There must be a dead mouse in my bedroom. The stink was unmistakable. And we had caught two live ones there just a few weeks earlier. But a search of the room turned up no mouse, dead or alive. It finally hit me. The rotten stink was coming from my own nose.
There was mucus running down my right nostril that stank. The old dentist in me suspected that my sinus might have been infected. That would also account for the fever and malaise and the slight ache on my face below my right eye.
I consulted my good friends, Dr Tan, dentist, Dr Ling, Oral Surgeon, and Dr Tan, Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist. The sinusitis was confirmed and I was given the requisite medications. And I thought to myself, there must be a lesson in this somewhere.
The whole episode reminded me of Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 7:1-5:
“Judge not, that you not be judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (ESV)
Jesus is only too aware that “we humans tend to prefer applying ethics to other people rather than ourselves.”(Keener)
I see this in myself. I am often aware, often more obsessed, with the moral failures of others than I am of my own moral shortcomings. The ‘stink’ is out there. Not in myself. But Jesus makes it clear that cleaning up my own ‘stink’ is job one.
That does not mean that we are not to help our brother and sisters who have been caught in transgressions (Galatians 6:1). But even there Paul warns that if we are to venture to do that, we need to be “spiritual”. If Paul’s life is anything to go by, his growing spirituality led to his growing awareness of his own moral poverty (1 Timothy 1:15).
(Small test. Think back on last week. How often did you think about the sins of others? How often did you reflect upon your own sins? )
Make no mistake, the church is meant to be a community where we help each other turn away from sin. We are to be like a group of mountain climbers who are linked to one another with strong cables. If one of us falls into sin, the rest of the community can gently pull him/her back to safety. But such a community must be made up of individuals who are actively working on their own moral lives.
I will always treasure one of my mentors who, when he needed to speak into my life, would first spend about twenty minutes talking about his own moral failures. Then, tentatively, he would tell me the things I needed to hear. I heard.
In comparison, many people who sought to correct me seemed to be totally oblivious to their own moral condition. The irony was that what they said might have been true and I’m sure my heart was hard. But I found it hard to hear from people like that. I still do.
As for myself, the events of the last ten years have included some very public moral failures, in particular, my separation and eventual divorce. I can never again approach anyone with any illusion of my moral superiority. If I have the opportunity to walk with anyone, it is with the clear understanding that we are all candidates for grace, helping each other to find that grace.
But life is full of ironies of course. In the present stage of my pilgrimage, I am still very sensitive to the ‘stink’ in others. Now I am very aware of the ungraciousness in others. And in this way I am back at square one, more concerned for the ‘stink’ of others than my own ‘stink’!
What then can we do to keep ourselves on track with our own moral development? James, ‘Mr. Practical’, gives us the following advice:
“But you must do what the Word tells you and not just listen to it and merely deceive yourselves. Anyone who listens to the Word and takes no action is like someone who looks at his own features in a mirror and, once he has seen what he looks like, goes off and immediately forgets it. But anyone who looks at the perfect law of freedom and keeps to it — not listening and forgetting, but putting it into practice — will be blessed in every undertaking.” James 1:22-25 (NJB)
(Michael Jackson got it right when he said we had to start with the guy in the mirror.)
I can imagine James addressing particularly those in the Evangelical community, of which I am a member. We are experts at studying the content of Scriptures. But there is a big difference between knowing biblical facts, and being regularly confronted by the Holy God through His Word. Isaiah 6:1-8 gives us an example of someone who really encountered God and not just some facts about God.
Perhaps our inability to smell our own ‘stink’ is linked to a much bigger problem — the loss of the sense of the real presence of the Almighty in our worship and our discipleship.
For if indeed the Almighty is in our midst, how can we not be aware of our own overwhelming need for grace? And if we are aware of our own need for grace, how can we but deal gently and graciously with our brethren?
Make no mistake; there is a lot that ‘stinks’ in life. We just have to make sure that the ‘stink’ is not our own. If it is, we need work on that first, before we presume to work on the ‘stink’ of others.