We tend to underestimate the magnitude of sin, in particular, our own sin. And our failure to confront our sinfulness in an honest way — our tendency rather to revel in how good we are — can have devastating consequences in our relationships with others.
Notice what is happening when two people — in a marriage, in an organization, in a church — have a conflict with each other. “I’m right.” “No, I’m right.” That pretty well sums up most of our arguments. Implicit is the claim, “I’m good.” “No, I’m good.”
The passions in these conflicts build and build, often into anger, hatred, and the desire — sometimes acted out — for vengeance and retaliation. And the fuel for the conflagration tends to be indignation. Righteous indignation.
I have noticed that fights between Christians can be even more vicious than fights between non-Christians. This may be because Christians put a higher value on righteousness than other people, and so they tend to frame even personal conflicts (from hurt feelings, rivalry, personality clashes) as a defense of something sacred (authority hierarchies, what honors God, what is best for the church).
In our church, every Sunday each and every one of us admits that we are “poor, miserable” sinners, that “we are by nature” not only sinful but “unclean,” that I not only commit sins but am “a poor, sinful being.” And yet, despite these ritual and intellectual acknowledgements of how tainted we are, we still fall into the “I’m good,” “No, I’m good” syndrome.
And we Christians, while willing to admit that we are sinners in a theoretical sense, in practice insist on feeling good about ourselves. We do recognize that our adversary is sinful and unclean. But we do not apply those high standards by which we judge others to ourselves. Thus we Christians compound our sin, in the way we fight against each other, by ignoring the clear biblical instructions about how we are to handle our disputes. We do not forgive. Despite Christ’s repeated injunctions, we often do not forgive our friends, let alone our enemies. Matthew 18 might get invoked in a legalistic way when we want to accuse our opponent of not following it, but its goal of “gaining your brother” is neglected.
And I have never, ever, in any congregation or denomination, seen anyone so much as try to implement what the apostle Paul says to do in the case of disputes within the church, wherein the strong give in for the sake of the weak (Rom. 14–15). You would think that the parties in a church dispute, each of whom assumes that he is the stronger one, would stumble over each other trying to give in to the other person, clearly one of the weaker brethren. And yet we do not, which is yet more evidence of our depravity.
What we usually do is try to “justify” ourselves. And when we justify our actions, our opinions, and our own sweet selves, we violate what we probably believe, that we are justified by grace through faith in the work of Christ.
Since even our good works are tainted by sin, if we are honest, we must admit that when problems arise with another person, our own sin probably had something to do with it. We may be in the right, overall, and some people are certainly persecuted for righteousness’ sake, but there are few situations in our fallen condition in which we are completely guiltless.
When we are conscious of our sinfulness and mortified by that realization — and when we are overwhelmed that nevertheless we are reconciled to God through the gift of Jesus — we cannot help but treat even our enemies differently. We do see their sin, but because of our own we can respond with kinship and empathy. Since we have been forgiven so much for our offenses against God, how can we not forgive others whose offenses are against us? (Matt.18:21–35).
The spirit of self-righteousness not only breeds conflict, it also, ironically, can breed further sin. We feel so good about ourselves that we start to assume that whatever we do, by definition, must be good. So we “justify” our sins. We are self-righteous without being righteous.
The spirit of self-righteousness also breeds hypocrisy. We put on a front of goodness in a generally unsuccessful attempt to hide our true sinfulness. And this can overthrow our Christian witness. How much more believable our message would be if we could project a spirit of humility, honesty, repentance, forgiveness, and joy in the Gospel.
We sometimes speak of witnessing to the world by showing people how good we are. There is truth in that, and if we were more forgiving to our enemies and more loving to our neighbors, that would make us far more credible than we are. But so would honesty about our sin and our constant need of Christ’s forgiveness.
At a Bible study I attended, a young woman thanked another member of the circle for her role in bringing her to Christ. “I always thought Christians were so perfect,” she said, “so I didn’t want to have anything to do with them. But when I got to know a Christian, I saw that she was no better than I am!” That testimony was a little deflating to the person who helped bring her to faith, but it is a reminder that our witness must be to the Gospel, which has to do not with our goodness but with the forgiveness of our sins.