hardworking — even though, somewhere deep down, we know how often we aren’t. It’s a lot less painful to carp on somebody else’s speck than it is to deal with our own logs.
This all resonated with me — a little too much for my own comfort. Yet I also found myself thinking of all the time I spend making comparisons in the other direction — comparing myself to people on the basis of things I “lose” on. So often I catch myself looking at people and criticizing myself because I think I’m somehow less than they are. So this person seems more successful than I am, that person has a better apartment than I do, somebody else is thinner than I am, and that person over there has the marriage and family I’d like. It’s like I start to envy other people’s little specks, because it seems to me all I’ve got are these huge logs.
There are any number of problems with this. But when I think about Jesus’ instruction to be merciful, two problems really stand out. One is pretty obvious: if I’m supposed to be merciful as my Father is merciful, and if my Father is merciful to — among other people — me, then I ought to be merciful to myself. Relentless self-judgment and self-criticism are hardly merciful. Constantly berating myself for having all these logs when other people seem to have managed only to have specks doesn’t help me become me more like my merciful Father.
The other problem with this comparison and judgment is a little less obvious but perhaps even more damaging. As David said yesterday, when we judge others based on things we can beat them on, then we are treating people as commodities to be used to make us feel better about ourselves. By the same token, if we judge ourselves based on things others can beat us on, we’re still treating those people as commodities; they’re just commodities we use to make us feel worse about ourselves. Either way, we’ve taken someone with dignity and worth, someone created in the image of God, and used them for our own ends. It doesn’t matter whether those ends are good or not, because commodifying people and using them is never good.
It’s never good, and it’s never merciful. Because when we only use someone as a foil against whom to measure our own perceived shortcomings, we cannot actually love that person. We cannot have compassion for the specks they do have that make their lives painful or difficult, or see if there might be any way we could serve them as they work on those specks.
And ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether you’ve got a speck in your eye or a log, because either way, you can’t see very well. So my prayer for myself, and for all of us, this Lent is that what we’d long for most of all is clear vision. That we’d be desperate for God to remove the stuff in our eyes, no matter how big or small it is. That day by day, we’d see more and more clearly the beauty and the love and the majesty of our merciful Father. And that we’d give anything to become more like him.