The other day while talking with a mechanic friend of mine he used the word “Ameliorate.” For you this may be an everyday word, but when he asked me if I knew what it meant I had to admit I didn’t. He said, “It means to make better.” This man is a Catholic and isn’t shy about letting you know about it; so we have had a few conversations in the past about God, the Bible, denominational differences and so on. In other words, it isn’t surprising if the conversation takes a theological turn once in a while. Today was no different except self-help was the topic.
As he defined “Amelioration” he equated it with self-improvement, and I couldn’t resist telling him I didn’t believe in self-improvement. His response was “You can improve yourself” so I said, “I think you can improve your economic status, your intelligence and you can get a “better” home or car but those things aren’t improving the self. He wasn’t going to just receive what I was saying without going a little further with his reasoning, so he brought up, of all things, Benjamin Franklin.
Benjamin Franklin, he said, wasn’t a very nice guy when he was younger and several folks told him so. Eventually Ben decided to do something about this so he set out to improve himself. He apparently made a list of virtues that he would like to develop in his life and went to work. Of course when he looked at the length of the list he knew he couldn’t take on all of them at once; so his plan was to work on one at a time until he eventually had them all taken care of. Oddly enough as this man was telling me this I remembered my friend Brian Coatney had written a booklet entitled (click here for link)> “Ben Franklin and the Apostle Paul” in which he contrasted the two men and their differing approaches to “self-improvement” if you will. The Apostle Paul of course didn’t teach self-improvement he taught co-crucifixion with Christ as the only way. God understands fixing up the old man doesn’t work.
As this man shared ideas of improving the “self” with me I said to him “Isn’t the whole point that we all need Jesus Christ and he is the one that transforms us? I mean if we could change or fix ourselves we wouldn’t need him, right?” Then he said something that was so revealing to me. He said, “This is why Catholics have purgatory.” Wow! All of the sudden it made perfect sense to me. If we as humans are independent beings responsible for making ourselves perfect, or like Christ, purgatory is a must because that means when we die we will still be in need of yet even more improvement. On top of that who knows if any of us will ever make it? On the other hand if we are joined with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection we can walk in newness of life right now and forever. God’s Spirit joined to our human spirit is our only hope of perfection and that can only happen as a gift given to us from God himself.
I shared with him how I believe we are spirit beings and he said, “There is a teaching that we are spirits in human form, but that isn’t right because…” As he said this his phone rang, and I was actually glad because I thought this conversation had gone far enough at this point. It isn’t that I didn’t want to continue this talk, but I was afraid it may not end well. Sometimes a little bit of light and truth will go a long way, besides I’m sure this isn’t the end of our discussion it’s just going to be postponed for another day.
As I left his shop and drove away I had gained some unbelievably valuable insights into the difference between Law and grace, flesh and spirit and self-help and transformation. I was invigorated and couldn’t wait to tell Tracey about it. During my lunch break I shared the story with Tracey and picked up a copy of Brian’s booklet (click for link)> “Ben Franklin and the Apostle Paul” to give to him.
Let me end by saying I didn’t write this to indite Catholics or fuss about denominational differences but simply to tell you about this conversation. My hope is that we would all take a closer look at what the Bible is really trying to tell us. Does God really expect us to “Do better”? Or does he already know we have no hope without him? Isn’t this what the Gospel message is all about? Man disobeyed God and found himself in an impossible situation and only God can rescue him.
Jesus Christ didn’t come here to make bad people good he came here to make dead people live.