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The Road to Realism

Someone has noticed that, “Optimists think the glass is half full. Pessimists think it’s half empty. Realists know that if they stay around long enough they’re going to have to wash the glass.”

In art, realists paint life with blemishes, wrinkles, and scars. Idealists paint a subject as they imagine it could or should be.

On the road of life, both are important. Ideals give us direction. Realism gives us traction.

Both, however, have their downsides. Realism can cost us our dreams. Idealism can consume our days in a futile search for the perfect marriage, employment, or happiness.

Idealism and realism also show up in matters of faith. Some think of God as an obsessive, demanding parent who cannot be pleased. Others think of Him as an indulgent grandparent who is so endearing and compassionate that there is no reason to fear Him.

What do we think? Is God a realist or an idealist? It’s a question that brings us to a busy intersection of ideas. If we aren’t careful, we will run into traffic coming at us from either the right hand or the left.

The danger of these crossroads, however, is worth the risk of getting past them. While looking both ways and proceeding with caution, many have found a God who is good enough to inspire us with His ideals, merciful enough to accept us as we are, and too loving to leave us there. This, it seems, is the story of the Bible.

In a perfect world, we would live forever. That’s how the drama of the Bible begins and ends. Within the opening chapters, however, our first parents lose their innocence and immortality. Their first son kills his younger brother and a succession of good days and bad days take turns raising hopes and ruining them.

The realism of a beautiful world stalked by conflict and death, however, is not what makes the Bible an all-time bestseller. What makes this Book so compelling is that its rugged realism offers strength for the journey with a vision for a better world at the end of the road. Someday, according to the prophet Isaiah, weapons of war will be recycled into tools of agriculture (2:4) and even a defenseless lamb will eat safely at the side of a wolf (65:25). In the end, those who make peace with God now will find perfect peace forever.

Yet, the idealism of the Bible is not just about the future. Both Testaments also call us to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Both emphasize not only the moral rule of “love,” but also the virtues of “joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

No society passes laws against such ideals. Yet, no one consistently lives up to them either. So how do we come to terms with our imperfection?

In a real world of human weakness, first-century Judaism had an answer for moral limitation. Some rabbis taught that a person who observes any important commandment, such as forsaking idolatry, is equal to him who keeps the whole law.

Interestingly, a New Testament author by the name of James takes a different approach. He writes, “Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).

At first look, the rabbis who focus on the law we keep rather than on the one we break seem more realistic. James, on the other hand, seems to be setting a trap of perfectionism. Break one law, he says, and you break them all.

On second look, will a “Keep one, and you keep them all” approach allow us to sleep any better? Who has loved our neighbor as ourselves? Who, when the heart of idolatry is understood, has forsaken all false gods? Who has not coveted?

Interestingly, James is not the idealist that 2:10 seems to suggest. When he presses the logic of law, he does so only to get the attention of self-righteous persons who refuse to receive or show mercy (vv.12-13). He writes as a follower of Christ (1:1), and believes that his faith in Christ compels him to pursue neighbor love in the most realistic and down-to-earth ways (1:26-2:8).

The people James has a problem with are those who talk as if they are friends of both idealism and realism—without honoring either.

Dangerous drivers —The religious leaders who called for Christ’s death had the law of God in their minds, but not in their hearts. Publicly they were experts in the Law. Privately they created legal loopholes that allowed them to ignore the compliance they required of others.

Publicly they argued the moral ideals and logic of the slippery slope. They made laws around laws, like fences around fences to keep less thoughtful people from trespassing the boundaries of Moses. Privately they were realistic enough to know that they had to break their own laws to get rid of the rabbi from Nazareth who was making them look like hypocrites.

Merging from the right and left —Jesus was kind to people that other religious leaders avoided. He ate and drank with people that other religious leaders wouldn’t be caught dead with. He touched lepers, talked respectfully with women, and loved noisy children.

The most inspiring idealism comes together with the most rugged realism in Jesus. Nowhere do we find a better picture of what it means to be faithful to the highest principles while offering mercy to the most broken people.

When Jesus pressed the logic of moral idealism, He did so in order to lovingly humble self-righteous people (Matthew 5:20-48). When He offered mercy instead of morality, He did so to show that He had come not to condemn but to rescue (John 3:17; 12:47).

Father in heaven, thank You for showing us through Your Son that there is no conflict between the heights of Your ideals and the depths of Your mercy. We will be eternally grateful that You have loved us enough to accept us as we are and loved us too much to leave us where You found us. Please help us to extend both to others as You have given them to us. —Mart De Haan

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