I saw again today the evil that lurks in every heart—I saw it in my own. One little thought, but it quickly made the point. I looked at a coworker (one I’ve never seen before, never met) and thought, “Wow, somebody’s hair got stuck in the wrong decade.” And then the thought echoed in the silence of my mind. How cruel is that? How vile and despicable is it to so swiftly scorn someone on the basis of their hairstyle?
Praise God who does not leave us in our sin.
When I thought that cruel, despicable thought earlier, he graciously let it echo in my mind for several seconds. What an ugly thought. Self-congratulatory, other-belittling, and simply sinful. It was disgusting. I was ashamed.
It strikes me now, though, how very typical that mental exchange was. We look at others and see ourselves better than them. I do it all the time, in small ways and big. I count myself a better writer, programmer, composer, thinker, person. It is, as I realized this morning, disgusting. I am not a better person. Even in areas where I may be more talented or more skilled, two salient questions remain: what does that matter, and who made it so? To which I must answer: it matters not a whit, especially as a person’s worth is concerned; and God made it so, not I.
Such comparisons are always sinful. The only aim I can have in comparing myself to another person is to puff up my own pride. The only possible results are always bad: I will either count myself better and pride myself in it, or count myself worse and forget that my worth and value are found in Christ alone.
Nor was God done exposing the evil of my heart.
For a very long time I have prided myself on seeing people beyond their surfaces, seeing who people really are. That sentence alone should give me pause; too often it has not. Whatever we pride ourselves in is folly. We have nothing from ourselves; there are no self-made men. Every one of us was born into circumstances outside of our control, given breaks (hard or easy) outside of our control, given a personality outside of our control, and given talents (or a lack thereof) outside of our control. My wife, talented woman that she is, did not somehow conjure for herself the ability to write; the talent she has carefully honed were given to her.
Yet pride in my talents or abilities is not the worst of its siblings. More dangerous by far is pride in our moral standing. Humility, as Ben Franklin quipped and others have often echoed, the hardest of all virtues: whoever thinks he has it almost certainly does not.1 When I begin to pride myself on seeing others truly, on not failing to miss the deeper aspects of people’s character and personality, I am running a very dangerous course indeed. I run the course of religious people the world over—Christian and non-Christian—who put their trust in their own moral competence rather than in Jesus and his finished work. I become a legalist,a Judaizer, a fool.
Again: praise God who does not leave us in our sin.
I, who pride myself in judging others well, at seeing deeply, at looking beyond the surface—I scorned a woman for her hairstyle. How very misplaced my pride is. I do not judge as I ought. I do not see as I ought. I do not look at others as I ought. These grounds I thought I had for boasting prove instead to be in fact a cause for shame. The light of grace shows up my moral excellence for what it is: failure and ineptitude.
More than that: even if I were as righteous as I thought, I would have no cause to boast. I have no holiness to call my own. God works in us to sanctify, God delivers us from sin’s consuming power, God overcomes our resistance to his grace, God provides the strength to follow him, God accomplishes our salvation.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
1 When I was much younger, I once ponderously responded to my youth pastor’s question, “Who is the humblest person you know?” by saying, “You know… honestly, I think I am.” The irony was lost on me; I don’t know how anyone in the room managed to keep a straight face.