Am I Self-Righteous?
In light of the section of Scripture that I’ve been studying this week, in preparation for Sunday’s message, I’ve been praying this way for you (and myself), as of late: “Father, give us the assisting grace that we need to keep us from falling into temptation. Lead us, Lord, away from the snares of sin and onto the path of righteousness.”
In the four weeks that we’ve been looking at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we’ve talked a lot about self-righteousness, that inclination of our hearts to elevate our own goodness and to look down at others because they don’t meet our self-imposed ethical standards. Of course, no one claims to be self-righteous, but it is a deceptive vice that sneaks in unawares.
In his book, Accidental Pharisees, my friend Larry Osborne (brother of Linda Bishop, who just spoke at Northpoint’s women’s retreat), suggests five types of Christians who can unwittingly erect a new legalism that is fraught with self-righteous tendencies (pages 92-94):
- Radical Christians: These believers view generosity as the greatest measurement of one’s true spiritual maturity. While these folks are careful not to impose specific demands on anyone—that might smack of legalism—they nevertheless are suspicious of those who drive nice cars and have big houses. Their parents balked at the beer in someone else’s fridge; these “Radical Christians” are instead bothered by the BMW in their brother’s driveway.
- Crazy Christians: These folks think you’re only committed to God if you leave your friends and family and go some place deeply challenging. “Their litmus test of a true disciple,” Osborne explains, “is costly personal sacrifice. Be aware that if you haven’t intentionally chosen some paths of suffering, your commitment to Jesus will be seriously questioned.”
- Missional Christians: There’s a buzzword you probably haven’t heard in the last, I don’t know, five minutes: missional. It’s a biblical concept—going out rather than attempting to bring in—and it’s a phrase that I’ve used plenty, but it does have its baggage. “Missional Christians” will only accept your profession of faith if you regularly help at a soup kitchen or tutor at-risk kids. Otherwise, you may not cut it. And if you attend a big church with lots of programs, you really have little chance of being legit.
- Gospel-Centered Christians: These believers constantly utter the phrase “gospel-centered.” Osborne elucidates: “They like to determine spiritual maturity by means of their theological grid. If you like big words, careful distinctions, and nuanced debates, you’ll fit right in. [But] if you’re slow on the uptake, action oriented, better with your hands than with your mind, or have a hard time with big words or long paragraphs, you’ll be allowed to attend, but don’t expect to lead anything.”
- Revolutionary and Organic Christians: Frustrated by the failings and oft-alleged short-sightedness of the traditional church, these folks have chosen a more “grass-roots” or “organic” expression of church. And they think you should too. If you publicly criticize the church’s budget or leaders, you’re considered forward-thinking rather than stubborn. And if you go to a megachurch, forget about it; you just don’t “get” it.
It must be said that Osborne is not against all of these priorities, per se; many of them are inherently biblical. Who can argue that gospel-centeredness is not a healthy mark of a Christian? Nevertheless, Osborne warns us against turning these good things into idols. Or, using them as measuring sticks for determining someone else’s spiritual vitality.
As I summarize the convictions of these “new legalists,” I can easily see myself in all of them. It’s no stretch to say that self-righteousness runs deep in my own heart. The only solution, as we’re going to talk about on Sunday, is gladly recognizing the insufficiencies of our own efforts, juxtaposed with the beautiful, all-satisfying, and completely sufficient cross-work of Jesus Christ. I look forward to seeing you in a few days.
By grace alone,