November 26, 2020


andRead Luke 18:9-12

“He expects us to make mistakes. He gives us millions (indeed billions and trillions) of chances. If anything, God likes our weaknesses because it enables him to exercise his infinite mercy. When Paul prayed earnestly to be delivered from a particularly annoying weakness, God said to him, ‘My grace is enough for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 12:9) According to this text, we do God a great favor by accepting our weakness. So there is no reason to be saddened by the fact that we do not measure up to our idealized image of ourselves and of how we should perform in the spiritual journey. That obviously is an ego trip.” (p. 104, Manifesting God by Thomas Keating) Thanks Lurker Joanie

“Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men.”

Of course, we are like other human beings. The Pharisee’s prayer was an exercise in self-deception. Informing God that we aren’t like other people is a particularly pointless endeavor, though it made enormous sense to the Pharisee, whose entire religion was based on separation from others.

“I’m right and you’re wrong.” How far should we go down that road? It does take us somewhere, but where does it ultimately take us? If you get out the map, it eventually takes all of us to the place where we’re all wrong, in one way or another.

“I don’t do the bad things that some men do.” But if you keep traveling, sooner or later the scenery starts to look familiar. We all arrive at the town where WE do bad things.

“I’m more religious than other people.” That’s a short road, because religion is a short road to nowhere. No one is religious enough, and the more religious we are, the less we have of what God is really looking for.

In a post from another time, I called it “the Ecclesiastes attitude.” Eventually, the same things catch up with the whole human race and we all turn into the same kind of monster. Life is one big rerun, with a few different whistles and bells.

Do we have a sense that Ecclesiastes is telling us the truth when it says that all our efforts to outdistance ourselves from the unwashed masses and the common sinners, while impressive today, are page 9, section F tomorrow?

Do we get it that the awards we give ourselves for avoiding the errors and failures of other people tarnish very, very quickly?

Do we realize that in the gaze of God, all our thrashing around, outrage at unrighteousness and extended speeches correcting the errors of our neighbors end up being the very evidence that convicts us of being unrighteous, unloving and condemned by God’s holiness?

The problem with being a religious leader, or a husband, or a dad, or a preacher/writer, is that eventually EVERY SINGLE WORD you’ve spoken to your wife, your kids and your various congregations will revisit you and condemn you.

All of it. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak or teach or correct, but which does mean there’s no separating ourselves so far away from or above others that we become spectators on their condemnation and repentance.

When we have a bad man in our sights- like, for instance, most conservatives and their view of the President- we are at particular risk. His flaws loom large and fill the screen. Our condemnations and criticisms fill ears, eyes and pages.

It never seems to occur to us that while the political stances may be different, the human failure is the same. Eventually, we all will be sitting by Obama in the same bus station, going to the same destination.

So Jesus’ story reminds me that the difference between the tax collector begging for mercy and the Pharisee reading all the reasons he was right amounted to a matter of self-perception, not God perception.

And from God’s point of view, what mattered was sola fide. And that was all. Dressed in the righteousness of Christ alone, I have no place to stand and point at how poorly dressed someone else happens to be.


  1. It’s funny: As a teenager, I was obsessed with being “not like other people”. Then, as a young adult, it started to really occur to me that I actually *am* a lot like most other people–and that thought depressed me. Now, turning 30, I’ve decided that I’m a lot like other people–*and I’m pretty much okay with that*.

    Oh and something else: To celebrate my birthday, I went and bought some new clothes. I bought totally unremarkable stuff: Plain ol’ jeans, solid-color t-shirts, and some literally button-down shirts. I hadn’t even been thinking about it but I’d picked this sort of clean-cut, super-ordinary stuff because I’m sick of seeing sloppily dressed people (i.e. grown men in basketball shorts (while not playing basketball), extremely rude T-shirts, muffin tops, cut-offs, et al.) and wanted to stand out. Yeah, that’s right: Dressing neat and tidy is the new nonconformism.

    • Feliz Navidad says

      Dear J —
      This thoughtful dressing you did, I think, is a good idea, and reflective of Michael’s outstanding essay here. But I would say so, because yesterday I did a bit of shopping and did the identical thing. I am older now, so I don’t dress rudely anymore (but I do see your point!) — but also your standardized dress means you won’t be out of style anytime soon, and you didn’t have to spend a fortune on your image. Dressing casually but neatly also makes it easier for other folks to accept you. You are not EGO in an expensive suit or dress. Nor creeping anyone out in your gross duds. Dressing is one of the many ways we express our illusion of seperateness, isn’t it? Yesterday, when I shopped, I really looked for making myself presentable, but also being able to repeat the outfits and make new purchases work with my old. Why should I wear what I could, in fact, give away — or plant a garden — or do other better things with. By the way, I was celebrating my birthday too!

      Thanks, Michael, for your thoughtful reminder of my continual pride.

  2. Oh and: FIRST.

  3. This to me makes Romans 5:8–“But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” all the more meaningful. May God have mercy on us when we forget “the righteousness of Christ alone” as you put it.

  4. It almost seems like fate, wherein no matter how positive my motives, I’m going to mess it up. The only thing I can try to do is put off that sin for a bit longer and maybe win this battle or that battle, which of course only comes from Christ. I know that was a very negative way to look at it, but that’s how I feel at times.

    Of course, on the positive side, I know that God, through Christ’s righteousness, forgives and accepts, which allows me victory over this rerun as well. It’s an interesting paradox.

  5. I appreciate this piece, Michael, as I always need to be reminded to watch out for the creeping tendencies of criticism, sarcasm, and the need to be right. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.

  6. Would it make a difference if we were more self-conscious, more self-critical, of ourselves, our church community, our religious history? I think so. There is such a thing as constructive criticism. One can be critical of ones views and still hold to them.

  7. The problem with being a religious leader, or a husband, or a dad, or a preacher/writer, is that eventually EVERY SINGLE WORD you’ve spoken to your wife, your kids and your various congregations will revisit you and condemn you.

    True words

  8. Thank you for this post. It hits home to me as I’ve been wrestling with this issue for some time and have come to see it more clearly. Unfortunately, I see it quite often among friends and even some family. It’s a small step from “there but for the grace of God go I” to “Thank you God that I am not like X.” Spiritual elitism is ever a temptation.

    When tempted this direction, I have learned to focus on Jesus and realize anew that we are all sinners in need of HIm.

    My question is, how do we guide our brothers and sisters away from this kind of thing? Can we, or is something the Holy Spirit does alone?

  9. “When we have a bad man in our sights- like, for instance, most conservatives and their view of the President- we are at particular risk. His flaws loom large and fill the screen. Our condemnations and criticisms fill ears, eyes and pages.

    It never seems to occur to us that while the political stances may be different, the human failure is the same. Eventually, we all will be sitting by Obama in the same bus station, going to the same destination.”

    Thank you so much for all of this post, but especially that part.

  10. I’ve been in conversation with a man who feels he has done such horrible stuff that he just hopes God will let him into heaven. He sees the surface part of me and says he wants to be just half the Christian I am. He has no idea what I’ve done or thought. I talk to him about that it’s only by God’s grace that any of us are forgiven and that all of us have sinned. Do any of you have any words of wisdom as to how I can continue to share with him about God’s amazing love and grace? Every time I talk with him I ask God to give me the words and the spirit to be able to convey what he needs to hear. I know it’s a process and maybe it’s just a matter of continuing to talk of God’s grace and how we are all in need.

    I like what you said about being religious and if we are thinking we are so religious we are missing what God is looking for. I think people have gotten the wrong idea about relationship with God and it has caused people like my friend to misunderstand how God works in our lives. God’s grace is greater than all our sins.

    • A few things come to mind, maybe one of them will help.

      One thing is too just relax. I’m confident your friend is saved and you probably are as well. Just relax and let that confidence show to him. Your friend doesn’t feel saved, but salvation isn’t a feeling. Most of the time when I feel saved it’s just arrogance and self-righteousness. A little bit of confidence and even light-heartedness on your part may be just what he needs. It would be great for your friend to realize he’s free, but he’ll be fine if he doesn’t.

      Let him know that the idea of being half the Christian you are is pretty silly. It’s like being half as pregnant, just because you’re not further along doesn’t mean you’re any less pregnant… ok that analogy may not work, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment.

      You’ve probably mentioned the thief on the cross, but perhaps pointing out that we’re probably not talking about a pickpocket here. We’re probably dealing with a highwayman here – club people over the head, beat them senseless, take their stuff, leave them to die, go home and get drunk! This is a tricky route because it’s leading towards comparing who the worst sinner is, which isn’t always a good idea, but it might help.

      One other thing comes to mind. “not sinning” is not listed as a fruit of the spirit. Sometimes people need to be shown their fruit.

      God Bless you and your friend!

    • No chance your friend is Catholic, is there? Confession/reconciliation is a powerful sacrament, especially in cases like this.

      • No, he doesn’t have a Catholic background. As we continue our conversation I will continue to suggest ways to help him realize the grace and redemption of God. I really do feel GOd’s presence as I talk with this man. God gives me wisdom and guidance, thankfully. Because I know I can’t do this on my own.

        • God Bless You for helping this man , Amy.
          I used to work in a drug rehab teaching teenagers. Sometimes, they would talk to me and I think God helped me to respond to them in a way that I would not have known how to on my own. . I remembered that when I read what you wrote.

        • It may be helpful to read part or all of “Search For Significance” — much of it focused on Ephesians chap 1. Many people have experienced life changing encouragement
          from that book (myself included).

    • Hang in there, sister. It’s about God, not about your friend..or you. Your friend merely lacks faith in the powerful absolution of the cross and resurrection. ALL sin is covered, ALL sin is forgotten. ALL is made new. Pray for a revelation of this in your friend. His heart will be set afire. It is said, “The Joy of the Lord is Our Strength”. This joy comes from the revelation of our forgiven sins. Perhaps recommend to him the book, “Normal Christian Life” by Watchman Nee. It changed my life and led me to the path of Grace.

  11. Neat article from Fr. Robert Barron discussing this relationship of self vs. other from a Christian perspective and using the new movie District 9 as a starting point:

  12. In reading the NT, I often think about the phrase in Romans that calls for ‘obedience of faith’ and also in Timothy, I read that conscience must be followed unless we make a ‘shipwreck’ of our faith.

    Seems to me, that an informed conscience, with respect to the teachings and examples of Our Lord, and with respect to the present situation we are in, and under the sought Guidance of the Holy Spirit, MUST be obeyed,
    and may not be interfered with by others who would deny the person the right to obey that conscience.

    I would imagine that those who are not trained in the formation of their Christian ‘conscience’ as a guide to obedience to the Will of Christ in their lives,
    must find it more difficult to look at the world around them and see the people in it with compassion.
    I find this very sad.
    I think it leads to behaviors towards others that are guided by the darker forces of our nature.

    So it is that sometimes we see in another that which we do not see in ourselves. The “other” becomes an object of contempt and is sometimes treated poorly, rudely, without respect, and with open intent to abuse. The more we see ourselves as ‘justified’ in doing this, the more abusive will be our behavior towards the ‘other’.
    Only Christ can change this pattern. Only He can quiet the waters of the rage inside the one who is condemning and abusive, and lead him into the peaceful Ways of the Lord, where they can no longer make a ‘shipwreck’ of their faith.

  13. Thanks Michael. Jesus is enough, and nothing else is. I’m looking forward to being shocked when I realize just who I’ve been kneeling next at the cross-it’s a company of bad people with a good Savior. God bless you.


  14. Reminds me of a story:

    A man dies and goes to heaven. He is heartily welcomed through the pearly gates. As he walks through, he sees a large congregation there to welcome him. He recognizes many of the faces, and is surprised that some of them were allowed into heaven. Suddenly he realizes, they are looking at him as if they are surprised he is there, too.

    Amen, Michael. Good reminder.

    • Great story.
      If I make it, I will look forward to meeting all those ‘Good Samaritans’ who stopped by the side of road to help a stranger, and yet, knew not that the identity of that stranger was Our Lord.

  15. A convicting, no-frills, penetrating post. I would say “Thanks!” and be all humble but I really don’t like being shown myself in a mirror, even if it’s true and I need it.

    I would also say that the cure for this kind of attitude is being humble, but I don’t know exactly how to be humble. I know what it’s like to be humbled, but I don’t know how to do it myself.

    My perception of myself before God has basically been to accept what the bible says of me: I’m sinful. I don’t mean just depraved in the sense that I cannot gain merit with God. I mean that sin has so had its way with me that there isn’t much of anything that I’m not capable of if left to my own strength. Adultery? Murder? Abusiveness? Idolatry? You name it, I can do it.

    Just because I don’t do these things and someone else does does not make me better than them. It makes me one of them: it is only God’s grace that keeps me from such things and I fight that far too frequently to take credit for it when it produces any act of righteousness.

    Not talking “worm theology” here. Just an acceptance that I am capable of almost any sinful behavior as anyone else.

    • I think the key for me is to focus on my own spiritual life and not be concerned with what anyone else is doing. I have plenty of my own sin to deal with – I don’t need to butt my nose into the state of anyone else’s soul. Fortunately, that’s God’s job, not mine.

      • But we are called to focus on others as well–Matthew 28:20 ” teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

        • I agree, Jason. But there’s a huge difference between teaching/admonishing and judging others, especially in comparison with ourselves. I used to be hugely judgmental of others, and it was always based on outward appearances and actions. (What else could it be based on? I can’t see into someone else’s soul.) I was smug and acting the Pharisee, when in my own heart I had some very serious sin to deal with.

          When I began to take the log out of my own eye and realize how very gracious and patient God was with me, it gave me a whole new attitude about others. Frankly, it’s a relief not to feel like I have to determine where I stand in some kind of religious pecking order. I can just concentrate on myself and leave the working of the Holy Spirit in another to – well – the Holy Spirit.

          I can teach someone God’s precepts, which I do in various settings, but I can leave the final outcome to God. Each person has a unique background and a unique set of circumstances that God is dealing with. What I might perceive to be sin for someone else may actually be huge progress from where they were before.

          So I teach others, but pray for them more. And I remind myself constantly that God loves those I disagree with and tend to feel superior to EXACTLY the same way he loves me. Whoa.

  16. Oh boy, yeah.

    Thanks once again for good posts, Michael.

    “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

    It’s when we are most patting ourselves on the back for how we are not like others, that we should be most aware of our rags and poverty. We have nothing, nothing of which to boast.

    • As Padre Pio said, “The man who is ashamed of his sinfulness is closer to God than the man who is ashamed of his righteousness.” Makes you wonder about people who are PROUD of their righteousness!

  17. When critical Christians ‘speak truth in love’ to their victims, I wonder if they remember what it was like to be a little child getting yelled at by an adult. For anyone who has ever seen a child being humiliated by an authority figure who should know better, it is a sickening sight.
    And the the effect on the child?

    The people who are ‘better than thou’ aren’t.
    The people they look down on may be way, way ahead of the game in the Eyes of the Lord.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      There’s a much simpler term — one word long — for that kind of “speaking Truth in Love”:


  18. I agree, great post. Here’s what I struggle with, though: Dads, husbands, and religious leaders are Biblically mandated to instruct and correct. Do we throw in the towel and let the chips fall where they may, or do we correct from what we perceive is a Biblical foundation and humbly pray that God forgives us when we are incorrect?

    • I had a Dad who worked sixteen hours a day, cooked us a hot breakfast every morning, grew an organic garden and repaired his own appliances. He took us to Mass every Sunday morning. I don’t think he ever owned more than one suit at a time.

      When the time came for us to go to university, the money was in the bank.

      Instead of punishment, he taught us. He didn’t say a whole lot, but we would have died before doing anything that would have disappointed him, we loved him that much. At no time were we ever put down or humiliated while being diciplined. I got a low grade once in math. Pop looked at the report, said ‘take care of it’, I worked many extra hours over my algebra book, and the next report card grade was an ‘A’. No yelling, no threats, Just ‘take care of it’.

      Sometimes, it’s the INTEGRITY and commitment of the authority figure which speaks louder than any ‘lectures’. We would have done anything for him because he sacrificed himself for his family with all of his strength.
      They don’t make them like him anymore.

      • I don’t think I implied lecturing nor yelling so much as instructing. I also suspect that when you were a young child testing the limits, it wasn’t your father’s integrity that made you mind, though as you aged, it became more salient. I think that a father’s first priority to his children (after loving God and his wife) is to train them up, to teach them. Sometimes, that involves correction. Further, not everyone is so amenable to following a parent–your father was apparently quite lucky to have a daughter who was afraid of disappointing him–many parents have children who push the boundaries a bit more (ask any parent with two or more children, they are just different). As a psychologist, I can’t tell you the number of children who grew up with distant fathers who don’t really have any clue who they are.

        • It wasn’t a ‘fear’ of disappointing him, so much as it would have broken my heart to do it.
          My father, now of blessed memory, came from another country, and we were members of a large French Canadian Family, very ethnic and very close.

          It was a tradition in my father’s family that there was respect for the grandparents: my memere and pepere. I do not even begin to understand the idea of ‘challenging their authority’ because the ties in our family were the kind that affirmed us and gave us an identity and inner strength to go out and achieve to our potential. That term that gets thrown around: family values, doesn’t even begin to describe our family. Good communication, good strong boundaries, and always ‘Respect’. Not lip service out of fear. The real thing. Was I fortunate? Absolutely.

  19. A big flashing neon sign in the Gospels is just how differently Jesus treats those guilty of “spiritual” sins like pride, arrogance, and oppression, and how he treats those guilty of other more “human, of-the-flesh” sins. This hardly ever gets talked about.

    A lot gets buried in the repentance dynamic. But the adulterer whom they were about to stone repented of nothing, as far as we know. There’s something distinct going on here. Not to say that supersedes the importance of faith and forgiveness, but it’s something else.

    To adopt evangelical language, the Pharisees were living entirely by the Law. But that doesn’t even cover it. When Jesus speaks harshly and sternly to you, he’s speaking the language of the Law. And Jesus never would have said something if it wasn’t in his best estimation what that person most needed to draw them toward salvation. Some people are evidently so “Law” that no “Gospel” can squeak in (at least at a particular point in a life)– or else Jesus would have squeaked it in.

  20. And of course the great irony is that there are frequently responses to posts on this blog that criticize more conservative, fundamental believers with the response that “at least we are not judgmental like they are” and now in writing this post, I too am judging them, I suppose.

    God have mercy on me too.

    • There’s a difference between judging and noticing.

      You don’t have to apologize to God for being aware of how things are – or at least, not in my religion, but I’m not a ‘conservative, fundamental believer’ myself.

  21. I really liked (and needed) this post.

  22. Most of us do not realize the depth of the despair in which Luther found himself. When he spoke of sola fide and what he had learned from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, he spoke about it with the profound relief of someone who has had a weight lifted from himself.

    Sadly, too many of us today, whether we believe in sola fide or not, take God for granted. Rather than feeling Luther’s profound relief, we almost have a sense of entitlement as though to say that of course God will forgive us, that is what He does.

    I sometimes wonder whether it might not be spiritually fruitful to pray that God will show us our sins so that we may learn to be grateful, so that we may learn Luther’s profound relief.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Well, if you’re a Catholic who’s into End Time Prophecy via “Private Revelations”, there’s this thing called “The Three Days of Darkness”…

  23. It’s like watching “Wipe-Out” tonight: it’s a lot of fun watching the really cocky jerks get knocked into the mud. When we constantly look to put other people down, I think deep down inside we know we are plotting our own destruction.

    But I think most Christians only know judgement and condemnation. I blame it on the ol’ gospel-law bait-and-switch. Pastors preach gospel to the unsaved, but once they make the fateful trip to the altar, the gospel is snatched away and all they get is condemning law thereafter. I have even heard pastors say that they would not preach the gospel on a Sunday if they knew that no unsaved persons would be in attendance. It’s hard to expect people to feel compassion when they haven’t experienced it themselves. All they can do is wear masks and put on an act. The “I’m better than you” facade covers up the despair hidden inside. As the popular worship chorus goes:

    “Everyone needs compassion,
    Love that’s never failing;
    Let mercy fall on me.

    “Everyone needs forgiveness,
    The kindness of a Saviour;
    The Hope of nations.”
    – From “Mighty to Save” by Ben Fielding and Reuben Morgan

    The trip down the isle doesn’t change that. We all need forgiveness.

    • Just an additional thought. This is from Mike Mason’s “Practicing the Presence of People”, where he quotes his pastor friend, Bob Kirk:

      “I’d like to tell the church to let people be human. I’d like them to learn to enjoy humanity, with all its warts and weaknesses, without pulling away in fear and judgment – this is the one thing the church doesn’t know. Most churches, I think, are frightened of human beings.”

    • In saying it’s fun to watch a bunch of cocky jerks get knocked into the mud, are you saying that from the perspective of the pharisee or the tax collector?

  24. Fenelon, who may have been responding to Augustine comments on your 2 Cor 12:9 text says something to the effect that we “glory in our weakness” because mercy and grace in a sense need weakness, for where there’s no weakness, there’s no need for mercy.