The image of the ugly American is one that causes most of us to cringe. We think of the loud-mouthed lout who acts obnoxiously in a foreign country. When people call him on his behavior he arrogantly notes that he’s an American. When he breaks the law, unwittingly, he makes demands on the police, denigrates the country he’s in and vehemently notes that he’ll be calling the American embassy. There’s a strong undercurrent that because this person is American, they think that they can get away with anything because of the natural superiority of Americans. When they mess up, they claim a sense of privilege because of their American heritage.
When people of privilege claim that privilege, especially as an excuse for bad behavior, no one likes it. It doesn’t matter whether the person involved is an American, a specific ethnic group, or a religious group. Among the Jews, the Pharisees claimed the privilege of a special arrangement with God. They had the attitude that “God loves us, but hates you” because they alone kept the law the way it should be kept. If you were to ask them if they had committed even one sin, they would, in all honesty, make the claim that they hadn’t because they observed the Law. Paul recognized the truth, though in talking with Timothy. He wasn’t special as a Pharisee, God was because of His grace. “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 1:14)
At other times, Paul mentioned his rights to brag as a Pharisee. Before he came to Christ he probably would have told you that not only was he without sin, his work in eradicating Christianity elevated him to a whole new plane. Then, he got blinded by God’s grace on the road to Damascus and everything changed. He attributed who he was to the grace of God. He talked about gaining faith and love. As a Pharisee he didn’t need either faith or love, he just had to follow the rules. This revelation of Christ brought an amazing claim just a few verses later when Paul claimed to be the worst of all sinners. He made that claim because when he was overwhelmed by the grace of God, he realized that what he thought was a mission of obedience to God was actually a situation where he was fighting against God. He reminded people that if God could save him, if God could show him grace, no one was beyond God’s grace. There was hope for all people to receive God’s grace.
It’s perhaps the spiritual thing to do when we argue with Paul about this passage. “Paul says he’s the worst of all sinners, but I can tell you that I am the worst of sinners, not Paul.” Perhaps a better way to describe who we are is one a friend told me many years ago. “I am the worst sinner I know.” That might take some people aback. They might point out all these other people who are doing terrible things in this world. I don’t know them. I don’t know how God has revealed Himself to them. What I do know is my thoughts and my attitudes. I know how God has revealed Himself to me and how I rebel against becoming the person He wants me to become. I know my sins of action and my sins of attitude. I know my wrong thoughts and deeds. What I can say, along with Paul, is that even though I’m the worst sinner I know, I have received the grace of our Lord abundantly, along with the faith and the love of Christ Jesus. I may be the ugly Christian, but I will stand on the privilege I have with God and, when I do wrong, seek His forgiveness, knowing that His grace is enough to cover all my sins. Even moreso, I will depend on His grace to keep me from falling into sin.
Lord, it’s all about Your grace. Let me live by Your grace for strength, for forgiveness, and for growth. Let me show Your grace to others in all situations.