By Dr. Henry Cloud
The world around us is good and bad. The people around us are good and bad. We are good and bad.
Our natural tendency is to try to resolve the problem of good and evil by keeping the good and the bad separated. We want, by nature, to experience the good me, the good other, and the good world as “all good.” To do this, we see the bad me, the bad other, and the bad world as “all bad.”
This creates a split in our experience of ourselves, others, and the world around us—a split that is not based on reality and cannot stand the test of time and real life.
This splitting results in an inability to tolerate badness, weakness, and failure in ourselves and others. It leads to two basic problems: sometimes we deny the existence of bad; at other times, we deny the existence of good. We feel like we are all bad when we fail, or we think we are all good when we are doing well. In addition, we blame and punish others for failing to be the all-good person we want them to be. At other times, we deny the real badness they exhibit and end up with an unreal relationship with them that ultimately fails.
In the world around us, we require perfection, and we devalue any church, group, or job that fails our expectations. Either we withdraw from the church, group, or job, only to move to another imperfect and disappointing situation, or we idealize situations in a way that blinds us to their bad points. In short, if we do not have the ability to tolerate and deal with the simultaneous existence of good and bad, we cannot successfully deal with and live in this world, for the world and we are precisely that: good and bad.
It was not always this way. There was a time on planet Earth when everything was “all good.” God had painted a picture on the canvas of reality, and the reality of his picture was perfection. The creation, including humans, was without blemish. We were without sin.
We can sometimes move close to seeing perfection. We can sometimes see it as we gaze at a beautiful sunset. It is evident in some people’s physical beauty. Some musical performances challenge us to find a mistake. Some athletes surprise us with perfect performances of grace and beauty. Moments of intimacy between lovers bring heaven close to earth.
It is at times like these that we have little problem imagining an ideal world. We can get lost in the fantasy of what a creation must have been like without evil. It was for this world that we were created. We were never made to live where we live now; that was a mistake. We have been delivered to the wrong address. God created us for perfection, and we find ourselves living somewhere else.
We were not prepared to live in an imperfect world. We were not made to deal with the effects of the fall. There were to be no cavities in our teeth, no thorns and thistles puncturing our soft feet. We were not made to have to defend ourselves against each other; our spirits are much too tender to live in a world of hurtful people. We were made for perfect relationship with perfect people; instead, the people with whom we find ourselves invariably hurt us. They lie or are unfaithful; sometimes they are just mean.
We were not prepared to be imperfect. We don’t have enough grace inside to anesthetize us against the pain of our own badness. It is horrible enough to feel sin; but the guilt of the sin is even worse. We feel hatred and separation instead of love and connection; we feel others’ envy instead of their appreciation and gratitude; we feel sad and angry instead of joyous; we panic and worry instead of feeling safe and secure; we feel shame and self-hatred instead of love and self-confidence; and finally, we feel utter fear and terror of God, instead of overwhelming awe and love. All of these feelings touch on issues of good and bad; to be emotionally and spiritually successful, we must be able to deal with them. If we can’t coexist with good and bad, we will have a hard time living in this world.
Click to Tweet: If we can’t coexist with good and bad, we will have a hard time living in this world.
When we swing back and forth from seeing things as either all good or all bad, we can’t have a consistent relationship with ourselves, others, or the world around us. People will sometimes go from friend to friend, spouse to spouse, church to church, or job to job. For a while they think everything is okay, but as soon as badness appears, they can’t deal with it. They demand perfection; whatever is not perfect is “all bad” and therefore rejected. They are riding a roller coaster.
Perhaps you have a relationship where you thought everything was okay, and then you didn’t call home when you were going to be late. Your partner treated you like you had leprosy. This is an example of someone who can’t deal with badness or imperfection in others.
Or, maybe you thought you were doing pretty well in golf, and then played a rotten game and felt enormous hatred for yourself. It felt as if you were a total failure, all bad. Or, maybe you were excited about buying the car of your dreams. And then, it got dented, and lost its perfection. If it’s not perfect, it’s all bad. Or, you were preparing that special welcoming meal for your new neighbors. The cake falls, and “it ruins the whole evening.”
These are all problems of sorting out issues of good and bad. If we are to negotiate life very well, we must find a way to live in a world that has both.