At first glance, today’s second reading appears to have two contradictory messages. We are told that we must obey the commandments of Jesus or there is no truth in us; but we are also told that if we sin, Jesus will be our advocate, and what he has done through his death on the cross is already an atonement for anything that we might do. As I pondered this apparent contradiction, I thought of the work of Brene Brown, an internationally acclaimed researcher and educator on issues of shame and resilience. Brown speaks about the importance and value of recognizing that people are “doing the best that they can.” In almost every circumstance individuals do the best that they can with the resources and information that they have to achieve the goals that seem most important to them; and our resilience, our ability to cope with the ups and downs of life is directly related to our understanding of this truth.
When I read today’s epistle with Brene Brown’s research in mind, a clear and powerful message emerges. If I will do my best to achieve my goal, then the most important question is “what is my goal?” John answers that succinctly: the primary goal in my life needs to be obedience to the commandments of Jesus, in particular to the “new commandment” he gave at the Last Supper: “love one another.” (John 13:34) In every instance, loving others should be my primary goal.
Yes, we will fall short. Yes, we will misunderstand love and hurt those we are trying to love. Yes, we will be limited in our ability to love in certain circumstances. But Jesus will look at each one of us and say, “I know that you are doing the best that you can with what you have right now.” All that is asked of us is that we aim in the right direction; that we try to do what Jesus told us to do; we try to love.
I have met hundreds of people who have grown up in incredibly difficult, even unbearable circumstances, horribly mistreated by those who should have cared for and protected them. What continually amazes me is how often people who have experienced horrific personal trauma are able to not just survive, but thrive and love, if they believe that the person who harmed them genuinely cared about them. Abusive actions can never be justified by “good intentions.” The fact that a person was trying to show love does not make an unloving act acceptable, but it does mean that the person cannot be fully defined by the unloving action.
When Jesus was dying on the cross, he prayed,” Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus gave himself as “the atoning sacrifice” that allows us to be purified, that allows our failures separated from our efforts and our intentions as impurities are separated from gold. In the end we will be defined and judged by what we were striving for, more than by what we succeeded in, because our advocate will say, “they were doing the best they could.”