We all know people who think entirely too much of themselves. No one likes that kind of over-the-top, “holier than though” arrogance. Not even God, who firmly states that He hates a “haughty” person and that pride inevitably leads to a spiritual fall. Yet, the Bible also tells us that as Spiritual men and women we understand life in a way that unspiritual people have no chance at seeing. So, why not be confident in what we believe?
The problem is that it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between confidence and overconfidence. Fortunately, the Bible provides an unmistakable indicator for Christians wishing to know when their earthly head is becoming too big for their spiritual heart.
The yard stick is buried in the book of John, where the Bible tells the story of a group of men who have gathered to stone an adulterous woman. Jesus stopped them by asking, “Who among you is without sin?” He continued by adding that anyone who could truthfully answer “yes” to his question should feel free to throw the first stone. Of course, no one could honestly answer in the affirmative, and the woman was saved.
The easy lesson to take from this parable is that we are all sinful, so show a little mercy. Yet, there is a more important lesson buried one level deeper if we realize that many Christians today would likely feel fully justified in throwing out the first pitch and that they/we often do just that.
A Few Possible Red Lights
Let’s skip over the excuse I have heard a number of Christians use: the idea that they are blameless because their sins have been washed away by the blood of their savior? The Bible is adamant that being blameless on account of Christ’s sacrifice for us obligates us to forgiving others as He has forgiven us.
Failing to forgive when we ourselves have been forgiven is a kind of arrogance in and of itself. It signals a potential self-withdrawal from the spiritual contract that we entered into when we promised to love as we have been loved.
As much as an inability (or unwillingness) to forgive others signals that something might be amiss in a person’s spiritual life, we have to admit that forgiving others is hard. This is because the need to forgive often takes place after we have been deeply wounded. It may take years to finally come to a place where we can forgive another person or group for the hurt caused.
No, the better pride-measuring yardstick has to do with a much more human tendency, the desire to keep up with or surpass the Joneses. In our desire to believe we are better than other people – exceptional, superior, more deserving – many Christians cherry-pick the commandments that “really” count vs those that they feel can safely be ignored.
What difference, we may wonder, does a little white lie make? Or the pleasurable contemplation of a woman’s figure? Or getting a bit too angry at the driver that just cut us off? Especially when compared to the “real” sins of murder (abortion), adultery (LGBTQ concerns), and stealing (hard-earned money or property)?
A Concrete Example with some Irony Thrown In
Here is an easy, concrete example of the corrupting effects of imagining that some sins are far worse than others. In the 1980s I attended a large church that refused to conduct weddings for anyone who had slept together before marriage or who had been married and divorced. They also refused to conduct LGBQ weddings, believing they were likewise in violation of the commandments.
Fast forward ten years later. As society changed, my church began to realize that if they didn’t perform weddings for people who had slept with each other prior to marriage and for people who had divorced, they were going to have a lot of angry onlookers and some very empty pews. So, they changed their policies. Nationwide many churches did the same thing.
This example highlights the deeper lesson behind why no one in that long-ago crowd was willing to cast the first stone. There’s a good chance none of the men were adulterous. But that is not what Christ was asking. What he was asking was if anyone in the crowd had broken not just the seventh commandment, but if anyone had slipped up on one of the other nine in addition to or besides that one. And not just if they had broken one of those commandments in a big way, but even in a way they might have preferred to minimize by counting it as tiny and worth no real notice.
(Learn about the three pillars of Christian love)
By heaven’s way of seeing things, sin is sin. A little white lie is as bad as adultery. Overeating to calm anxiety is as bad as murder. Being jealous of your neighbor’s Facebook feed is no less wrong than whatever some people construe as an unforgivable sexual transgressions. Nobody. Nobody. Nobody, is better or more deserving in God’s eyes than anyone else (Romans 3:23). Only if people believe otherwise would they be willing to caste the first stone.
This makes absolute sense if all sins count equally because spiritual arrogance is only possible when we count some sins as worse than others. And guess which sins get counted as bad and which ones get overlooked. If 90% of the American population were gay and only 10% were straight, which sins do you think 90s churches would have chosen to overlook and which ones would have been used to galvanize an army to fight against a different set of social scourges than today’s preferred targets?
There are two huge ironies here. First, in order to grow, churches often overlook the sins that are most prevalent in their locale or larger environs. Instead, they favor focusing on the “far worse sins” of some smaller group. This helps the church grow by building a sense of community, belonging and, yes, pride. But it is a false pride, one that inwardly corrupts and outwardly fails to offer outsiders the very love that is supposed to be emblematic of what it means to be Christian.
If we are not guilty of this first irony, then there’s a second one that easily follows on its heels: The sins on which we focus our hate today are often related to the ones we feel most guilty of from our younger days. It took me a long time to recognize that the deep anger I felt towards present day “sinners” was often just the residual anger and shame I felt towards having been guilty once (or in lesser measure now) of the very same shortcomings.
These observations point to two methods that can tell us if we are being prideful — not in a job-well-done way; not in a human, hard-time-forgiving way; but in the same God-usurping way that caused the original fall of both Satan and Adam.
Flashing, Red-Light Arrogance Indicator One
First, pause and ask yourself if you or your church thinks some sins are worse than others? Ask if you’re always pointing the finger at the big sins of other people or groups while excusing your little sins. Be honest with yourself (commandment number nine) and admit if you think breaking some commandments are worth more condemnation than breaking other ones or tripping over “lesser” versions of those other ones.
If we play spiritual golf on a course while only picking the holes that match our forte, of course we’re going to do better than other people. Same, too, if we allow God to give us do-overs but we don’t give our fellow players the same privilege because we do not feel they deserve it.
What we call “Our Culture” can be easily outlined by noting which commandments (or versions of those commandments) a group considers more or less important than other commandments. This fact is also what allows one culture to view itself as somehow better than another one. Again, why shouldn’t we conclude we are superior if we are using a different metric than our brothers and sisters across the way? The question becomes, is our conclusion valid or is it biased by our personal or social commandment preferences?
Flashing, Red-Light Indicator Two
As for the second way of uncovering a dangerous turn towards pride, consider one of the Bible’s favorite synonyms for pride: self-righteousness. To find out if you have been operating under the spell of a dangers self-righteousness, turn to 1 Corinthians 4:3-5. Do not read another word here before deciding if you agree or disagree with what Paul is telling us there.
I have found a striking number of Christians who want nothing to do with this 1 Corinthian-insistence that they are forbidden to judge whether they (or others) are destined for heaven. Paul says we’re not to judge. He says we may think we are good to go. But in the end, the only one who can say with certainty if we are heaven-bound is God. Disagreeing with Paul – believing that we ourselves have the ability to accurately self-judge ours or other’s future – is the very definition of self-righteousness.
I know I’m spitting in the face of what many people image as a central and unassailable point of theology. But give me a moment, and I believe you will agree that Paul is correct. Committing to God is very much like committing to a partner in marriage. Beyond the age of forty or so, most people will have lived long enough to see a solid number of friends end up in divorce. This, despite the fact that if you could have shown many of them their future divorce, they would have denied it could ever happen to them.
The question of if heaven is our guaranteed destination once we’ve been saved is not really about whether God changes or not. He doesn’t. Instead, it is a question that humbly recognizes that, being human, we are possess of freewill and also subject to change. We might swear on a stack of Bibles – still dripping from baptism and our first holy love – that we will remain true. But none of us can say with certainty whether we ourselves might one day be the ones who decide to walk away from God in anger or shame.
Let’s just put it this way, God can forgive us of anything. But I’ve seen an awful lot of people that can’t forgive God in equal measure when something unexpected goes wrong in their lives. And even if they can get past that hurdle, they still may not be able to forgive themselves enough to want to remain in right relationship with God.
Think about this truth for a moment. Look out across the broad expanse of human experience – joy, beauty, wonder, but also vast plains of pain, suffering, and tragedy almost beyond imagining. Look at the shipwrecks of lives and godly relationships that began with such promise but ended so far from heaven’s shores.
It takes a certain kind of respect for God to stare this truth in the face and admit that maybe we shouldn’t take for granted the unknown twists and turns of the journey ahead. That, instead, we should take care of our personal relationships with God and others, like the precious gifts they are. That we should imagine life as a race and not a walk in some park that means us no harm.
The aim is to run with loving purpose into life so that we “will not be disqualified from the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). It is too easy to fall into laziness like some people do after they get married. It is not hard at all to presume that nothing we do, come to believe, or experience might lead to a divorce. But given that our promises to God are very much like marriage vows, the first hint that we might be falling prey to stone-casting self-righteousness or the pride of self-certainty should set off spiritual alarm bells in our souls.
In the end, it really is all about love. God’s love of us is certain and unchanging. The presumption that we will remain true to God – despite everything life will put us through as we try to love him and others to the end – is just that, prideful presumption in a life that is best navigated with humility.
Questions for Contemplation and Study
- If you had to pick one or two, what are the commandments that you feel you would have the hardest time forgiving yourself or others for breaking?
- What commandment(s) do you personally have the hardest time with? And do you think of it/them as truly shameful sin(s) or do you find a way to give yourself some grace over the matter?
- What if the thoughts running through your head were recorded for one week without you knowing it and then forwarded to your social media feeds for all the world to see?
- In light of this question, can you name any social problems that might be solved if we stopped believing we are better (fill in the blank) than other people?
Read More from Love: The Foundation
Over the next few weeks, I want you to try an experiment. Pay close attention to the dialogue that takes place in your head as
In 2002, I visited Maine to see Gregg, my college roommate, and his young family. At the Naval Academy, Gregg and I made strange bedfellows: