Sanctimonious self-righteousness stinks.
Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering. Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind.
For Your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to You. I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O Lord, singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all Your wondrous deeds. O Lord, I love the house in which You dwell, and the place where Your glory abides.
Do not sweep me away with sinners, nor my life with the bloodthirsty, those in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes.
But as for me, I walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me. My foot stands on level ground; in the great congregation I will bless the Lord.
It’s a bit thick, this psalm of self-celebration: an exaggerated assessment of the pray-er’s personal holiness, conveniently ignoring any failings or misconduct. As a living human being, we know that there had to have been plenty of both, and I’m sure his enemies could have listed quite a few. That’s how it is, generally: we’re good at identifying the faults of others, but when it comes to ourselves…. eh, not so much.
This could also serve as a model for what many people believe about the faithful: sanctimoniously certain of our own righteousness, rigidly judgmental, issuing sweeping condemnations, hating and refusing to have any contact with those we label “evildoers.” In short: pious poopheads.
We, of course, immediately deny and resolutely decry such an unkind and inaccurate description. Christians are not like that at all! We follow the Lord Jesus’ teachings; the One who walked with the common people, who communed with sinner, Samaritan, and Pharisee alike; who healed and blessed all who were in need. We’re the good guys. We do not curse, but bless; we love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.
“If you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”
Why, then do some Christians treat the Good News as conditional, proclaiming love and charity for some, while condemning others? Why are there those who are despised, mocked and derided; raised up only in order to be cast down as unworthy of regard or concern?
Where does this come from, this wrongheaded, unChristian — or, to be accurate, Antichrist-like — conduct? Why is there a steady stream of denials of Christ’s Gospel of love, mercy, and healing grace from those who claim to be His followers?
“The more he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Immediately fingers are pointed: “Clearly this applies to … him, her, them, that one, those…” Yet, as is said, more fingers point back to the one doing the pointing than to any one else. The more we insist of the evils of others, the greater our self-incrimination. Who are we trying to convince? And of what? That we see clearly? That we are good and wise?
If we listen closely, we can hear that Garden reptile snickering over the lasting success of that fateful enticement, the original, abiding sin: “To be as gods.” The River of Delusion flows from that source, carrying us along the swirling current of deceptions and disappointments, and desperate striving. We can never do enough to convince ourselves of the impossible: we are not — and cannot become — gods. We are all mere mortals, full of faults and failings.
Yet the fantasy lingers, the poison is in our blood: the Ego which would conflate “I” with “Number 1” — the first, the best, above all others. We want to be special, to be admired, looked-up to; identified as noble and gracious. It can be a good thing, this yearning: it can inspire us to strive to be better people, to create and build, to excel in all that we do. But in its disordered (“sinful”) state, Ego is in control — demanding constant assurances that we are excellent, above reproach.
But we aren’t. Not always. Very rarely. Almost never, in fact. We are mere mortals (see above). And to our peril (and that of others), if Ego cannot realize this impossible premise, we will, instead, cut others down: “We may not be perfect, but at least we’re better than them!”
Our society is awash in claims of the evils and wickedness of other individuals and groups, providing multiple temptations for us to proclaim how different, how greatly superior — how good and gracious — we are. (Not like them!)
Foolishly succumbing to a craving for approval, driven by the desire for admiration, we join in, becoming “one of the crowd” — the righteous ones. We laugh, we mock, we scorn and shame, thrilling to the intoxicating power of the chase. The prey will not escape!
Those who stand in our way are “cut down to size,” reviled and ridiculed. In another time we would, indeed, be found among the howling mob who cried, “Crucify him!”
It’s hugely challenging to stand against popular creeds and conduct. Of course we want to fit in. Human beings are, by our nature, connectional creatures: we enjoy the society of one another. It feels good to be approved-of, to be smiled upon, winked at and “liked.”
But sometimes — perhaps more often than we realize — we are called to respond to a Higher Authority, and to follow the Lord along a path which diverges from the wide and well-trod public one. This begins with a confession of our own failings and foibles — and an insistence that the same condition applies to the rest of humanity, as well.
No one is perfect, no one is free from muck ups and mistakes and meanness. We have all done what we shouldn’t and have failed to do what we should. Frequently.
We must refute the weird, distorted, damaging notion that there are those who walk among us who are supremely wise, clear-thinking and correct in all things; above criticism or reproach. There are no such people. All have fallen short — as the holiest and most righteous saints have always insisted. To believe otherwise is to be led into the most destructive form of idolatry: the worship of another human being.
Are we not often victims of such thinking? Are there not people whose every word we receive as if a divine mandate: faultless; to be accepted, unquestioned, repeated, and defended? Are there not those to whom we have declared our absolute loyalty? One cannot help but wonder how the world might be different if Christians followed our Lord Jesus with half as much vigor and enthusiasm. What would it be like if we had compassion for one another — for all others?
It was Chesterton, I think, who said that when people believe in nothing, they will believe in anything. We (largely) no longer believe in God, and so we seek “salvation” elsewhere. There is no greater evidence of this grievous truth than the way in which we search for hope and meaning from other people and groups: from journalists, professional athletes, social media, politicians, entertainers. Further, we treat their pronouncements as “gospel” — irrefutable, undeniable.
Without God, having forsaken Christ, and given up our faith in the Gospel, we look to strangers who have no personal interest in us for understanding and guidance. It is a futile, heartbreaking quest. We are frustrated, sad, angry, frightened, ultimately lonely. We seek to be comforted like lost children anxiously staring up at every passer-by, seeking the face of the loving Parent we have wandered away from.
If we truly had faith: faith in God, in our Lord Christ, in the truth and healing power of the Gospel — we would not be running after these godlings. We would not be seeking where we will not find. We would know other people as they are: fallible, mistaken, sometimes manipulative, malicious, and even wicked: that is, as normal, average human beings. We would not idealize or idolize them, we would not look to them for our salvation. We would know Who it is we are seeking:
You bestir us so that praising You brings us joy,
because You have made us and drawn us to Yourself,
and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.
~ St. Augustine of Hippo
And we’re not doing those peoples’ souls any good, either, by feeding their egos, further confusing their thinking with a mistaken belief in their faultless intellect and undisputed authority. All human beings are well-served by inquiry, introspection, and (constructive) criticism.
There is no doubt that the civil religion is the easiest to follow: popular and successful, entailing no challenges, requiring little thinking. Simply pick a side and accept what is said, limit your compassion to approved persons only, issue sweeping condemnations of others, avoid evildoers (those who disagree), and remain steadfastly confident of your own righteousness. In other words, behave like a pious poophead.
On the other hand, following the Lord Jesus’ Way is. not. easy. It never has been. It stands in opposition to the way of the world: against violence, hate, and vengeance, against the mad, raging mob. It rebukes the towering Ego, and turns it back toward Community.
The Way of the Lord is paved with compassion and courage, the Gospel its signposts, holy Wisdom to illuminate our thinking and uplift our spirits. There are no easy answers, no shortcuts. Every day we continue the Journey of loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves to the very best of our ability. Every day we again face temptations and challenges — many of them very attractive.
Every day we duel with the Ego that longs to reign above all; every day we are enticed to join in, to become part of the pack; to prove that we are superior, better than “those others.” And it can be really hard not to succumb; there is a sort of magnetism, almost a gravitational force to the lure of the mob.
If these things were easy to resist, we wouldn’t call them temptations!
But know this: there is no health in us, no grace, no life, no redemption when we set ourselves above others; demeaning, despising and condemning any. Only the Lord Christ has the authority to judge — to “look down” upon humanity — and He spoke words of compassion and mercy even as He was hanging from the Cross. Dare we to speak otherwise?
IF we choose Christ’s Way of lovingkindness, we commit ourselves to compassion — not condemnation, to companionship — not estrangement, to concern and care toward all of our sisters and brothers without exception.
A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so also you must love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.”
~ John 13:34-35
What a concept. What a tremendous challenge. May we be inspired to accept it, and empowered to show it forth in the living of our lives.
Christ’s peace be with us,
Reflect on this passage:
I have set you an example so that you should do as I have done for you. Truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
~ John 13:15-17