14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
What does it mean to be a light? How good do I have to be? How shiny?
In elementary school and even through my teen years, I was the kid of kid who liked to do everything right. I liked right answers, neat arrangements, perfect performances, first prizes. Needless to say, I was a pretty unhappy kid most of the time. The irony is that the more flawless we try to be, the more self-conscious we become and the more mistakes we make. Nobody can thrive when they’re consumed with frantically trying not to fail. I sure couldn’t.
Then there was the other side of the problem: when I did do right, when I did win first prize, or get 100 on a test, or do something well that others had struggled with, I worried about being liked. “I hate you,” another kid would say as the teacher handed me my perfect spelling test. “Come on, you make us look bad,” a coworker remarked.” “She’s so arrogant,” a colleague said when she thought I couldn’t hear. These hurtful words made me try NOT to excel. Slowly but surely, I began to hold back, covering who I was and what I could do. It seemed like the price to be paid to avoid rejection.
And then there’s Jesus: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works….” This passage always irritated me. First, there’s the part about “good works.” How many times had I been told that it was all about grace, not works? Now here Jesus himself is telling me to do good works after all? That didn’t sound like Jesus to me.
Hearing this passage, I felt (as I once heard a pastor in Texas put it) “danged if I do, danged if I don’t.” If I tried to do my best, I would fail, and therefore fail to make “good works” for those others to see. And if I didn’t fail, I would surely end up lonely, and who would see the good works then?
After years of torturing myself with this line of thinking, I’m grateful to God for helping me finally to read these words in another way. I have come to believe that it’s not a perfect performance, not really the works in “good works,” that Jesus asks of us here. It’s the light. If we are the light of the world, it’s because God ignited the light. And in each of us, God has ignited a different, unique and burning light. God asks that we not hide that—not behind false modesty, not behind embarrassment, not behind a need to look perfect, not behind fear of failure. Being the light of the world is not about us being perfect. It’s about us being…us. It’s us being who we are, the best of how we were made, revealing and using God’s gifts in the fullest way possible, even when we risk failure. Perhaps especially when we risk failure, because it’s in moments of failure that we find the best opportunities to show grace (God’s grace!) to others and to ourselves.
So I try not to ask myself, “how well did I do?” or, worse, “do they like me?” I try instead to ask, “Did I shine my light?” and trust that the light God ignites is a bright one indeed.