We’re All Self-Righteous and in Need of Help
OCTOBER 4, 2017
As I write this, the news of the day is about various cities, states and academic institutions taking down statues and changing the names of buildings.
It seems that a lot of our past heroes had major flaws and it’s inappropriate that they should be honored. I get that and even agree with the sentiment. In fact, if I had to abide a statue of someone who enslaved the people in my heritage I would find that demeaning.
But there’s a problem. Where will they find replacements? Good luck with that. I suspect we’ll have to be a statue-free nation with name-free university buildings. Well, maybe we could have a statue of Jesus in the town square or name a building the “Jesus Christ Building.” Nah. That would be too “religious.”
There was a sixteenth century movement by those involved in the Reformation to dismantle or destroy church organs. Church organs were described as the “Devil’s Bagpipe” and a seducer of Roman Catholic “Anti-Christ” worship. It was a tragedy because many of Europe’s most wonderful pipe organs were destroyed. But with that being said, I suppose if you’re going to destroy something, it’s better to destroy a musical instrument than to destroy the representations of real people.
Have you noticed how religion can make some people weird? Politics does the same thing. I sort of give a pass to those who destroy statues and take names off buildings. They assume that there are good people and bad people, and that one can’t name buildings or create statues to anybody except the “good” people. I’m an expert on self-righteousness because I’m self-righteous. It’s addicting. It makes us feel good. And the more we’re hooked, the more we get hooked. Besides self-righteousness is pretty heady stuff and it’s cool.
Christians don’t have that option. When we go there (and we sometimes do), it is such a violation of the truth we know that the Holy Spirit won’t let us get away with it forever. Sometimes the Holy Spirit gets a self-righteous Christian drunk enough to confess his or her worst sins and secrets. That’s one of the reasons I’m a teetotaler. But it’s also one of the reasons God so often allows me to make a fool of myself (or to get close enough to see it from here). It’s always a severe mercy.
The truth is that everybody is flawed and sinful. Some hide it better than others; but nevertheless, it’s still true.
Self-righteousness is a horrible sin and maybe one of the worst, given Jesus’ reaction to it. Matthew 23:1-36 should make Christians wince. Luke 18:9-14 should make Christians weep. John 8:1-11 and Luke 7:5 should make Christians repent. But frankly, those texts hardly ever cause that kind of reaction.
It’s because, aside from the clear teaching of Scripture on the subject, there is a major problem with self-righteousness. The nature of self-righteousness is that those who are don’t recognize it for what it is. If I rob a bank, am a racist, commit adultery, murder or lie, I’ll know. But if I’m self-righteous, it so often wears the disguise of religion, purity and legitimate moral outrage that it’s hard to see what’s underneath. Somebody else has to tell us if we’re self-righteous. And then there’s a conundrum attached to that problem. It’s almost impossible for someone who isn’t self-righteous to tell self-righteous people they’re self-righteous…without becoming self-righteous in the process.
In my book, What Was I Thinking?: Things I’ve Learned Since I Knew It All, the chapter on self-righteousness, “Self-Righteousness Is A Lot More Dangerous Than I Thought It Was,” was one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. As a preacher, I write and say a lot. Generally when I don’t have anything to write or say, I just keep writing or talking until something comes to mind. Not with that chapter. I filled the trashcan with false starts, “cussed and spit” even more than usual, and repeatedly told God that if he loved me he would help me. It’s almost impossible to point out the sin of self-righteousness without being self-righteous.
Then there’s another problem. If one dares to even mention the danger of those who are self-righteous about racism, sexism, theology, homophobia, fascism, immorality, and a variety of others, one will more often than not be accused of being racist, sexist, heretical, homophobic, fascist or immoral…or, at minimum, seen as defending it.
What to do? I don’t have the foggiest. Well, I do but I don’t like it. Christians are called to confess their own sin—including self-righteousness and self-righteousness about those who are self-righteous. That means I have to confess the sin of what I wrote above and I do. I repent. Okay? However, it doesn’t mean that what I’ve written is wrong. I’m ordained and of course what I wrote is correct even if the writing requires that I repent of the self-righteousness in writing it.
And that brings me to one more thing that needs to be said. You’ve probably heard the “Paradoxical Commandments” (while often attributed to Mother Teresa and certainly reflect her life, they were probably written by Kent Keith). Let me give them to you:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
I would add one more: If you speak truth, your motives may be mixed, you may have to repent, and you will be misunderstood and criticized. Speak truth anyway. In fact, almost all of the Christian life is lived in the house of “anyway.”
I once heard a pastor rail against the sins of his people. Just when I was ready to make an obscene gesture and walk out, he started crying. “God just showed me,” he said through the sobs, “that I’m more guilty of what I just accused you of than anybody in this congregation. I’m so sorry and I repent.” In the quiet that followed, I think I heard the angels sing.
It’s hard to be right. In fact, it’s quite dangerous. That’s the problem with being a Christian. We’re right. That means they’re wrong. And even if my writing that makes me feel a bit self-righteous, the truth is the truth and Christians must speak it—graciously, clearly, kindly, lovingly and softly—but we must speak it. It’s not our truth but his. We didn’t work to get it but received it as a gift. And we can’t change it; only speak it.
And of course, in the area of self-righteousness, it is no less true that we are called to speak the truth about self-righteousness but with one provision—an awareness of our own self-righteousness. Jesus said that before we point out the speck in someone else’s eye, we should remove the log in our own. Maybe the best way to speak truth is to point at our log and ask for help. As others help you remove the log, who knows? In helping you see better, they may decide to clear up the speck in their own eye. And if not, it’s okay. Speaking truth is important. Trying to make people see the truth is way above our pay grade.
He asked me to remind you.