When Our Goodness Becomes Our Greatest Enemy

How self-righteousness is the deepest trap for the human soul

Jonas Ellison
Oct 27, 2019 · 6 min read

The last time I wrote, I was talking about grace (something that I don’t see myself shutting up about anytime soon). I wrote how, in the Gospel, it’s often the weak who encounter God before the strong. (The impure before the pure. The wounded before the unblemished. Etc.)

To drive this point home, I want to direct our focus to Luke 7:36–50. It’s a really good story, just see…

In this passage, Jesus takes the religious ‘elites’ to school and flips the script on what they think God is about.

What’s so interesting about Jesus is that his greatest ‘opponents’ weren’t people who believed they were bad. They were (always) people who thought they were good.

See, the Pharisee was making an assumption that God is for the pure and upright. But during this awkward dinner, Jesus shows the man that God is actually for the unclean and imperfect (because, as Jesus understood, measured against the legalistic human mind’s image of God’s grandeur, we’re ALL unclean and imperfect).

When Jesus said, “I did not come to call righteous people, but sinners,” he wasn’t dividing the human race into ‘good’ people who don’t need him and ‘bad’ people who do. What he’s saying is that there are only two kinds of people: sick people who think they’re healthy and sick people who know that they’re sick (“sick”, according to our overblown image of perfection).

Yes, we’re all imperfect in some way(s). We all have cracks and scars on the inside.

We’ve all been kicked around by this thing called life to some degree. And we all need restoration at the soul level.

Every. Single. One of us.

The difference between someone who considers herself righteous and one who considers herself a sinner is the latter is the honest (and more self-aware) one of the two.

It’s the person who knows he’s sick who goes to seek help. The one who ignores his symptoms and carries on with chin held high is in for a crash sooner or later. Spiritually speaking, it’s only when we know that we’re internally in need of restoration that we open our hearts to God’s unending grace. When we’re in self-righteous denial, we don’t.

The pharisee in the story thought he was healthy. The woman knew better. She was the one who Jesus rushed towards and forgave. The pharisee was too far disillusioned in his self-righteousness to save at that moment.

In this story, her heart was full of God’s grace while the man’s heart was hardened against it. She knows that she needs to be forgiven. She knows she’s weak and that she struggles with shame and body issues and wanting to feel loved and whatever else she struggles with. She desires nothing more than purification of mind, soul, body, and spirit. The pharisee thinks he has all of his ducks in a row. And to the rational mind, this makes sense. It says, he’s a nice guy with a clean home, a nice car, and who goes to church every day. She’s a total wreck. If we forgive her, we’ll have prostitutes swarming the streets for godsake! All of our kids will either be junkies or whores. I want a god who favors people like him, not her.

I’ll be the first to admit that I‌ used to see it this way. Absolutely.

But clearly, as seen in the story above, that’s NOT‌ how Jesus sees it.

As for the concern about forgiving ‘bad people’ causing mayhem in society, I want to focus on these lines from the above text from Jesus…

Jesus is teaching the pharisee about the divine dichotomy of forgiveness. Most people think (me included, but I’m coming around) that forgiving too freely leads to chaos. If we forgive them, they’ll just keep robbing, killing, doing drugs, watching porn, etc. But this isn’t the case (at least in the long run) in Jesus’s book. He’s saying that forgiveness leads to people being more loving. It’s when we’re judged and convicted by people that we do more bad. That the more legalism you find anywhere, the deeper the transgressions you’ll find there as well (hence the image of the pastor’s daughter — which I’m terrified about with my little girl if I ever get ordained, btw).

When we come to the conclusion that we’re ‘good people’, it’s not a good sign. We’re on spiritually shaky ground when we start to believe that we deserve God’s love — that we’ve lived such a righteous life that we’re more deserving of the gifts of God. This is when humans get nasty and biting towards their neighbors. Because in order to feel ‘good’ and ‘deserving’, we also have to have picked someone (or a group of people) who is comparatively ‘bad’ or ‘undeserving’ (see this post on scapegoating I put up last week for more on that point).

From what I’ve seen and heard, this premise is nonexistent in the Bible. Yes, it’s everywhere in the secular world (as well as in many churches) and it always has been. It’s how the rational human mind works — through hierarchies and merit.

But God operates totally through grace. It’s not about what we do or don’t do.

God couldn’t care less about our posturing or how righteous we think we are. All that God cares about is how open our hearts are to receive God’s love.

Because God knows that this is the only way we’re going to pass on that same kind of supernatural love and forgiveness to our neighbors — only after we’ve experienced it ourselves.

May you not let your own self-righteousness get in the way of that for you. May you realize the healing that you (and all of us) need and the love that waits for you right behind it.

Grace Incarnate

A collection of thoughts about life in this grace-starved and Christ-soaked world.

Jonas Ellison

Written by

Midlife ELCA Lutheran seminarian with big Catholic energy MDiv-ing at LSTC Chicago. He/him. Blogs daily(ish) at http://jonasellison.substack.com

Grace Incarnate

A collection of thoughts about life in this grace-starved and Christ-soaked world.

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