Relative Cleanliness

Yesterday, my wife and I experienced that trauma only renters can understand: the rental inspection.

Few things bring clarity of mind, like knowing the owner of your apartment will be coming to check if you’re taking care of their property. You see everything much more clearly: the grime on the u-pipe, the dust behind the sofa. These are things that have been there, possibly for some time, but weren’t noticed before. We would usually say our house was clean, as we use that best stick vacuum, etc. to keep it that way – but once the landlady was coming, “clean” received a new definition.

This definition of “clean” is actually a lot more fluid than we usually realise. There are many different “realities” of cleanliness, depending on who’s around. A loungeroom can sometimes be classed as “clean” if it’s just tidy, with everything in its proper place. But if you hear somebody important is coming around, that same loungeroom suddenly becomes “dirty” because there’s dust on the lampstands. It’s not that the dust suddenly appeared there – the dust was there for quite some time. But something has changed.

So what has changed? Well, cleanliness is actually relational. We measure it by how a person will feel when they enter ours. It won’t bother me if there’s a teacup on the floor, but I know it might make a visitor feel uncomfortable, so I tidy it away. It also depends on how we view the visitor’s character: if you love and respect your mum, and especially respect her cleanliness, then the thought of her seeing your mess will probably bother you more. The other factor is their power – our landlady’s opinion of our cleanliness matters, because she can kick us out! Discovering the immanent arrival of a powerful and respected guest with high personal standards, will make us see dirt we never saw before.

This reveals the relativism of “clean”, and points to a relativism in righteousness and sin. Many of us find the common Christian claim that we are so “sinful” that we need God’s forgiveness rather silly, because Christians seem to make everybody fall into this one broad category, “sinful”. It seems more logical to recognise different levels of right and wrong. I’m generally a pretty nice person, just like you are. Sure, I make the odd mistake, but I’m not an axe-murderer, or anything. We think sin is actually relative – it depends on who you’re measuring yourself by.

But you might be surprised to hear that Christianity does think of sin as relative, just in a different way. The Bible doesn’t measure us by each other, but in terms of relationship, much like we measure cleanliness in terms of our relationship with visitors. Something becomes “sinful” in the Bible when it hurts someone. It doesn’t matter if ten other people are nastier than me – if I’m nasty to somebody, that’s wrong, because it damages the relationship between us. Where the relativism, the different measurement of sin, becomes a factor is relative to the person I’m in relationship with – it depends on their character, their authority and how much it hurts them.

This is especially true in terms of God. God is powerful, and incredibly good, “clean”. But God also deeply, profoundly loves you. He made you specifically to experience His indescribably wonderful love. If the all-powerful, perfectly righteous God Who infinitely loves you walks through the door of your life, you might see the “dust in the corner” of your life more clearly than ever before. And God is also always present – so actually, He’s already there.

Every Christian has realised this, and that made them see that their life was never going to be clean enough, no matter what they did. Then, in an astonishing moment, they realised that God had walked through the door with a cross-shaped mop in His hand. His love meant we’d hurt Him. But His love also meant He’d heal us. The Christian life is not about comparing my “house” to anybody else’s. Instead we measure our lives by the perfect Guest Who has entered into it, and we seek to open up more rooms of our life, to become aware of where He needs to start cleaning.

Matt Gray


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