The Self Righteousness of Righteousness
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, remember that one? You know, where the Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” There are some great things about this parable. Notice that the Pharisee is thankful. I think that is great, and when you start with thankfulness, what can go wrong? I also remember Jesus saying, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees…” Wow, even Jesus admitted that they were righteous. I would admit that quite often I am right there with the Pharisee. I am thankful that I am not like other men, and I am righteous. Yes, I am. I have a whole list of things about which I can reflect on how much better my perspective is, my position is, my practice has been, my experience has been than other men. Haven’t you ever had one of those conversations where you were with friends and you talked about your views and how you agreed with each other, and then spoke about other groups, churches, ideas, individuals, and how you were so glad you weren’t like them? I had one of those recently, and honestly I must say I was thankful to be better than others in certain areas, and then realized of course how self-righteous I was in my supposed thankfulness. I do want to say though that just as Jesus recognized some righteousness in the Pharisees we have to realize that self-righteous obnoxiousness does not release us from the necessity of making moral choices. That there are some things better than others, that some things are right and good and some things are wrong and bad. The condemnation of self righteousness does not obviate the necessity of righteousness. The pastoral word, the prophetic word about being a bigot, or judgmental, or condemning doesn’t mean that some things should not be condemned. I was recently in a conversation about my denomination which is the Presbyterian Church in America. I can see self righteouness in myself when I think of all the good things about being in the PCA, about being Reformed, about being a Calvinist, about having a very rigorous theology, about being able to dismantle the world views of unbelief. Yes, I think my theology is better than a lot of others, so I am thankful I am not like other men… On top of that I am thankful I am not like others in the PCA. I was the pastor of New City Fellowship, a cross cultural urban church that pursued mercy to the poor and preached justice and racial reconciliation and practiced worship with joy. In my denomination most of the congregations are not known for those things, and when I or my people go to other PCA congregations, or Presbytery, and especially General Assembly we go into culture shock. How can these people stand to be so mono-cultural? How can they continue to be so captured by materialism and self indulgence, and the list goes on. Do I think that pattern of church and ministry is better than others? Frankly, yes. Not because I am proud but because I happen to think it is more Biblical to be that way. Am I self righteous about it? Why did I start writing this essay anyway? Yes, yes, I have all too often been self righteous about it. When someone goes through the Sonship course they hear comments about various kinds of “righteousness” all variants of self-righteouness. It is amazing how we can often see ourselves as better than others, and as the Pharisee was even before God, be thankful. In my circles I see some of my brothers who don’t attend Presbytery, and who don’t attend General Assembly. Sometimes they see all those activities as a waste of time, and I believe they also judge their brethren as caught up in things that don’t really matter that much. Would that as much time was spent in evangelism, in mercy, in the pursuit of justice. Do we sometimes waste time in these meetings? I certainly think so, and I do think there are weightier things to think, do, and preach about than many of the storms in a bottle that we in the PCA indulge in. However, though all of us must continue to make evaluations about what is good versus bad, what is best over what is good, our protection from self-righteousness is not found in our thankfulness that we think we are right and not like other men. Our protection is found in realizing we are just like other men, and not at all worthy before God. Sometimes the Gospel is thrown against me when I have spoken against homosexual practice, and movements to redefine marriage, as if the leveling field of the Gospel meant we couldn’t or shouldn’t condemn sin when we see it. Usually of course the issue between my critics and myself are what sins they are bothered by versus not being that bothered by the sins I am bothered by. I wish I was holy enough to be bothered by them all. What the tax collector did though was to be bothered first by his own sinfulness. This is of course the miserable place I find myself in, that I really am rotten to the core and full of evil in my heart. Yes, praise God by the Lord’s grace I am a saint, but like Paul I realize the looming possibility of being a cast away. Not because I doubt his ability to help me persevere in my faith, but far too often I dwell in the outhouse smell of my own failure to live faithfully. I think we all struggle with this, corporately and individually. We in the PCA are often thankful that we are not like other men, even our brethren in Christ. Thankful maybe, but not broken by the reality of our own stink. Our achievements and victories are real, and we ought to be thankful. We ought to be able to distinguish what is better and reach for it, and call for it in ourselves and others. Yet, we attempt to steal glory from God when we are not consistently conscious of the necessity of mercy in his receiving us. All we have, all we have learned, whether it be in theology, or methodology, or anthropology and culture, has been given to us as a gift of His grace. If it was a gift how can we boast about it as if we gave it to ourselves? If in our arrogance we hold ourselves aloof from our brothers, even when we honestly believe we have gotten to a place much better or higher than they have reached, we are not kneeling at the foot of the cross, and we are choosing our arrogance over unity. I believe that in my life I have met great men. Men more learned, smarter, wiser, more able than me. I held them as great because the thing that stood out was their holiness. What made their holiness evident was that in spite of their achievement, their humility could not be denied. They stood in their common manishness, their mutual fall in the garden, their desperate need of a Savior, their constant need of the power of God’s grace to live out the Faith. I respected them because they were right over other people’s wrongs, they could call evil for what it was. I loved them because they never held themselves to be better than the people caught up in that evil, and they never made me feel they were better men than me, though they surely were.