Shades of Gray

For most of my life I’ve been asked by people around me why I see the world in black and white (no, I’m not color blind, I’m nuance-blind with certain things). I can remember being only nine years old and having people get upset with me because I told them they were wrong. To be perfectly honest, over the years people haven’t seemed to take it any better. Some of those things they were most certainly very wrong about no doubt. However, others were probably a matter of opinion (the problem was that, at the time, the only opinion that mattered to me was mine).

Fortunately over the years I’ve become a little more open to certain things being a matter of opinion – possibly having shades of gray between the straight-up, no-doubt, unequivocal wrong versus right, or black versus white. But one thing has never changed within me and I doubt it ever will: I see the world through an all-or-nothing set of lenses. There are certain things on which it will forever irk me to bend. I view certain thoughts and actions, words and opinions as either right or wrong – with no shade of gray in between. To stray into the “gray” on these is the equivalent of turning from right to wrong in my estimation.

[NOTE: I won’t spend a bunch of words in this post laying out what these black-white issues are – though you could probably guess simply based on a cursory view of the other posts on this blog – but I will spend some time talking about why I think I’m completely justified (for the most part) in this right-wrong worldview.]

Someone might argue that this falls into the realm of the “measure you use will be measured to you” set of warnings from Jesus; a caution which is eminently justified. But what I have tried consciously to do ever since I was a wee lad and lost friends over my “measure” is to determine what sins are likely to send a person to hell – which means that it ultimately is a VERY black and white issue – and then apply my “measure” only to those situations. Unfortunately it’s never that cut and dry, is it? You can’t simply say, “Well, murder, adultery, drunkenness, etc. all lead to damnation, so just don’t do them.” That would be a very black and white statement and would be very easy to apply. After all, the entire Old Testament was basically a collection of “Thou shalt nots” mixed with stories of what happened when “thou didst” and the Old Testament had to be fulfilled through Christ.

Instead we get the new measure from Jesus in Matthew 5 taking the black and white of the law another step and saying things like, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (vv. 21, 22). To which all one can say is, “Wow! Did Jesus really just move the line on us and basically introduce a section of gray between action and intention?” The answer to this is a firm, “No.” He said as much right before that by affirming that the Law’s instructions on morality are on-going. What Jesus did instead was get to the source of the outward sin itself: the heart.

Taking my cue from Him then, if I am to apply a black-white view to some issue, it has to start at the heart. And the bare-bones breakdown of the condition of each and every one of our hearts is not a pretty sight. Essentially you can say that we are all sinful utterly. Whether we have broken the unquestionable laws of God as written in the ‘Law and the Prophets’ through actual murder, adultery, oaths, divorce, revenge or hate, we have certainly broken the new measure given by Jesus by entertaining thoughts of violence, lust, foul words, broken promises, name-calling and disdain. We find our hearts black though our outsides may appear white. Or, as Jesus described the teachers of the law, we are “hypocrites … [who are] like whitewashed tombs which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Mt 23: 27).

All of this adds up to that famous theological principle that none of us really like to think about: Total Depravity. R.C. Sproul explains it this way, “For total depravity means that I and everyone else are depraved or corrupt in the totality of our being. There is no part of us that is left untouched by sin. Our minds, our wills, and our bodies are affected by evil. We speak sinful words, do sinful deeds, have impure thoughts. Our very bodies suffer from the ravages of sin.”

Do you see therefore how quickly we move from a simple black and white view of sin itself to a more complex black and white view of our sinful condition? And that nuance is in itself the basis for why my worldview is so dichotomized. Whether the rule establishes a right-wrong way to act or not, the principle of right-wrong within us and around us never changes. And the principle itself proves that all of us are in the wrong. We try our best to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5), but we fail utterly. Once met with this failure, the human nature starts getting defensive and, in order to lessen the feeling of failure, we ditch the impossible standard given by Christ in order to ‘measure ourselves by ourselves and compare ourselves to ourselves’ (2 Cor 10:12). The black and white of the law written on our hearts gives way to a gray imposed on it by our own sinful condition.

The simple fact is that Christ is good, righteous, graceful, merciful, loving and kind in all of the ways we are not. He represents the perfect life lived and therefore the measure of all that is right. We meanwhile, regardless of our attempts at good, have failed over and over again and therefore are the measure of what is wrong. The dichotomy exists because we exist. There could not be evil present in the utter goodness of God … right? Therefore it could only exist apart from Him … in us.

Which is what makes grace so much more compelling. In a universe that exists to the glory of the God who fashioned its every molecule and stands abridge time sustaining it, the only thing we (humanity) have contributed is damage through our depravity. And yet the God who is called The Great Physician still stands continually healing it, 1) though we don’t deserve it, 2) though we didn’t earn it, and 3) though we foul it up scornfully with each act of our decadence.

To me, a black and white or good versus bad or right against wrong outlook on life does nothing less than highlight the glory and righteousness of God … as well as our need for His continual renewal. It acknowledges the unconscionable sin we produce and the outstanding purity of everything issuing from God. To invite shades of gray into the argument is to trade a philosophy of granite for a value as malleable and shifting as sand.

So please don’t be offended when I am explicit about right and wrong (unless that offense leads you to action fixing the issue). It’s nothing personal; we all fall short of true goodness. Please realize that all I want, above all things, is to give the honor and glory that is due God through acknowledgement of His purity and my total depravity … at least that is what I try to give in my own pitiful, inconsequential and defective way.

On a lighter note though, the other justification which I can offer for my black and white view of the world is that I’m fairly consistent across the spectrum of the utterly important to the completely trivial. I dichotomize everything in terms of good versus evil whether it be in sports (Liverpool FC vs. Manchester United), cars (BMW M3s vs. Toyota Prius’ [Prii?]), places (Texas vs. Washington DC), foods (Mexican food vs. Southern food), or music (Led Zeppelin vs. any rap). Chances are, if we spend any time together my good versus evil shtick will be seen by you quite a bit, whether in jest or in earnest and complete honesty. Regardless of its importance though, I praise God for the good in life – without His touch and ingenuity all is rubbish. (How’s that for an all or nothing statement?)

Sproul, R.C. Human Depravity. Excerpt from Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, Tyndale: 1992. 26 Mar 14.

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