September 19, 2020

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Just as it takes a farmer to really identify BS, it takes a preacher to recognize self-righteousness…a preacher who has been there, done that, and who is still pretty good at it.

– Steve Brown, Three Free Sins

* * *

I’m one of those preachers and I ought to just own up. So, here goes…

“Hello. My name is Mike, and I am self-righteous.”

That would be a great way for me to introduce myself at every Christian gathering. Why? Because self-righteousness is my deepest sin (and yours), my greatest sin, my most unrecognized sin, and the sin of which I ought to be most afraid. I need to be reminded of this continually.

Self-righteousness is not something I do. I express it in my words, attitudes, and actions, but those expressions reveal what I am. It is my nature, part of my default position as a sinful human being.

And the problem is, it is one aspect of my sinfulness that actually has a tendency to get worse when I become a Christian.

I have found the way.

I have discovered the answer.

I have trusted God.

I have seen the light and embraced the truth.

Oh, what dangerous ground the new Christian stands on!

But that is just the beginning. The really insidious part about this condition is that the more I go on as a Christian: the more I grow in knowledge, the more I become integrated into the Christian community, the more my lifestyle conforms to the expectations of my particular Christian group, the more separated I get from “the world” and its ways, the more I learn to act, speak, dress, and think like a Christian, the more my capacity for self-righteousness increases.

The more I develop opinions about what is right, the greater my tendency to see you as someone who is wrong.

The more I become an insider, the less chance I have of relating properly to you as an outsider.

The more I delight in what is true and good, the more disdain I tend to develop for you, the one who can’t see the error and immorality of his ways.

The farther along this path I go, the more I develop “hardening of the categories” and my opinions turn to convictions that easily turn into thoughts of condemnation toward others.

And I forget.

I forget that this whole thing is not about me finding the way and taking it. It’s about Someone who lifted me up out of the miry pit and set my feet upon a rock.

It is not about me embracing Christ and his salvation. It’s about how I was drowning and how he reached down from on high and drew me out of mighty waters.

It is not about how I chose or exercised my faith in God. It’s about how I was dead in sin, and he breathed life into me and raised me up into a new creation.

It is not about a “Christian life” of climbing some spiritual ladder of increasing sanctity. It is about coming back to the Gospel every day and reliving my baptism, dying and being raised with Christ. It is about coming to hear the Word and receive the Body and Blood in each worship service because there is no other nourishment that can sustain me in the wilderness of life.

It is about realizing how loved I am, and how unworthy of that love!

It is about taking the next logical step — if I, so unworthy, am so loved, how then can I possibly withhold love from my neighbor, no matter how unworthy?

It is about me realizing the sobering truth of Romans 2:1 — the very point at which I judge others is the point at which I myself am vulnerable to sin.

Christian, be afraid. Be very afraid, most afraid of this deadliest of sins.

And pray for me, who has no right whatsoever to write these words to you.

Comments

  1. “It is not about a “Christian life” of climbing some spiritual ladder of increasing sanctity. It is about coming back to the Gospel every day and reliving my baptism, dying and being raised with Christ. It is about coming to hear the Word and receive the Body and Blood in each worship service because there is no other nourishment that can sustain me in the wilderness of life.”

    Excellent.

    You have every right to have written those words to us fellow sinners, Chaplain Mike.

    Who else does God have to use?

  2. Good words, if painful ones.

    For me, it gets worse when I start to think that anything I have, including my Faith itself, is something that makes me special and gifted and clearly “Chosen” above all those other slobs doing dumb stuff and ignoring God.

    Until I remember that (A) it is all a total gift that I do not deserve…what I deserve is horrifying punishment and (B) like Paul and many others, I have my secret thorn of sin that won’t leave me alone.

  3. Just what I needed to read, you put it in such plain terms. The Gospel sets us free from self-ririghteousness that is why the gospel must be preached every sunday, to remind that its not about us but about Jesus. Amen chaplain Mike.

  4. “Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way
    Can hardly wait to look in the mirror, I get better looking each day
    To know me is to love me, I must be a hell of a man
    Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble but I’m doing the best that I can.”
    I often say, “I’m about the most humble that I know of “. I imagine I’m in good company.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I imagine I’m in good company.

      Like C.J.Mahaney.

    • Christiane says

      “This thought should keep us humble:
      We are sinners, but we do not know how great.
      He alone knows who died for our sins. ”

      (John Henry Newman)

  5. Good post. You know, it’s so easy for me to point out the flaws of other believers, since I’m now “post-evangelical” and have it all figured out. Humility is a difficult pill to swallow, but we all need a dose…several times daily. Thanks for reminding me that faith isn’t about my character, but about the character of Jesus.

  6. To deny that part of the Christian life is maturing and increasing enlightenment is to reject part of the divine protocol for us from God. It is about you and your finding the way and taking it. When you attempt to segregate or divest the person of Christ from his call to us with such language, because that is what such language does, you are removing from the person of Christ that call to his children not only to be raised to new life but to keep on allowing yourself to be transformed by having your mind renewed that you may, indeed, know what is good and pleasing. Perhaps your self-righteousness or arrogance is not due to a problem with coming to conclusions but an immature perspective that enlightenment and certainty must lead to arrogance. It does if not handled with grace and maturity but we certainly do not eschew deliberation and confidence because some people handle it inappropriately. Now that is genuine self-righreousness. Yes, it is about humility in realizing how unworthy we are but that is far from the only objective of God for us.

    • You really don’t think that along the path of trying to humble, to be reminded of his death and resurrection in Christ, etc, the good chaplain might not be transformed by the renewing of his mind? His wording might be classical protestant, coming from his background and tradition, but is what he’s getting at so different from:

      “They saw themselves as sinners, tried to know themselves, and to treat all with love and humility.” – a description of the desert fathers

      I think he’s in good company.

      • Being humble is an essential disposition for the believer but being humble, all by itself, does not result in spiritual maturity. Now combine humility with being reminded of the death and resurrection in Christ and you still do not have maturity. Yes, you have transformation but it is not going to result in spiritual maturity and certainty with the Scriptures.

        The Bible emphatically makes it clear we are to progress from milk to meat in the Word of God. This is not accomplished by focusing on the death and resurrection of Christ. That is only one doctrinal category. It is not in error but it is incomplete to simply say, ” be humble and focus on or be reminded of the death and resurrection of Christ”.

        • Thank you Alex. You get it. Guys like Tullian don’t. When I read about this ‘calling myself a consistent sinner’ I think of CJ Mahaney and his book on Humility

          • If that’s what you think, Martin, I must not have written very clearly. I can’t think of too many folks with whom I differ more on matters of the Christian life than C.J. Mahaney.

    • No one is denying that growing and maturing is part of the Christian life, Alex. That’s different than “climbing the spiritual ladder.” And we’re really talking about self-righteousness, not sanctification here. This quote from C.S. Lewis captures what I’m after:

      “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

      • CM,

        While you state that this is not about sanctification but climbing a spiritual ladder (self-righteousness), and I understand this distinction, your words do not lend themselves to falling in the latter category but easily describe valid traits of a mature believer.

        “The more I delight in what is true and good, the more disdain I tend to develop for you, the one who can’t see the error and immorality of his ways.”

        That really makes no sense. If you delight in what is true and good you won’t have inappropriate dispositions towards others, otherwise you are delighting in arrogance. You, in the least, imply that delighting in what is true and good leads to disdain for others. That is not necessarily true. What leads to disdain is failing to accompany greater enlightenment with humility and that portion of your post, I do believe, is relevant.

        Frankly, what I read is a hand-wringing “oh my goodness I better not be certain about my views or speak with conviction” piety being passed off for humility and judgment against those who might, indeed, be certain. In fact, your post, I believe, encourages a disdain itself.

        You might not enjoy reading this but aside from its point about humility which is true and always remembering who lifted us, you leave the believer in a hang-wringing state of fear of theological and spiritual confidence, in my estimation.

        • Alex, seriously, my only “theological and spiritual confidence” is in the person of Jesus Christ, crucified, raised again, and exalted.

          Of course I have plenty of theological and spiritual opinions, which may or may not be, in varying degrees, correct. In my better moments I hold these lightly and remember I am called to love God and my neighbor as Christ lives in and through me, not exhibit my spiritual expertise or broadcast my moral judgments.

          • Good for you, Alex. I too am confident in the Gospel and in Jesus who is the Word. Unfortunately, what I have found is that people have far too much confidence in their own interpretations of a book they deem inerrant but which is demonstrably capable of a variety of interpretations. I remember seasons of my life when I had such supreme confidence. I was not a very loving or wise person in those times. I consider it a sign of growth that I am more sure than ever of the creedal faith, but less sure than ever of myself.

      • Josh in FW says

        love that quote

        • As certain of the Gospel in the Word of God you can also be concerning all other doctrines. Yes it is right to assert we must be humble and teachable but it does not mean we cannot be certain and dogmatic with grace.

          • Really Alex? Certain of eschatology? Certain of church polity? Certain of sacraments? Certain of any one of a thousand doctrines about which Christians have disagreed from the beginning? Sorry if I have my doubts.

          • Alex Guggenheim says

            Well CM, obvious it is your choice to be so uncertain about so much in the Word of God.

            • Alex, I’m going to push back on this because I think you are being unrealistic about “certainty.” Can you honestly look at the variety of legitimate interpretations of Scripture out there on a multiplicity of topics and then think, with full certainty, that your little corner of the church has got it all right and everyone else has it all wrong? A dose of church history is a wonderful cure for dogmatic certainty.

  7. Reading your post today, reminded me of the real blessing of failure, and of trying things and falling on my face. Which happens pretty much all the time.

    Not to say that I’m not self righteous. Maybe the amazing part of this is how I can experience so much failure and fall short in so many ways and still be self-righteous.

    Still, it reminds me how, instead of chaffing at how I deserve better, maybe I should embrace the moment. I should allow myself to be humbled. I should receive and and accept my failures and shortcomings as friends who are trying to show me the way.

    • “The blessing of failure’ is one of those things we often don’t appreciate until we have grown up some spiritually. “Falling Upward” by Richard Rohr makes this point well. We get to the second half of life and with any luck we are humbled enough to accept God’s grace as a perpetual falling process instead of the illusion of doing right and choosing right to get ourselves to maturity. It’s like our pride can’t be separated from our righteousness; when we do right, there’s the inner smugness ready to take the prize!

  8. David Cornwell says

    This reminds me of William Willimon’s “Sighing for Eden…” thesis, namely that evil ‘s root is really within each of us, and that we don’t have to go about blaming others. Informed by Luther, he writes ‘”Sin is always narcissistic, the result of the ‘heart curved in upon itself’ … the tragic end of our fatal attempt to be God.”

    We do not have to look far to find the Evil One.

    A further quote from Willimon:

    “The only honest work for the preacher is to elaborate, Sunday after Sunday, what it means to be confronted by the cross, to keep holding up a mirror to himself or herself and to the congregation.”

  9. This quote from Michael Spencer is a little long but I think it’s quite appropriate for the conversation :

    “What was that I heard? “Well….we’re getting better. That’s sanctification. I’ve been delivered!” I suppose some of us are getting better. For instance, my temper is better than it used to be. Of course, the reason my temper is better, is that in the process of cleaning up the mess I’ve made of my family with my temper, I’ve discovered about twenty other major character flaws that were growing, unchecked, in my personality. I’ve inventoried the havoc I’ve caused in this short life of mine, and it turns out “temper problem” is way too simple to describe the mess that is me. Sanctification? Yes, I no longer have the arrogant ignorance to believe that I’m always right about everything, and I’m too embarrassed by the general chaos of my life to mount an angry fit every time something doesn’t go my way. Getting better? Quite true. I’m getting better at knowing what a wretched wreck I really amount to, and it’s shut me up and sat me down.”

  10. I’m just glad I can cry behind my mask, and know how really dreadful I am; and no one else can see.

    Thanks for your honesty Chaplain.

  11. Wow. You absolutely hit the nail on the head with this one. So many times just when I think I have put down my self-righteous tendencies they pop up again. It’s an ongoing battle.

    At the same time, some of my family members are so entrenched in their particular Christian club that they don’t seem to have any awareness of the horrendous self-righteousness that grips them, or how it affects others. Ironically, this has made me more aware of the problem in my own life and helped me I think. At the same time, it’s painful and sad to watch someone become hardened this way. Any ideas out there on how to reach people like this with grace and love?

  12. Clay Crouch says

    This reminded me of a piece posted a month or so ago at Mockingbird: “The Line Running Through Every Human Heart (According to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)”.

    Here’s a snippet from Solzhenitsyn.

    “In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there rotting on prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us it oscillates with the years. And even within the hearts overwhelmed with evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”

    • This quote is even more amazing in context. It’s in a chapter of the Gulag Archipelago talking about what kind of people made up the variously renamed state security people, and it comes after the parts describing the heinousness of interrogations at their hands. In includes his retrospective look at how close he came to becoming one of them, and emphasize their humanity and normalcy. In a book describing the monstrous things they did, he explores how they aren’t monsters. He looks at them and sees himself. I think it may be the best chapter in the whole set of volumes.

  13. Thanks for the reminder that the cross is not the starting point on a journey toward spiritual self-improvement.
    No, the cross is where we see true depths of our own depravity and selfishness nailed up like an animal in the bloody and battered body of our Creator and Redeemer.
    It’s where the immeasurable distance between His unblemished righteousness and our own efforts and ideals comes into stark focus.
    it’s where the our utter dependence on His mercy and love and grace is most clearly seen.
    No, the cross is not a place to start — it’s a place to stay.

  14. A big “Amen!” to this post and so many of the replies. As I have read through the New Testament over the past few years, I have been struck by the fact that the writers do not focus on evil emperors, gladiator games, legalized prostitution, specific pagan practices, and a host of other hideous ailments, including slavery, that plagued the world that they lived in. It is hard to put the New Testament down without a realization that the main danger to the fledgling church was the “bread of the Pharisees” and the doctrine of the Judaizers.

    What a contrast to my religious upbringing! Politicians, Hollywood, abortion, gay marriage and a host of other ills received top billing in the sermons. I can’t recall a sermon on self-righteousness or spiritual pride in my upbringing. It took a long time for me to even realize that these were problems in the church and even more so in my own life. I am thankful that God is patient . . .

  15. As I read your post I’m struck by the fact that the ‘I’s have it! Been there, done that. Self focus – whether thinking too highly or too lowly, when in fact I need not be thinking of self at all but of Him who died for me.

  16. At 76 yrs. and having returned to the gospel, I doubt that I am any better than that 6 yr. old “innocent” child I once was. Thank God that Jesus stands in front of me and says, My grace is sufficient for you. That is my only chance for salvation.

  17. Great post.

  18. Sanctification is not about our striving, or seriousness (who really is serious about all of this?).

    Sanctification is our gradual reliance and trusting more and more in Christ.

    Meat is ‘trusting’. Milk is ‘doing’.

    Our ‘doing’ is what got us all into this mess to begin with.

    • Steve, when I read stuff like this from “Born Again” Christians it makes me want to hide the silver and keep my hand on my wallet if we ever meet. This is navel gazing sanctification. Faith is not a work. And sanctification is synergistic with the help of the Holy Spirit.

      • Do you want to steal from people, Martin?

        Why not?

        To sanctify is ‘to be made holy’. YOU are going to help do that to yourself?

        Right.

        • Please, guys, let’s not get Chaplain Mike started on sanctification…
          🙂

        • “Do you want to steal from people, Martin?”

          Why not?”

          Stealing is not my particular temptation or bent

          “To sanctify is ‘to be made holy’. YOU are going to help do that to yourself?”

          Are you saying you have no part in it? I think I do have a part. I think it is synergistic with the Advocate.
          An Alcoholic stays away from booze and the Advocate helps him/her with the temptation. A glutton stays out of the ktichen with the help of the Advocate. The liar tells the truth and so on. The examples are endless. Are you suggesting some sort of navel gazing sanctification where you wait around for God to force you not to sin? Do you not think we should put feet to our prayers in sanctification?

          See, this is what I think Tullian (and many others) wrongly teach by implication.. He brags that he does no good things. Ok then, I do not want him around my kids. Yet anyone who brags about being good or righteous is silly because battling the flesh is serious business.

          • “Are you saying you have no part in it?”

            That’s exactly what I’m saying.

            But semi-Pelagian co-operative religion is everywhere, so I do understand your position, although I don’t agree.

            Thanks, Martin.

          • “But semi-Pelagian co-operative religion is everywhere, so I do understand your position, although I don’t agree.”

            Nice. Now I am a heretic.

          • I just said on this point you are wrong.

            Heretic is a bit strong.

            Jesus doesn’t need our help to finish the good work He began in us. If you think He does, then you happen to think He’s a bit smaller of a God than I do.

          • “Jesus doesn’t need our help to finish the good work He began in us. If you think He does, then you happen to think He’s a bit smaller of a God than I do.”

            I don’t believe in the determinist God. Too close to the Islamic Allah for my taste. God is in charge of His own Sovereignty and such hermeneutics actually work to make Him into a smaller God to have to force us obey Him. There is not one thing either of us can do or not do to change or help God be Sovereign over His own Sovereignty. But some do think that saying such things elevates man instead of God. If you have ever studied the Qu’ran, you would find the same sort of beliefs concerning Allah. The difference is the Calvinist God has grace for some. Both Islam and Augustinian/Calvin interpretations have their roots in Plato. Which is the foundation for a lot of tyranny as proven by history.

  19. There is a subtle difference between being confident in oneself and being confident in the Truth.

    “Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert-himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason… The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping: not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.” — G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

    Truth is a dangerous thing. You may misuse it, yes. Aslan is not a tame lion, but he is a good lion. You may misunderstand him, may get bitten or scratched. It doesn’t change the essential truth of the matter.

    The reason why we have the Church today is because in the past, various sorts of oddball people, beginning with St. Paul, went about the business of making disciples. In order to do that, they had to declare, did they not, that their Gospel was uniquely true, and the religion of the realm was not. They had to be willing to die for this, and many did.

    So explain to me how having the truth, knowing it is the truth, and being confident enough in this truth to tell others about it, to the point of ridicule, opposition and even death–is, somehow, not what we should be doing (which is the gist I get from the post). How is that supposed to practically work out in the real world, where churches are in decline and there are still folks out there who don’t know who Jesus is or what He did? Genuinely curious.

    • Ben, seriously? The “gist of the post” was that we are not to be confident to tell others the truth?

      Man, I’ve got to get a writing coach.

  20. “The more I develop opinions about what is right, the greater my tendency to see you as someone who is wrong.”

    The implication of this sentence is that what is referenced in the sentence is a bad thing.

    “The more I delight in what is true and good, the more disdain I tend to develop for you, the one who can’t see the error and immorality of his ways.”

    OK. False dichotomy, but the “gist” is still the same. Getting excited or zealous for the truth somehow makes us do things that are wrong. Which does happen, I admit, but is it always wrong? I find your position unclear. That’s why I gave push-back.

    “I forget that this whole thing is not about me finding the way and taking it. It’s about Someone who lifted me up out of the miry pit and set my feet upon a rock.”

    I agree in the sense that before we become Christians, our wills are bound to sin and we can’t choose God on our own. But once we receive the grace of Baptism, then we can cooperate with grace, right? That’s what the Formula of Concord says. Though we will do so faultily, I admit. Cooperating with grace would mean, would it not, “finding” ways to please God? Being active in some sense?

    Maybe we’re just talking past each other, and maybe it’s too late at night. After all, this one post doesn’t contain the “Truth” does it? Asserting that would be…ironic?

    • Ben, let me make it simple.

      This post is about the nefarious nature of the sin of self-righteousness.

      The more we go along in the Christian life, the more it finds ways to infiltrate and undermine even the most admirable and commendable aspects of our lives.

      One of the damnedest things about self-righteous people is that they’re usually right!

  21. “This post is about the nefarious nature of the sin of self-righteousness”

    NT Wright talks about this. Being “righteous” is not the same thing at all as “self righteous”. Yet, I fear many are trying to make it so.

  22. Self-righteousness seeks self reward.

  23. I really needed this today! Thank you!!!

    “The more I develop opinions about what is right, the greater my tendency to see you as someone who is wrong.

    The more I become an insider, the less chance I have of relating properly to you as an outsider.”

    I fear becoming that!

    “I forget that this whole thing is not about me finding the way and taking it. It’s about Someone who lifted me up out of the miry pit and set my feet upon a rock.”

    I fear forgetting that.

    • And to add, I’ve struggled through some deep questions and fears these last 24 hours. And I am seeing that it is the humility that is at the crux, that and my relationship with God through Christ. Everything ~ EVERY. THING. else stems from that!

  24. I don’t understand why people insist on renaming “hypocrisy” as “self-righteousness”. I guess its just part of an antinomian attempt to bash righteousness.

  25. “The really insidious part about this condition is that the more I go on as a Christian: the more I grow in knowledge, the more I become integrated into the Christian community, the more my lifestyle conforms to the expectations of my particular Christian group, the more separated I get from “the world” and its ways, the more I learn to act, speak, dress, and think like a Christian, the more my capacity for self-righteousness increases.”

    Because when you make things that aren’t really sins into sins, because they aren’t really sins you don’t think them wrong and thus continue to do them. Then you play the hypocrite condemning things you know are not wrong, and then doing them. Like, being human for instance. The more “Christian” you become the more power you ascribe to sin, the more sentience, and the more you lean to the opinion that “Sin is not something we do, its what we are.” So now you’ve declared being human a sin; yet you are still human, and hence, a hypocrite.

  26. “When I do good, who is basically responsible? The answer is ‘God’. When I do bad, who is basically responsible? The answer is ‘me’. So where was I (i.e., me) when I (i.e., God) did the good?”

    Klaus Issler, Living into the Life of Jesus, p.32.