What destroys the work of the gospel in a person?
All kinds of things, but certainly not least on that list would be self-righteousness. Confidence in ourselves, being proud of how good we are, or internally harboring the belief that “we’re really not all that bad” runs contrary to the core of what the gospel message is. Think about it with me – what do you have to know to come to Jesus?
Not a lot, truth be told. There’s not a class you must take; no certificate you have to earn. But you must know at least two things:
1. Who He is. That Jesus Christ is the Son of God, crucified and then risen, not because of His own sin but as a willing sacrifice for yours, which leads us to the second thing:
2. Who you are. Not who we should be; not who we would like to think we are; not who we aspire to be; but the rock bottom realization that we are, at our core, wicked and in need. That sin is not just something we do, but is the driving force behind who we are, and it’s from this reality that we must be rescued.
And that’s precisely why self-righteousness is so destructive. With each bolstering run on the ladder of our egos, we knock down the sufficiency of the cross. We are, if not in word, crying out at the cross that this really didn’t have to happen. Not for me at least. With our self-righteousness, then, we simultaneously deceive ourselves and rob the Son of God of His rightful glory. It’s clearly, then, something that we should be on guard against. And yet, like so many other idols of the heart, our sense of self-righteousness does not often come on us suddenly, but instead creeps into our thinking slowly, over the course of time, until we unknowingly have begun to resist the truth that we are rightfully condemned before a just and holy God.
But there is an occasion, at least in my own life, that provides an opportunity for me to self-diagnose this creeping kind of idolatry. I can know whether or not I am giving in to my own ego by my reaction to God showing grace to another.
I remember a story Jesus told about a vineyard in Matthew 20. In it, a landowner goes and hires a group of laborers early in the day. They agree to the wage for their service, and the workers start putting the nose to the grindstone. Then, later in the day, the same landowner goes back to where he hired the first group only to pick up a few more workers. And then a few more workers even later in the day. When the day reaches its end, it came time for the money to be handed out. Much to the initial group’s surprise, they got the wage they had agreed to… and so did the other workers. The same wage, for unequal amounts of work.
And Jesus says this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
And everything in me rises up and says, “It’s like what? Like unfairness? Like injustice?” And that’s when I know.
I know that it isn’t really a sense of righteous injustice rising up in me; it’s my self-righteousness laying claim on what I think I deserve. It seems I have forgotten, based on my reaction, that what I truly deserve is the very condemnation Jesus has rescued me from. It’s at this moment that I, or maybe you if you’re tracking with this, have two options:
1. We can harbor our resentment at the generosity of God, and in so doing refuse to acknowledge the truth that we are still broken people no matter how many classes we’ve been to and Bible stories we’ve read. If we do, that bitterness will grow over time and cause our hearts to calcify until we no longer see the need for grace for anyone, much less ourselves…
2. We can take the invitation to stop complaining and start celebrating. This is what the father asked of his older son in another one of Jesus’ stories, when this older son was so offended at his father’s generosity. And if we choose this route, sure, it might be a little awkward at that party first, and we might look around at all the younger brothers who came to work later than we did, but as the party wears on, we will be reminded that it’s only by grace that we got the invitation in the first place.
And then we dance.