Are we all familiar with the expression, “The enemy of the good is the perfect”? The saying speaks to our natural human tendency to ditch what we have because of some perceived flaw, in favor of something completely different which we will then assume to be perfect. It comes from our arrogance: the idea that we’re good enough, we’re smart enough, we’re resourceful enough to make everything better, all the time, until everything becomes perfect.
One example might be our very own White House. The current administration seems largely populated by people who see flaws in free markets and flaws in our republic, and would fundamentally transform all of it. The direction they’re heading has been proven destructive pretty much since the Russian Revolution, but that doesn’t deter them from trying. This time, they say, things will be different and it will all work.
I like to turn that expression inside out, however, because when we talk about Heaven, I like to say that the enemy of the perfect is the good.
You see, here’s a piece of bad news: Heaven isn’t for good people. It isn’t even for very good people. Heaven is for perfect people.
Here’s more bad news: None of us are perfect. None of us ever have been.
And finally, even more bad news: on our own, with our own dedication and our own good deeds and our own compassion for our fellow man, none of us will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, ever.
Here’s the good news, however: we don’t have to try. God’s not going to require us to work to get into Heaven because He knows it’s a fool’s errand. He knows we’re not perfect. That’s why He gave us the extraordinary gift of His Son.
I like to use the criminal justice system as an example when I preach. Most of you know that I have some experience with the system, and I know from that experience (and, of course, from hundreds of episodes of Law and Order and NYPD Blue) that in general, a criminal defendant typically has only two opportunities to get a break in sentencing.
The first way to do it, and the one to which prosecutors seem to respond best, is to rat your friends. Turn on the others involved in your crime in the hope of saving yourself. “It was me, yeah, but it wasn’t just me. Marv was standing over there turning the water on in the sink and Sally was waiting for us in the car. Harry brought the ski masks.” Well, for better or worse, I never involved others in the crimes I committed, so that avenue was not open to me.
The next way to do it is what’s called extraordinary acceptance of responsibility. For example, when the FBI came to my door one bright September afternoon, our conversation could be distilled as one agent asking, “Do you know who we are?” and me saying, “Yes.”
He said, “Do you know why we’re here?” and I said “Yes.”
He said, “Did you do it?” and I said, “Yes.”
Then he asked me the hard question. “We know from experience that when this happens, it doesn’t happen to only one client. Did you do this to anybody else?” It took a little longer for me to answer, but I said, “Yes, and here’s his name.”
You see, if you save the government the time and effort of going through a trial to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that you did what you know you did anyway, they’ll give you a break at sentencing because the prosecutor got to keep his numbers up without any real effort. In contrast, if you make the government go through a trial to prove you did what you know you did anyway, then any apology or acceptance of responsibility you offer the Court after your conviction is going to seem pretty lame.
You know what else judges don’t like? Judges really don’t like the “I’m not such a bad guy” defense.
In each of my criminal cases, I had to stand in front of a judge and say out loud what I had done. “Your honor, no sense denying it, you got me. I violated Title 18 Sec. 1341, Mail Fraud, felony.” And that’s where I stopped talking. Because what the judge didn’t want to hear was, “But hey, look at all the things I didn’t do, Judge. I didn’t commit Bank Fraud, Securities Fraud, Tax Fraud or Wire Fraud. I didn’t commit murder, arson, armed robbery or rape. I’ve never practiced dentistry without a license, never shot a bald eagle, and never once have I taken my hot air balloon into the restricted space over the White House. I’m not a bad guy.”
If the judge had any sense of humor, he’d respond with, “Mr. Hughes, in recognition of your extraordinary accomplishment of committing mail fraud but not committing murder, I’m only going to sentence you today for mail fraud – not murder. In this Court, you only get sentenced for what you did.”
Too often we look at the gates of Heaven like a courtroom, and we delude ourselves into thinking that “good enough” is “Good Enough.” We mentally compare ourselves to the people around us, the great unwashed masses whose sins are way worse than our own when we consult our personal Sin-O-Meters. Look at that guy, we say to ourselves, if he can get into Heaven I’m sure I’ll be able to. Wow, he’s there? After what he did? He shouldn’t have a chance. And we raise our hand and we say, “Hey God, what’s the deal, how come that guy’s going to Heaven, he doesn’t deserve it like I deserve it?”
God’s appropriate response, at that point, would be a lightning bolt to the forehead of the questioner. But in the event God felt the need to explain Himself, he could point, wordlessly, to the Man on the Cross. Our standard, you see, isn’t the people around us. Heaven doesn’t have a finite number of places and we’re not competing with others for a seat. We shouldn’t be running around with rubber bracelets on our wrists with WWTGD – What Would That Guy Do – emblazoned on them. The standard is a perfect, sinless life, obedient to the last breath. And once we understand that we can never measure up to that, that we will never be “good enough,” then it becomes crystal clear that we need Him. We’re not going to do it – any of it – on our own.