Friday, March 26, 2010

Against Self-Righteousness

This article is written to remind fellow theological students (like me) and Christians in leadership to beware of self-righteous behavior. I offer it to my fellow Regent alumni for consideration.


Title: Against Self-Righteousness
Written by: Conrade Yap
"Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." (Ephesians 1:2)
A) Self-Righteous Christians
Sometimes, it is embarrassing to see that the self-righteous Christian tends to be those who are more affluent, more educated, more experienced, and more connected to the powers of this world. The root of self-righteousness is pride. For Christians, some of the unkindest things have been said to fellow believers. In the name of God, they claim to have the word of God and talks in a way that makes them more righteous than others. This is called self-righteousness. Some of the worst culprits of self-righteous behavior happen to be those who have been educated a little more than others. It could be a theology degree. It could be a special course attended. It could be a seminar with distinguished speakers. It could also be a direct association with a famed professor or speaker. Whatever it is, the claim to be right, tends to be based on works and self-worth to justify one's words. When these things happen, it is hard to be humble. It is hard to be gentle on dissenting views. It is hard to show grace.

Paul the Apostle is a top solicitor in Jewish circles at that time. He had influence. He had charisma. He also had a good following among Gentiles. He had the courage to face up to Peter when Peter is wrong (Gal 2:11). He too had the courage to admit when what he writes is not from the Lord (1 Cor 7:12). It is one thing to express a personal view. It is yet another, to use the name of Christ to state a particular opinion.

B) Self-Righteousness in the Church at large

"Many of our own children's questions stem from observing the defensiveness and mean-spiritedness that pervade so many expressions of Christian faith in America and around the world. They realize that many other religious groups have also become more extreme, even violent, in the ways they press for or against social change. But because they themselves are Christians, they are most disturbed by the attitudes of other Christians."
(Douglas Jacobsen & Rodney Sawatsky, Gracious Christianity, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006, 12)

One reason why Christianity tends to appear on the wrong side of the public eye is because of the way some Christians behave. By claiming to hold the truth, sometimes, they see the world so black and white, that they tend to issue an ultimatum in such a way that, if one does not believe in Jesus, they will definitely go to hell. The problem I have is that such statements tend to be too judgmental. I do not want to go into theological explanations right now. My question will be: Will such a statement be helpful to the non-believer? Most likely, it will be something that will push people further away. I remember reading about a Buddhist who was staying in a Christian seminary. Many believers tried to convert him, even saying that the Buddhist will go to hell if he does not believe in Christ. In reply, the Buddhist said that if that is the case, he will remain a Buddhist and choose hell so that he can go and comfort the people who are suffering there.

This should show us that Christians should not behave in an arrogant way. Christians need to lead the way toward humility, not pride.

C) Self-Righteousness in the Board meeting
If a person stands up in the middle of a leadership meeting to claim outright, "The Lord spoke to me about what we should do."  It is truly amazing, when this so-called word from the Lord, tends to agree with his own personal viewpoints, like buying a plot of land, or approving a major church building expenditure, or an action to be meted out on a church member. For the rest of the people, it is hard to argue against something that is called 'word of the Lord.' When this leader says things that rides on God's authority, the rest of us are not really given much choice but to follow and to obey.

Discernment is something that needs to be constantly tested and tackled together within a community of believers. Leaders especially need to be extra careful not to speak so condescendingly, that it leaves no room for others to hold an alternative position. The way forward is toward gracious love via speaking the truth in love and grace.

D) Self-Righteousness in the Theological Classroom
Just because we know a little more Greek or Hebrew, just because we know who is Barth, Anselm, or Bonhoeffer, just because we can outline the Church history through the ages, or read through the Bible hundreds of times does not give us a license toward self-righteous behavior. I remember my Greek class where my professor regularly reminds the class that a little bit of Greek can be a temptation to sin by boasting and by putting down other people. I think the professor is right on. It reminds me of the 3 major attitudes we need to adopt when studying theology: Humility, humility and humility.

E) Antidote Against Self-Righteousness: Speaking with Grace
Conviction is good. If it is done with patience and love for the hearers, it is edifying. If it is done in the gracious spirit of correcting one another in Christ's love, it is redeeming. The trouble is when we speak in a way to gives another person no room to hold an alternative position. It is like saying: "This is the truth. Take it or leave it." It can be hard to swallow. For weaker believers in Christ, it can come across as spiritual bullying. God forbid. Let us all practice gracious speaking in our communications. Let those of us who think they are strong, bear with the failings of the weak. It is only when we adopt a lower sense of self-importance, that we can begin learning to speak with grace.

The Apostle Paul does this quite remarkably. In his letter to the Ephesians, he begins and ends with God's peace and grace (Eph 1:3, 6:23-24). This is important. By starting and closing with the Lord's peace and grace, it tells the reader that whatever is written and taught, is to be laced with graciousness. Let me offer three reasons why we need to practice gracious speaking.

1) We live by grace
Christianity is unique from other religions because it is a relationship given to all who believe, purely by grace, not works. We receive, then we can give, not the other way round. Paul expresses it clearly:

"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast." (Eph 2:8-9)

What kind of a relationship do we have with one another. Let me suggest that our relationship must begin with us recognizing that we are forgiven sinners in the first place. We have been saved by grace, not of our works, but by faith in Jesus.

2) We live by God's Mercy
If there is anyone more deserving of death, it is the sinner who refuses to repent, or think that he is more righteous. There is no one righteous, no not one, says Paul, for the wages of sin is death. If God has been merciful to us, should we not be merciful to others as well. The parable of the wicked servant is a case in point (Matthew 18:21-35). Having been forgiven of his debts of ten thousand talents (like millions of dollars), the servant goes on to demand repayment of 100 denarii (like a few dollars) from another person. If we do not show grace to one another, it is like us, who have been shown multiple acts of mercy and grace, refusing to show a single act of grace and mercy to another.

3) We live to be peacemakers

We live in a world that has experienced two major world wars. Since the end of WWII, there has been an average of 40 wars throughout the world. Even right now, wars are still being fought. For countries that claim to be peaceloving, the way citizens treat one another does not exactly reflect this attitude. Look at the parliamentary debates. Look at society meetings. Look at the many demonstrations in the streets. Look at the newspapers that report and sensationalize many hot warring topics. Controversy sells.

Christians are called to be peacemakers. This is an active command. In our world of broken relationships, we need more peacemakers. Christians have an exciting opportunity to lead the way. If we feel we need to correct another brother or sister in Christ, ask ourselves what 'right' we have? Maybe we should pray more. Maybe we should seek to understand more than to be understood. Maybe we should simply wait for a better opportunity, or to pray that someone else will be the first to speak. Whatever it is, learn to make peace through gracious speaking.

May we all learn to avoid self-righteous behavior. May we choose instead to rest on the righteousness of God, and to allow all our actions, our words and our deeds stem from a life of grace built on the work of Christ.


No comments:

Latest Posts