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I think pretty highly of myself. It’s amazing, from my lofty perspective, just how intelligent and witty and gracious I am, how enjoyable a person I am to be around. And holy. Of course God wants me in his kingdom – why wouldn’t he?
Arrogance has got to be one of my most disgusting qualities.
From thinking highly of myself, it’s only a short jump to thinking and speaking lowly of others. Of course I sin occasionally, but where do all these other people get off being so selfish and lazy and immature? What a drag. In case it isn’t clear, this thinking isn’t the helpful admonishment that guides someone to a more excellent way. It’s the scoffing, the gossip, the silent raised eyebrow that says, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like that sinner.” The comments that are barely up the path from slander and hatred.
I step into these thought and speech patterns far more than I’d care to admit or even notice, but God has recently pointed out to me that this behavior speaks volumes about the position of my own heart toward him. This pattern of sin reveals my disregard for his work and my insufficient understanding of the gospel.
When I scoff at the behavior of another person, I am using God’s gifts and sacrifice to slander his creation.
In his hard teaching about the use of our words, James calls out the irony of Christians speaking against others:
With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:9-10)
Who gave me a mouth to speak? Who gave me the breath of air I draw and the muscles that push it out and the vocal chords that form my sounds? Who created my mind and reasoning and power of evaluation? And not only this, but didn’t Christ then ransom me with his own life from an eternity of darkness?
Yet, I dare to take the body and mind God gave me and ransomed for himself, using them to slander another piece of his creation. Then, as James says, I turn around and praise God from the same mouth. God hasn’t created and saved my mouth and my mind and given me air to breathe so that I can use them to curse his creation.
When I dwell on the faults of others, I am forgetting the work of the gospel in me.
From my high and lofty view, it’s easy to see all the ways other people are failing me or have wronged me. I can sit up here and pick out the mistakes everyone else is making like it’s my job. And of course I’m the perfect person to do it, because I have such a perfect understanding of how the world should run. “I would never do that…”
The one tiny flaw in this logic is that I’m actually a tremendous sinner with no innate holiness. (Foiled again.) Any goodness I know of, I only know because of Jesus’ work for me. Any growth I experience, I only experience because God graciously brings it about in me. When I criticize someone else for committing a sin I believe myself to be free from, I’m forgetting the obvious truth that Jesus is the one who has given me every victory I have ever experienced over sin.
Paul warns the Corinthians about lifting themselves up on their supposed merits as if they were responsible for generating them:
For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (I Corinthians 4:7)
Here Paul makes the even more cringe-inducing connection that, in thinking myself superior to others, I’m not only forgetting what I have received, but I am also boasting about it as if I had not received it – I’m boasting about my own holiness as if I were personally responsible for it. I’m boasting about Christ’s work as if it were my work. If I’m not mistaken, that falls into the category of blasphemy.
When I view others through the lens of their flaws, I’m doubting the power of the gospel for them.
Just as I am quick to forget just how deep Jesus reached to save and soften my heart, I am quick to forget that he is powerful to do the same for others. I’m quick to clutch evidence of sin against another believer, forgetting that God is actively working his or her heart, extending the same measure of grace to them as he has to me.
As Amy Carmichael states powerfully in her poem “If,” my focusing on the flaws of others reveals my lack of faith in Christ’s love and power:
If my attitude be one of fear, not faith, about one who has disappointed me; if I say, “Just what I had expected,” if a fall occurs, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I do not look with eyes of hope on all in whom there is even a faint beginning, as our Lord did … then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I cast up a confessed, repented, and forsaken sin against another, and allow my remembrance of that sin to color my thinking and feed my suspicions, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
When my eyes go to someone’s failure rather than to God’s grace, I’m missing the full picture of the gospel. The scope of his saving and refining power is far beyond any criticism I can level.
In response to one of my recent tirades, my dad challenged me to think about what my accusations say about me, rather than what they say about the person I was criticizing. They clearly don’t point to my superiority. My sins of word and thought point to my own failures and my deep need for grace. The next time I draw a breath to slander someone, I should first thank God for the air he has provided for my breath, remember the salvation he has worked in me, and think on his love for the person I am bent on tearing down.
It’s a lot less efficient than an eye roll, but it sure puts me in my place, and God in his.