Columnists > Soul Food

It's only human

It's an excuse that shows no understanding of sin

Issue: "America votes 1998," Oct. 31, 1998

"He's only human!" I hear it everywhere: from the man on the street, the irate talk-show caller, the little old librarian, the check-out clerk. As a defense it's not exactly ringing; as a judgment it doesn't stimulate deep thought or spirited debate. But who dares to refute it? "Has your life been a model of good behavior? Would you want the world to know all your dirty little secrets?"

Well, no. Of course not. The argument, such as it is, appears to be clinched. But before we all accept the obvious and subside into a nation of only-humans headed by a Human-in-Chief, it might be wise to borrow a page from the presidential playbook and question exactly what is meant by those two little words.

Only is a qualifier, like "somewhat," "never," and "very"; it assigns a value or quantity to the word it modifies. The purpose is usually to diminish in importance or to emphasize the littleness of, as in, "Don't be alarmed-it's only me," or, "Only one miner survived the cave-in." The word is also useful for drawing the sting from an expected consequence: "So what if I blew my paycheck at the track? It's only money." Generations of children have found that it helps make their trespasses ("It was only that one time!") look smaller, if only to themselves.

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Human, when used as an adjective, usually carries a negative charge: "To err is human," "the human condition," "human failings." It communicates a sense of weakness, of failing to measure up-often depressing but oddly endearing as well. Both as a race and as individuals, we've lived with our failures so long they're like pets, even children. We smile ruefully and shake our heads: Oh, those little lapses of ours. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. After all, we're only human-offering up these words to appease whatever gods there be by placing humanity just over the line in the debit column. Our own particular sins-our lies and shady dealings and sloughed-off responsibilities-blend with the faults of everyone else and lose their distinguishing colors in a dingy gray, like the water used to swirl out a paintbrush. Humanity is not always a pretty sight, but nobody's perfect. Our successes are due to talents and virtues that belong to us alone, but our faults share a common point of origin and stew in a common pot.

The adjective human appears 50 times in the NIV translation of the Bible, usually referring to the physical body; in the Authorized Version it occurs not once. But the word man, referring either to the individual or the species, occurs over 2,000 times in Scripture, always as a noun. This is how God sees mankind, and how he deals with each one of us: as an entity, not a quality. As man, not as "only human."

Though born in a "human condition" of sin, our sins belong to each one of us alone. It's from every individual heart that lust and envy, hatred and rebellion spring, enough to doom every man and woman to hell a thousand times over. Anyone who excuses sin in himself by the "only human" defense is showing that he doesn't understand sin. Or himself. And extending lenience on such terms to another sinner betrays an expectation that the lenience will flow both ways: If I judge not, I will not be judged.

But once we do understand sin, we can't excuse it-in anyone. Nathan the prophet may have had a closet full of skeletons-at the very least, he carried an enormous burden of sin-but he did not begin his message with, "Thou art only human like the rest of us, sir." No, he pointed a finger at David, with the pronouncement, "Thou art the man." It was not self-righteousness that motivated him, but obedience to God's word, reverence for God's standards, and horror at the king's abuse of them. We've been cautioned against "rushing to judgment," but there's an equal danger of rushing to forgiveness when the transgressor makes no specific confession of sin and no believable gesture of repentance. Such general absolution is in fact contempt for holiness, for justice, and for individual responsibility.

Such "forgiveness" will backfire. That gray wash spreads out and colors the whole landscape. If we can't hold a public man accountable for public wrongdoing, then all society becomes guilty: a huge enabler, feeding a single ego until it swells to monster proportions.

Thus lenience does make White House interns of us all.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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