Dr. Ralph Blair
Evangelicals Concerned 73rd Connection, May 30, 2015
In 1946, a 20-year-old Flannery O’Connor came north to take part in the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. But, privately, she was writing prayers: “Dear Lord, please make my mind vigilant about [loving others]. I say many, many, too many uncharitable things about people every day. I say them because they make me look clever. Please help me to realize practically how cheap this is. I have nothing to be proud of yet, myself. I am stupid, quite as stupid as the people I ridicule. Please help me to stop this selfishness. … I do not know you God, because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.”
She wasn’t yet the popular storyteller she’d become before she’d die just 19 years later. Her fellow believer and author, Marilynne Robinson, in a 2013 New York Times review of the posthumously published prayers, writes: “The brilliance that would make her fictions literary classics is fully apparent in [these early prayers].”
What else is fully apparent is the young O’Connor’s honest sensitivity to her own self-righteousness. But secular reviewers of these prayers tend to miss this. Sadly, that’s largely due to their self-righteous distaste for her serious Catholic faith and her having grown up and remained in the rural and segregated south.
Now, nobody holds the patent on self-righteousness. Human history is the history of self-righteousness. It’s a predisposition of all men, all women, every race, ethnicity, nationality, class, political stripe, ideology, gender identity and sexual orientation. Self-righteousness is rife in secular and religious realms. Even a public mea culpa can be infected and indeed, induced, by self-righteousness. The passive, “mistakes were made,” and similar self-righteously unapologetic “apologies” are the real mistakes.
Well, as Schiller knew: “The history of the world is the judgment of the world.” Aware of this history, Pope Francis says his central concern is “massive amnesia in our contemporary world.” In such stupor, the Right longs for what it romanticizes as the past while the Left lauds what’s replaced what it scorns as the past. Both are but self-serving figments of illiterate imagination – one in the nonsense of nostalgia, the other in the nonsense of narcissism.
As self-righteous know-it-alls, we refuse to accept what we refuse to know. Averting attention from what stares back at us from all the accusing mirrors of our minds, we try manipulating into mantras of “self-esteem.” We try to swallow shibboleths we can’t swallow. We try to think we’re good or, at least, better than “them,” so as to sanitize “us” and disparage “them.” But who needs to sanitize or disparage if we really think we are as good as we pretend to be? There’s something afoot.
Outspoken atheist, feminist, social critic and professor of humanities, Camille Paglia, tells Time magazine readers that today’s elite “cannot comprehend evil.” She sees that they don’t understand “the fragility of civilization and the constant nearness of savage nature.”
She well understands that the elite “premise, descending from Marxism, is that all problems in human life stem from an unjust society and that corrections and fine-tunings of that social mechanism will eventually bring utopia.” She says: “Liberalism lacks a profound sense of evil, but so does conservatism these days.” And, she’s correct, as far as she goes.
Yet, the problem is not merely a “lack” of “a profound sense of evil.” It’s our ingrained evil refusal to recognize evil – especially in ourselves. And it includes our habitually defensive projection of blame onto others, a counterproductive effort to cope with evil we cannot and think we dare not admit in ourselves.
Both the Left and the Right busy themselves with self-righteous micromanaging of meaningless minutia. Special pleading sorts the privileged “victims” so that “gay beats straight” but “queer beats gay” (Andrew Sullivan) and “being Chicana isn’t as authoritative as being Chicana lesbian” (Bruce Bawer). Illiberal speech codes, censorship of unpopular ideas and speakers, a rigidly regulated political correctness and a narrow-mindedly fundamentalist dogmatism, dress codes and other tyrannies rule with iron fists, whether at Penn or Penn State or Pensacola Christian College.
What’s trivial is called evil; what’s truly evil is trivialized. Alert to alleged “micro-aggressions,” mandated “trigger warnings” are supplied for thin-skinned, spoiled-brat bullies, unable to cope with the basic facts of everyday life, let alone ISIS terrorists. A wise British psychiatrist notes: “Victims are the heroes of the politically correct; their victim-hood confers unique moral authority upon them ex officio.” (Theodore Dalrymple) They’re stuck in the status of “privileged” victim, a self-righteousness from which they refuse themselves release, for to be “offended” offers power trips maturity can’t match.
Though Aristotle warned: “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal,” let’s look at self-righteousness on the Right and the Left as well as in religious and secular arenas. These may not all be quite equal examples, but there’s enough of our ingrained evil refusal to recognize our own evil to go around.
The Religious Right opposes female clergy, forbidding women to hold church office over men. And yet, back in the earliest church, Priscilla, Junia, Lydia and other women were leaders and the 19th century’s evangelicals, e.g., The Salvation Army and Wesleyan-Holiness, had women preachers long before mainline churches did.
Another example is the Right’s self-righteous refusal to see evil in its self-righteously obsessive opposition to legal marriage for committed same-sex couples. Yet its “family values” culture has its own major problems of porn, pre-marital sex, serial marriage and divorce. Instead of treating others the way these Right-wing Christians themselves, want to be treated, they do the opposite. As one of the results of this self-righteousness, a self-righteous world knows Christians, not by our love, but by our self-righteousness. Thus, we have nothing to offer them that they don’t already have.
On the Left, refusal to see evil is evident – not in the women who think they have no option but abortion, after which, many are inconsolable – but in abortion activists’ self-righteous opposition to laws and constraints against tearing even a seven-pound unborn baby, limb from limb and insisting that no doctor or nurse be excused on grounds of conscience, from doing this “procedure” and that no pro-life person be permitted to opt out of paying for it.
The Left, in self-righteous political correctness, propagandizes an alleged but discredited campus “rape culture” and pushes policies that presume the guilt of all the accused while, in yet another politically correct effort not to appear “Islamophobic,” actively and illegally concealed evidence of ongoing torture and rape of 1,400 white girls as young as 11, by Pakistani gangs in Rotherham, UK.
Reasoned dialogue is useful, disagreement is normal, but self-righteous rants from Rushes on the Right and Rachels on the Left, Sharptons on the Left and Schlaflys on the Right, are ruinous. Addiction to echo chambers of self-righteousness reinforces itself but utterly fails to smother the self-doubt and dread that spawn it. Again, something’s afoot.
And, on both the Left and the Right there’s self-righteous talk of a “right” and “wrong” side of history. Yet, these are but two sides of the same dull coin. Historian and biblical scholar, Scot McKnight, observes: “The irony is that in a world where ‘manifest destiny’ or ‘discerning God’s plan for America’ or even connecting something bad (9/11) with something else bad (same-sex sins) are objects of scorn, it is more than a little surprising that we now have some who know where history is going.”
Now, if we like how history seems to be going, we say it’s on the right track. If we don’t, we say it’s on the wrong track. But this is simply self-righteousness writ large, hardly the basis for forecasting history, let alone for defining “right,” “wrong” or “truth.”
And, among religionists who pretend to “know” where history is going, McKnight notes that they expect “Jesus to join their presentist historical progressivisms and to sanctify their discernments of God’s divine plan.”
Well, Fundamentalists used to be Post-millennial, preaching that “Christian America” would lead to an ever better world, ushering in the Second Coming. Then, mugged by “The Great War” (World War I and counting), they went Pre-millennial, singing: “My hope is built on nothing less than Scofield’s Notes and Moody Press.”
Well, here’s a monstrous historical instance of self-righteous forecasting of one’s prejudice out into the future, and in this case, out into the very most ultimate sense of the future.
This spring marked the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy’s surrender in 1865. In 1867, the South’s leading Presbyterian theologian, R. L. Dabney, concluded his 356-page book in support of slavery and against abolitionists with these final words: “Although our people are now oppressed with present sufferings and a prospective destiny more cruel and disastrous than has been visited on any civilized people of modern ages, they suffer silently, disdaining to complain, and only raising to the chastening heavens, the cry, ‘How long, O Lord?’ Their appeal is to history, and to Him. They well know, that in due time, they, although powerless themselves, will be avenged through the same disorganizing heresies under which they now suffer, and through the anarchy and woes which they will bring upon the North. Meanwhile, let the arrogant and successful wrongdoers flout our defence [sic] with disdain: we will meet them with it again, when it will be heard; in the day of their calamity, in the pages of impartial his-tory, and in the Day of Judgment.”
Dabney’s motivation and mission was stuck in 1867 self-righteousness just as ours is stuck in 2015 self-righteousness. But, according to the sacred word, on the Day of Judgment, all self-righteousness will be judged and rendered null and void in the light of Christ’s righteousness.
We all tend to forget Paul’s words of caution in his very familiar passage on love: “We know only a portion of the truth; what we say about God is always incomplete.” (I Cor 13:9 The Message)
Meanwhile, history’s most reliable trajectory is still more self-righteousness, summed up in four words, “Been there, done that,” or, in Jesus’ words of warning: “wars and rumors of wars.” (Matt 24:6) That’s this world’s history – past, present and near future, whether conflicts are intertribal, international, interdenominational, intramural, interpersonal or “against the evil spiritual forces” of which Paul wrote. (Eph 6:12)
Of course, there’ll be a few interruptions in all of this self-righteous warfare – brief interruptions – for recuperation, refurbishment of resentments and rearmament. Then, it’s back to battle.
Self-righteousness writ large was Hitler’s arrogant and angry resentment. Boasting that there were no gods above his head, only birds, he predicted a thousand year Reich. But a dozen isn’t a thousand! It fell 70 years ago this month, after millions had been enslaved and slaughtered under Nazi self-righteousness. Yet, The New Yorker’s social critic, anarchist Dwight MacDonald, displayed the banality of evil in his self-righteous disdain for America’s middle class by jeering: “Europe has its Hitler, but we have our Rotarians.” Huh?
In 1935, two British aristocrats who were also socialists, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, praised Soviet Communism as the New Civilization. They died before their daydream became a nightmare. Another despiser of the middle class, George Bernard Shaw, petitioned that their ashes be transferred from their estate’s garden to Westminster Abbey, and it was so. An atheist who dubbed himself “nothing less than God himself,” Shaw was a fan of eugenics. Asked about Soviet atrocities, he quipped self-righteously: “Yes, I’ve seen all the ‘terrors’ and I was terribly pleased by them. Extermination of lesser beings [is] a worthwhile evolutionary effort.”
The New York Times’ old Moscow bureau chief, Walter Duranty, coined the term, “Stalinism.” When he was confronted with evidence of Stalin’s atrocities, he rationalized it as, “collateral damage on the march toward progress” and explained, with self-satisfied delight: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
The Soviets self-righteously predicted that atheistic Communism was where history was headed and exported that promise around the world. But the USSR collapsed under the weight of totalitarian self-righteousness. Its satellites ended up as prisons of tyranny and terror. And it was all done, yet again, in the name of a promised utopia, but it proved once more, that utopia means, “no place.” There’s simply no hope for this world in any self-righteousness.
Billy Graham was speaking with West Germany’s chancellor Konrad Adenauer who’d been imprisoned by Hitler. He knew the horrors of “wars and rumors of wars.” He asked Graham if he believed in Jesus’ resurrection. Graham replied: “Of course I do.” Adenauer said: “Mr. Graham, outside of the resurrection of Jesus, I don’t know of any other hope for this world.”
Forewarned by history’s lessons of the catastrophes of this world’s and our own self-righteousness, the more we, too, long for the Blessed Hope of the Righteous One.
Both the evangelical McKnight and the atheist Paglia sense that the spectrum of self-righteousness is as wide as this world and as old as humanity. It’s also as narrow-minded and narrowly focused as our very own self-righteousness.
I Googled “self-righteous liberals” and got 300,000 results. I Googled “self-righteous conservatives” and got 275,000 – a fairly even split. I Googled “self-righteous Left,” 1,590,000. I Googled “self-righteous Right,” 7,370,000. “Self-righteous atheists”? 187,000; “Self-righteous Christians”? 919,000.
These stats suggest the Left and Christianphobes slant more self-righteously than do Christians and the Right. But this can be due to a “filter bubble” and search engine bias as well as to popular notions of “self-righteousness,” i.e., caricatures of conservatives and Chris-tians (e.g., Dana Carvey’s old Saturday Night Live “Church Lady”). Meanwhile, secular scolds, quick to condemn what they label as “othering,” are, in their own self-deceived self-righteousness, “othering” the rubes in “flyover country,” over whom, they purport to be superior. Of course they do! And so do “the rubes”! Hell bent self-righteousness is everybody’s bent.
Isaiah put it bluntly: “All our righteousness is filthy rags!” (Isa 64:6) Said Paul: “All have sinned, all fall short of God’s glory.” (Rom 3:23) And this truth has been uncomfortably sensed and unsuccessfully suppressed across the history of human sin, guilt, denial, self-justifying defensiveness and self-serving blame-games.
Every totem, temple and taboo testifies to this awful, awkward awareness of sin and an anxiously sensed need for atonement. Every tribe – primitive and progressive, whether superficially perceived as “religious” or “secular,” and whether the idol was the sun, the moon or the self-writ-large – has left evidence. Ever since Eden, this internal alarm alerts a slithering self-righteous denial that utterly fails to cope with the clues of a convicting conscience.
When a young anthropologist, Margaret Mead, went to Samoa in 1925, she witnessed and wrote of the natives’ religious rituals. But she mistook, from what she was told by natives, that Samoans are an innocent people, gentle and sexually free. Impressing herself with what she was happy to take as primitive “naturalness” over against “up-tight” Western “civilization,” she concluded that culture, not nature, determines human behavior. As a liberal Protestant of the 1920s, she missed the point of Samoan religious rituals. Had she but perused a few of Robert Louis Stevenson’s published letters on his life among the warring Samoans, she’d not have been so easily duped by the natives who played this white woman for a fool. But, after all, she was an anthropologist.
So what’s the excuse of a Christian Reformed missionary to the Zuni? After years with them, he wrote this: “Their religion knows no sin.” (Cornelius Kuipers) But his remark contradicts the Zuni Creation Cycle’s gory myth of “The Change-Making Sin of Brother and Sister.”
Last month, Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of the Religious Right’s World magazine, reported: “Almost 43 years ago I wrote: ‘People are always being killed by governments, one way or another. The point is, how many, and which ones, and why.” Back in his Leftist days, he railed that his fellow “radicals take a soft-headed approach to revolution. They can’t understand that Communist Party work is bad work which must be done.” Now, he writes: “Welcome to Islamic State thinking, brother Olasky.”
Today, he asks his fellow Right-wing readers: “How many times have you heard, ‘It’s a mystery why people join ISIS’?” Says he: “No. It’s not.” He identifies with those who join up with ISIS to change the world. He was a young atheist Jew who joined up with other ‘70’s radicals to change the world. And he cites a ‘60s Muslim theologian’s saying there are only two choices for Muslims: Islam or jahiliyya, licentiousness. (Sayyid Qutb)
Jihadis on Twitter confirm this today. They’re desperately trying to save their souls. The New York Times quotes them, “want[ing] jannah” (paradise) and self-righteously boasting of escaping lust and hell through their extreme obedience to the will of Allah.
But, secularists, in their self-righteous arrogance, personally don’t get much involved with religion. Thus, they cannot identify with the religious terror in the minds of Islamic terrorists who’re so desperate to appease the fury of Allah that they blame and behead the infidel enemies of Allah, shouting “Allahu Akbar!” as they do so. Secularism gets in the way of secularists’ getting what’s going on in a religion that’s never been “westernized” and rejects politically correct “tolerance” in favor of worldwide Islamic theocracy. The clueless secularists mistake Islam for just another “take-it-or-leave-it” religion. But to leave Islam is to be targeted for death.
So, the religiously and historically illiterate elite falls for the old informal fallacy of “no true Scot,” trying to assure itself that the very evidence of terrorists’ carnage is evidence that Islamic State is not “true” Islam.
But, a progressive Muslim scholar notes: “The fact is they are using the framework of ancient Islamic beliefs. And ISIS is advancing an Islamic agenda and living an Islamic dream. She says: “It draws on orthodox Sunni precepts about jihad, the status of women, and Islam’s apocalyptic, imperialist designs.” (Farzana Hassan) Having grown up in Pakistan, she adds, “I know for a fact the dream of a global caliphate is a palpable goal among many Muslims who are devoutly religious and ostensibly moderate.” She asks rhetorically: “Why is it so hard to believe some Muslims truly believe in a global jihad, when the concept is central to Islam?”
A Princeton Professor of Near Eastern Studies and a leading expert on ISIS theology explains that many Western Muslims are now “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion [and they’re in denial about] what their religion has historically and legally required.” He sees that anyone who denies that Islamic State is Islamic, is coming from an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.” (Bernard Haykel) A Yale scholar of Islam agrees: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers [but] the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.” (Graeme Wood)
Although most self-righteousness is caricatured as “religious,” self-righteousness can be anti-religion, too. But, indeed, all self-righteousness is a deeply entrenched spiritual expression of ultimate concern. It’s symptomatic of our human depravity, seepage of a disfigurement of the Divine image. Created in God’s love for God’s love and for loving God and one another, we turn to self-worship. No wonder self-righteousness is so anxiously defensive. We know better but are determined to default to denial.
Back in the 1st-century, after meeting the risen Christ, Paul perceived that all “self-righteousness” amounted to “works of the flesh” in contrast to the gracious “fruit of the Spirit” of God.
He was writing to Christian converts from paganism. Hebrew Christian mentors were misleading them into thinking that they weren’t true Christians unless they’d submit to the ancient religious ritual of circumcision.
Paul realized that God’s promise to Abraham, and through him, to the world, was not fulfilled by Pharisaic self-righteousness or by the miserable efforts of all the generations of Abraham’s delinquent descendants, but only by God’s sovereign grace in Christ’s righteousness. On the cross, Christ clearly declared his mission accomplished, “It is finished!”
Christian life is not about rules and rituals. It’s life as “fruit of God’s Spirit.” This fruit is God’s gift, lived out, in God-given gratitude of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
Apart from God’s grace in Christ’s righteousness, there’s no relief from self-righteous enslavement that binds the self-righteous and binds all whom the self-righteous bind up in blame. Having blamed and enslaved ourselves, we seek others to blame and enslave. The others then, in their self-righteous turns, seek still others to blame and enslave. And so it goes on: “Wars and rumors of wars!”
Refusing to recognize that self-righteousness fails to free us, and foolishly trying to convince ourselves, against our own awareness, that there’s something wrong with us, we decipher but distort, dispute but dismiss the witness in our own brain cells. So, we’re still enslaved in-side those cells, locked up in the pinched perspective of self-evident condemnation. Instead of getting a clue to getting a grip on reality, we refuse to let go of the self-righteousness that dominates us, prompting us to try to dominate others who then retaliate against us. It’s all so predictably and utterly destructive.
Jonathan Edwards observed: “The deceitfulness of the heart appears in nothing so much as in spiritual pride and self-righteousness. The subtlety of Satan appears in its height, in his managing persons with respect to this sin. And perhaps one reason may be that here he has most experience; … it was his own sin.”
So let’s listen in as Paul’s converts to Christ in Galatia hear his concerns for them, for we have a lot in common with them – in our own enslavement to self-righteousness and in freedom in Christ.
Pharisees who’d become Christians but continued to bow to their legalist traditions, were telling the converts from paganism that, as they’d said at Antioch: “Unless you’re circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you can’t be saved.” (Acts 15:1)
Christ has set us free for freedom. So, be firm in this freedom. Don’t be slaves all over again. (5:1)
Everyone envies freedom. But envied freedom is a fantasy of freedom. And, as with all fantasy, it’s bound to mislead us for it’s bound up in designs of our own that are no grounds for reasonable expectations. But Paul’s good news is of freedom that’s no fantasy. Christian freedom is a fact of God’s sovereign grace.
Throughout history, obsessing over self as ultimate concern has enslaved more than all else. It’s self-righteousness, trying to control self-actualization, even self–survival. But trying to flee the fury of all the menacing gods and goddesses – whether Gorgons, goblins, gossip mongers, Gestapo or Global Warming – we’re enslaved in fear, frustration and hostility, depending on our self-sufficiency but anxiously aware we’re not sufficient.
So-called “solutions” disappoint and depress with unintended consequences. Thirst for affirmation is never quenched and all the allegedly almighty dollars are never enough. Why? This world’s solutions are this world’s problems for they fail to deal with what’s really wrong.
C. S. Lewis learned this: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Our problems – what-have-you – are problems of what-have-you-not.
Against all self-righteous bad news, Paul sums God’s Good News in one word: freedom. It’s freedom from all that’s wrong with us, freedom from all the futility of our self-righteousness, and freedom for all that’s made right through Christ’s righteousness.
Paul calls the Galatians to seriously accept God’s gift of freedom so that they don’t fall back into enslavement to all this bad news of self-righteousness propagated by the traditionalists. His words, his tone and his rhetorical style evidence his nearly inexpressibly deep pastoral concern for their spiritual welfare.
He jolts them with a bold appeal as the one who’d brought them the Gospel in the first place:
Look! I, Paul, guarantee that if you get yourselves circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. (5:2)
Paul warns them that there’s so much more at stake than they suspect.
Again, I tell you: Everyone who allows himself to be circumcised must realize that he obligates himself to do everything that the Law demands. (5:3)
Unanticipated peril lurks around every corner of self-righteous legalism. It comes with the territory. Uncircumcised since birth, by no fault of theirs, they’ll be enslaved to every detail of Jewish culture by demands from those who, to no credit of theirs, have been circumcised for as long as they can remember. And, Paul warns, this demand for circumcision is only the tip of the cockamamie.
This ancient religious rigmarole gets rerun today. And again, the preoccupation of the self-righteous is focused on others’ genitals.
Today, if Christians discover that their sexual orientation is toward a person with anatomically similar genitalia, they’re told they don’t qualify for Christ. They must get “fixed” or live their entire life with-out sexual intimacy or marry a body with genitalia anatomically dissimilar from their own. But, as they are, they’re abominations to God and can’t be counted as Christians.
If you try to earn God’s approval by obeying law, you cut yourself from Christ. You’ve fallen from grace. (5:4)
In cutting off the foreskin, they cut themselves off from Christ. Nothing less than this is at stake in trafficking in trivia to try to put God in one’s debt. Dangling a bit of foreskin in God’s face, seeking to seduce Him into some hacked-up scheme of “holiness,” is turning one’s back on God’s costly love shown at Christ’s cross.
Against all self-righteous quackery, Paul offers this:
By God’s Spirit, we wait patiently, in eager confidence for what comes with God’s promise. (5:5)
Therefore, says Paul:
As to our relationship with Christ Jesus, circumcision does not count at all. What does count is faith expressed through love. (5:6)
And, as for our relationship to Christ today, heterosexuality does not count at all. Nor does homosexuality, homophobia or LGBTQQ6XYZ, etc. pride. What does count is faith expressed through love. And that’s readily affordable love, fully founded in God’s love in Christ and fully funded by God’s love in Christ.
“You were running so well,” Paul exclaims. “Who got you off track?” (5:7)
This racing metaphor well serves Paul’s argument against Jewish cultural enslavement of Gentiles. Ancient races were run in the nude. So Jews judged these races to be obscene and refused to get involved. So, what in the world are these “pious” Jews doing out there on the track as they try to trip you up in your running the Christian race?
Paul is reassuring:
The arguments from those who try to seduce you do not come from the one who calls you. (5:8)
He warns that even a bit of an argument against the full grace of God in Christ alone is, as an old metaphor for evil has it:
A little yeast [that] spreads through the whole batch. (5:9)
He assures them:
The Lord gives me confidence you’ll not disagree with me. But the one who’s confusing you will suffer God’s judgment regardless of who he is. (5:10)
He reinforces with logic:
Brothers and sisters, if I’m still preaching the need of circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Has the offense of the cross been lost? (5:11)
No, not at all.
Disgusted with the troublemakers, with whom Paul, of course, can identify, for he, himself, was what they are, he pushes the envelope:
Would that they’d just go all the way and castrate themselves. (5:12)
Crude! Yet, what was it that Flannery O’Connor advised? “For the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”
This was ancient polemic. With so much at stake, Paul refuses to mince words. Comparing the circumcisers with cross-dressing, self-castrating pagan priests of Cybele, he counters Israel’s self-righteous tradition of excluding eunuchs and aligns himself with Isaiah (56:1ff), Jesus (Matt 19:12) and Philip (Acts 8:26ff) who looked beyond genitalia to genuine love that’s the point of God’s law.
You were called to be free. Don’t turn your freedom into things of the flesh. Instead, serve one another through love. (5:13)
Freedom from self-righteousness is not freedom for selfishness. Freed from fruitless selfishness, we’re freed for fruitful service.
He repeats Jesus’ citing the Torah that was being so misused to tempt Gentiles into legalism:
The whole law is summed up in a single word, Love your neighbor as you love yourself. (5:14) (cf. Lev 19:18; Mk 12:31; Matt 22:39)
This was always God’s will, but now, those who live by Christ’s righteousness are at last freed to live his love as their way of life. Self-giving love, agape, can do what self-righteous homophobia and self-righteous gay pride could never do – escape selfishness to serve one another.
But failing to trust the God of all grace makes it easy to slip into cesspools of self-righteousness. Paul’s sharp warning pictures a bunch of battling beasts:
If you bite and devour each other, beware you don’t wind up killing each other. (5:15)
So, he says:
Live your life by following the Spirit so that you don’t follow the tendencies of your corrupt nature. (5:16)
With psychological perceptivity and deep spiritual wisdom, he explains with repetition:
What your corrupt self wants and values conflicts with what the Spirit within you wants and values; what the Spirit wants and values is not what your corrupt self wants and values. And, as these are in conflict with each other, so you, too, are conflicted. (5:17)
Rallying them from rivalries to more than sufficient relief, he says:
Led by God’s Spirit, you are not under law. (5:18)
Rather than worrying over attempts to dot every “i” and cross every “t” of ritual, rule and regulation, look to Christ’s cross and his righteousness. In God’s abiding Spirit within us, we’ll see that the moral reasoning behind the law is summed up in love. And, led by God’s Spirit, we’ll have what it takes to love one another. God loves us into loving.
Paul notes examples of this world’s lack of love:
… rape, prostitution, promiscuity, idolatry, drug abuse, hatred, bitter rivalry, jealousy, angry outbursts, selfish ambition, conflict, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like. (5:19-21a)
But Fundamentalists today, anachronistically pushing same-sex marriage back into this ancient random list insist that gays be, in effect, “castrated.” And refusing to see, in this very list of sample sins, their own bitter rivalries, angry outbursts and all, they add yet longer lists of do’s and don’ts for everyone else.
Maybe you’re aware that many Muslims are coming to Jesus by way of his coming to them in dreams? Sadly, what they then find in coming to church is not grace but works. One woman found it so unbearably legalistic, she said it was “like returning to Islam.”
I’ve already told you before, I’m telling you again: Those who continue in ‘works’ are not inheritors of God’s reign of grace. (5:21b)
He contrasts self-righteous nonsense with God’s grace:
Over against all of this, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (5:22-23a)
This rich harvest is the daily fresh produce of Christ’s Spirit in those in whom he lives. It’s not what we can or do or must muster up on our own. So, thank God, it’s nothing for which we can take credit, nothing that prompts any pride of self-righteousness.
Do we grasp what a relief this word of grace is from daily grinds of postured piety and pretended peace? Coming out of habituated self-righteousness to the gracious gift of Christ’s Spirit alive in our everyday lives is, indeed, Christian freedom.
In this lightsome note of freedom on the freedom in the fruit of God’s Spirit, Paul’s quiet smile comes through his letter, breaking the tension: Hey, against love, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and the like,
… there are no laws. (5:23b)
He wants them to realize that there’s nothing they need to do, can do or even should try to do, to improve on what God in his costly grace gives them in Christ.
Belonging to Christ Jesus, we’ve crucified our corrupt nature, passions and desires. (5:24)
He’d already told them:
I’ve been crucified with Christ. Yet, I live! (2:20)
At Christ’s cross and in his resurrection we find our righteousness.
Where in all of this unmerited grace of God in Christ and the fruit of God’s Spirit, is there any room for self-righteousness? In Christ, we can be freed from our self-righteousness!
“Therefore,” Paul writes, “if we live by the Spirit, let’s be led by the Spirit.” (5:25)
Why would we not follow the Spirit’s lead? Because of continued self-righteousness! So, wisely, Paul keeps on warning:
Let’s not be arrogant, disparaging or envying each other. (5:26)
But, walking with God’s Spirit, who’d be arrogant, disparaging or envying of each other? We would! We have! We do! We will!
With self-righteous claims that righteousness was at stake, Christians have burned each other at stakes of self-righteousness. In self-righteous claims of what matters most, non-Christians say Christians don’t much matter. 2015 marks the centenary of the slaughter of some two million Armenian Christians in a single decade of genocide. And today, millions in self-righteousness mean to finish the job all across the planet.
Jesus prepared us to expect all of this – for we are his:
If they persecuted me, they’ll persecute you also. (John 15:20)
The “religious” and “anti-religious” will persecute us in their own self-righteous ways, for, in refusing Christ’s righteousness, they’ve nothing but self-righteousness by which to try to survive. Jesus warned of floggings in synagogues and of being handed over to government agents. (Matt 10:16f) He said siblings would betray siblings to death. And they’re doing it. A father will betray his child and children will betray parents and they’ll be killed. They’re doing it as we sit here in safety – for now. Jesus warned: “All will hate you on my account, but whoever stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matt 10:21f)
There’s no firm ground in self-righteousness. Christ’s righteous-ness is the only firm ground. God stands by his promise:
I will never leave you nor forsake you. (Deut 31:6; Heb 13:5)
Here’s what the LORD, your Creator, says: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name; you’re mine. When you pass through the waters, I’ll be with you; and through the rivers, they won’t sweep you away. When you walk through the fire, you won’t be burned, the flames won’t harm who you are.’ (Isa 43:1f)
Even at Jesus’ “apparent” parting from them, he promised:
I am here with you always, all the way. (Matt 28:20)
And his promised Spirit is here now. If you don’t sense this, it’s not because of his absence.
What love the Father has given us, that we should be called God’s children! And we are!
But, he explained:
This world doesn’t recognize us since it refuses to recognize him.
But, no matter!
We’re already God’s children, yet what we will be, still isn’t very clear, though we do know that when Christ appears we’ll be like him for we’ll see him as he is. (I John 3:1f)
And even now, made alive in Christ’s righteousness, we can side-step our own versions of ourselves over which we trip into self-obsessing concern and against which we try to compensate with self-righteous posturing to win affirmation from other self-obsessing and self-righteous souls who are, themselves, far too distracted to get distracted by what’s in our heads and not in theirs.
But our true identity is in the mind and heart of him who never gave up on us but loved us and gave himself up for us. One day, when we see God in Christ, we’ll know ourselves as known by the one who is our righteousness, and we’ll be rid of self-righteousness for good.