“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Luke 18:10-13
It was the late 1980’s. I was emerging from a long journey through confusion and spiritual emptiness. I had a newfound desire for the Word of God. I was growing in my walk with God. I was learning and had a passion for ministry again. The long descent had taken several years and now I had swung around and was quickly heading in the other direction. I was consuming all of the Bible teaching I could get my hands on. I was on a roll. I had gone from being confused to confident. But all was not well.
I began to issue edicts for our family. I was determined to banish any traces of harmful influences from the world and culture in which we lived. We were going to be a household that served the Lord (Joshua 24:15). There was no discussion. I decided, and it was. Now, my poor wife not only had whiplash from my rapid reversal of convictions and worldview, she was having treasured family traditions yanked from her life without any discussion.
The impact of my new approach spilled over into the church. I stood in the pulpit, as I had opportunity, and railed against the idolatry and lack of purity in the church. I challenged church leaders, telling them that they and the church needed revival. I wrote songs that lashed out against all of the compromise that I saw. I confronted the pastor and he responded by suggesting that I needed counseling. So, I left that church, taking my family with me.
The next few years were tough, but growing times. I would like to say that I fully learned my lesson at that time, but it is a lesson I continue to learn. God began to teach me about His grace. I learned, but still fell.
I can remember my early days in worship ministry. I thought I knew God’s plan and agenda for worship in the church. I had it figured out. How foolish I was. Today, I feel like I know less than I did then. God is so much bigger than He was then. Obviously, God did not change, but He has graciously worked in my life and revealed Himself to me through the years.
Were all of my convictions about the church, spiritual life, and worship wrong? No. At least, I don’t think so. In fact, I still hold onto most of the same convictions and, in many cases, I hold them more strongly today. So, what is the difference? Over the years, by God’s grace, I have learned to view myself more like the tax collector in the passage above. I understand a little better how absolutely depraved and hopeless I am without Jesus Christ. I don’t have all of the answers. In fact, I don’t have any of them. God does. God and His Word alone are alone infallible. So, I have learned to hold things a little more loosely. And, I have a long way to go. I still have a lot of Pharisee in me.
Self-righteousness is a symptom of pride, which I discussed last week. At its core is an exalting of ourselves, our lives, our convictions and opinions to the level of the Almighty God. Of course, we don’t see it that way, but if we honestly evaluate things, that is what it is. When the Pharisees and teachers of the Law added all of their additional requirements to those in the Word of God, they were placing their wisdom on the same level as God’s. They condemned others for not upholding these additional laws and clarifications, just as they would the Law, or even more so. And we do the same thing.
How? When we judge others for not holding the same convictions as us, even though they are not mandates of Scripture. When we make minor, debatable or extra-biblical issues into major issues, on the level with doctrines like the inerrancy of Scripture or the deity of Christ, we become just like the Pharisees, exalting our rules and convictions to the level of Scripture. When we criticize or demean others for their lack of conviction in these areas, we put ourselves in the place of judge. However, there are many issues where orthodox, godly Bible scholars have differing opinions. Maybe our positions are valid. Maybe they aren’t. This is where we learn to major on the majors and minor on the minors. This is where we can encourage and challenge each other to dig deeper into the Word and together we will grow (Proverbs 27:17).
Self-righteousness shows itself when we stand outside someone’s life and make judgments about how they are conducting their lives or raising their families. This, of course, is the easy thing to do. It is much harder to invest ourselves in their lives, seeking to help them grow in their faith and learning together. It is much harder to love others like Jesus did and get involved in the messiness of their lives. Maybe we are afraid. Maybe we are lazy. Or maybe we are too proud and it is easier to lob judgments at them from afar. Ironically, if we did get involved with their lives, we might find they have a greater understanding of God than we do. The tax collector in our passage knew exactly where he stood before God. The Pharisee did not (Luke 18:13-14).
When we criticize or judge those who God has placed in leadership in the church, we are not only demonstrating self-righteousness, we are putting ourselves in opposition to God. Ultimately, church leadership is not accountable to us. They will be held accountable to God, for they are called to watch over those in their care (Hebrews 13:17). I am not saying this just because I am a church staff member. I have been on both sides of this relationship. I have been the receiver and the giver of criticism. I have been critical and judgmental of leadership. And I needed to repent.
Regarding the pastor I challenged many years ago, I had to go to him and ask for forgiveness, even though I still held to my convictions. In fact, I still think I was right, but my heart was wrong and my actions were not godly. I should have prayed for him and worked with him. I should have brought my concerns to him in a humble manner. Things could have turned out differently. In the end, maybe no change would have occurred and we would have had to leave the church because of our convictions. However, I would have been obedient to God and not guilty of rebellion, gossip, slander, and undermining the work of the church. Ironically, as it turned out, I became the custodian of that church. So, I ended up cleaning this pastor’s toilets. I am pretty sure God was humbling me through that.
We need to remember that God does not need our help to make sure things go right. God is sovereign. He will accomplish His will for His church and the spreading of the gospel with or without us and our great convictions and ideas. We need to remember how desperately we need a Savior, and that apart from God’s unbelievable grace and mercy, we stand absolutely condemned, without hope or salvation or forgiveness.
It is important to remember that Jesus was condemned and handed over by religious people, not “pagans.” He challenged their self-righteousness, superiority, and wicked hearts, and they killed Him for it. Jesus is not calling us to be religious. He is calling us to a radical relationship with Him, with the realization that all we have is in Him. Our greatest joy comes from being filled and satisfied in Him.
Jesus demonstrated humility through His incarnation, life, ministry, and sacrifice (Philippians 2:1-11). We should do the same. We should remain humble and flee pride and self-righteousness. If we humble ourselves before God, He will exalt us. And if our cause is from Him, He will honor it and bring it to pass (James 4:6-10; 1 Peter 5:5-6).
Together for His glory…