Paul was surprised when the Galatians forgot: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?…Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1, 3). In other words: What were you thinking? Have you already forgotten?
Paul should not have been surprised. We can’t help it.
There is something in us that causes us to become the very thing Jesus came to prevent. Maybe we believe that we could not be that bad or that God’s grace could not be that good. Maybe it’s just that a religion of rules and righteousness is attractive because, frankly, we want to do it ourselves and get the credit for it. It could be that pride and self-righteousness are so much a part of us that we’re attracted to that which affirms it. And then it could be that we’ve been playing the game of religion for so long and are so used to it that we have come to believe it is the only game in town.
After I finished my time with the Lord, I recently found myself adding an addendum before getting to work. I said (I’m blushing when I tell you this…if you say I said it, I’ll say you lied), “I bet there aren’t many Christians who get up this early to be with you. I know you’re proud of me and will bless me for doing this. See how much I love you and how faithful I am!”
I heard God laugh.
I think he said, “Are you crazy? If there were any benefit in your getting up so early, you just blew it with your arrogance, your super-spirituality and the violation of everything I’ve ever taught you.”
That would have ruined my day, but he never condemns. God added, “Don’t look so depressed. You’re a mess, but I’m still fond of you.”
I repented and, of course, was forgiven.
And then God told me that, if I had not repented, he would still love me.
I’ve been thinking about my attitude and trying to understand it. Given the fact that I’m a teacher of grace, I don’t understand how I can forget so easily. I simply don’t understand my reversion to works and how that constantly haunts me. I don’t understand why I tell others that, if they miss their devotions, God won’t be angry; but then feel, in my heart-of-hearts, that if I miss mine, God will be ticked and something really bad will happen during the day. I don’t understand how I can tell people that their sin may be God’s greatest gift to drive them into his arms yet still think that my sin makes me unwelcome in his presence. I don’t understand why one (i.e. me) who goes around the country telling Christians that God isn’t angry with them, could so often believe that he is angry with me.
What is it with me?
Of all people, I ought to know better.
Let me tell you. It’s the same thing that’s wrong with you. I just know it and admit it, making me more spiritual than you are…uh…sorry…erase that.
We are all attracted to self-righteousness and the temporary enjoyment of it. There is something in all of us that causes us to bask in doing it right, trying harder and succeeding, and in being better than most other Christians. And that’s why the most dangerous thing that can happen in your walk with Christ is your obedience…when you know it.
Why do you think Jesus was a friend of the winebibber and sinners? Was it because he affirmed them in their sin? Of course not. Was it because he didn’t care about their sin? You’re kidding. It was because they knew their sin and that, if anything depended on them and their goodness, they were lost. Those are the kinds of people with whom Jesus hangs out.
Not only that, those are also the kind of people who can love others. That’s what John meant when he wrote, “For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another….Whoever does not love abides in death.…By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:11, 14, 16). Because God loved me when I didn’t deserve it and continues to love me when I don’t deserve it, I have some love to give to others.
I can’t love anybody if I can look down on him or her. I can be paternalistic and nice…but I can’t love them. The truth is that “pure” people (except Jesus…but that’s another story) don’t hang out with impure people. People who are right (i.e. “think they are right”) don’t hang out very long with people who aren’t right and there is no fellowship between “light and darkness.”
The kind of attitude I manifested is the kind of thing that causes divisions, condemnation and destruction in the body of Christ. It is the manifestation of having our own righteousness (i.e. our purity, correctness, knowledge or reputation) to protect and whenever we do that, we’re in trouble and cause trouble everywhere we go.
One other thing. True goodness comes in resting in the hope that Christ loves us when we don’t deserve it. That’s what John meant when he wrote, “And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).
I obeyed the law. I got up early and spent a lot of time with the Lord. I felt self-righteous and spiritual. But what am I going to do when I sleep in, think I don’t have time to pray, or don’t love him very much? Then I’m going to feel just as condemned as I was elated.
Let me give you a wonderful quote from Martin Luther (in his Commentary on Galatians):
"Did the law ever love me? Did the law ever sacrifice itself for me? Did the law ever die for me? On the contrary, it accuses me, it frightens me, it drives me crazy…Christ is no Moses, no tyrant, no lawgiver, but the Giver of grace, the Savior, full of mercy…Christ is Joy and Sweetness to a broken heart. Christ is the lover of poor sinners, and such a Lover that He gave Himself for us. Now if this is true, and it is true, then we are never justified by our own righteousness."
God told me that it is far better to sleep in and forget about praying than it is to get up, be spiritual and bask in the self-righteousness that comes from doing it.
Time to Draw Away
Read Romans 5
Do you struggle with self-righteousness? We all do. You can certainly continue to try harder and exhaust yourself, taking pride in your self-righteousness or feeling condemned in your failure. Or you can instead relax and rest in Christ’s grace, love and forgiveness. It’s good news: Jesus likes to hang out with sinners who know it. Which one will you choose?