To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men– robbers, evildoers, adulterers– or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. -Luke 18:9-14
First, some background: I grew up in the suburbs of Delaware. I went to high school. I went to college. I loved philosophy, loved arguing philosophy, and most of all, loved being right. I would have called myself Christian, if anyone had asked, but I thought that all religions were essentially the same. After all, they all taught very similar moral precepts, selflessness, and generosity. I would have only called myself a Christian because I found Jesus’ moral teachings to be more familiar than those of other religions. I had read the Bible when I was in fifth grade, and although I hadn’t read it since I went to college, I could recall that while it was good, it was wrong in some places. But I led a fairly moral life, and certainly no one would have questioned my general goodness. In fact, I built my life on doing the right thing, on being a virtuous, moral person. Throughout this time, I believed in God, I said grace before meals, and I prayed every night. My prayers went roughly as follows: “Dear God, Thank you for all that you have given me. I have many talents, and I thank you that I am thankful for them and that I realize what a blessing they are. I am generally a good person, and even though I’m not perfect, I thank you that you recognize my goodness and love me. Lord, I hope that you’ll forgive me for my sins, whatever they may be. And I hope that tomorrow I’ll try to be an even better person. Amen.”
I had also read Luke 18:9, and knew that pride was bad. So occasionally, I would add something like “God, I know I am not as good as I could be. I could be much better. I know I look down on other people because I am better than them, but I shouldn’t.” But my heart was essentially saying: “God, I know this is how I’m supposed to pray, with humility and all that, but between you and me, we both know that I’m basically a good person. And what tops it all off is that I’m so humble.” Occasionally, I would have to acknowledge what I actually felt in my heart – that I had an attitude uncannily similar to that of the Pharisee. And then I would stifle my pride yet again and pray for humility. Unfortunately, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, that strategy is doomed to fail; I ended up being proud of my attempts at humility. But that was the best I could do, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t convinced that anyone could do better.
My senior year of college, I met Christina and fell in love with her. I found her faith at once interesting and inconvenient, but I vowed that I would compromise and agreed to meet her halfway. I took my beliefs very seriously, and it seemed unfair and close-minded that she should cling to her views so stubbornly and to expect, although expect is not the right word, that I should relinquish mine. When we moved out to California together, I was convinced that everything would work out as long as we compromised on the whole Jesus thing. To show my willingness to compromise, I decided to go to church with her. And that was my fatal mistake.
At our church in Berkeley, I heard the Gospel for the first time: Jesus saves. I must have heard that phrase or some variation of it hundreds of times before, but this time, for whatever reason, I listened. In retrospect, I think that one defense against Christianity to which I always appealed was that Christianity could not possibly be maintained by thoughtful, intelligent people, at least not people so thoughtful and intelligent as myself. Surely, Christianity was for well-meaning and sometimes not-so-well-meaning people with substandard educations and a streak of intellectual fear bordering on dishonesty. But at First Pres., my escape was closed off. Our pastor had a PhD from Oxford. My quantum physics professor sang in the choir. Here were people indisputably my intellectual superiors who believed that Jesus was Lord, and had died for their sins. Suddenly, I was forced to actually consider the message of Christianity on its own merits. I didn’t like it.
I can recall the night when the claims of Christianity finally sank in. For the first time, I considered what the consequences would be if Christianity were true. Not just true in a relativistic “true-for-me” sense, but actually true – historically, objectively true. What if God were the God of the Bible? What if Jesus was who he said he was? I knew that the word “gospel” was Greek for “good news”, but I remember weeping and telling Christina that this was the most horrible news I had ever heard. What about all the people who had never heard of Jesus? What about people who had died before Jesus was born? What about good, devout followers of other religions? But for once, I didn’t use these objections as reasons to dismiss all consideration of the subject immediately. I finally stopped to consider whether Christianity was true in spite of all my questions. And I think I prayed something like: “God, if this is true, tell me, and I will believe.” Of course, I didn’t obtain answers for my questions immediately. And I still grapple with many of those same questions. But I think that was the point when I decided to put my trust in God and follow where He led. And over many subsequent months, He led me to Jesus.
What is the message of the gospel to which I had such a negative reaction? It was the same message that was preached to the people of Jerusalem and Judea two thousand years ago: we are all saved by unmerited, undeserved grace. No one lives up to what God wants of him: not the most sinful, evil person in the world, and not the most moral, virtuous person in the world.
I realize now what had been completely controlling my life up until the point I became a Christian: the desire for approval. All my life, I had tried desperately to be better than other people: smarter, more athletic, more musical. Sometimes I would meet someone smarter than me, but often I was more athletic. Many people were more athletic, but then I was more musical. And when I did meet someone who outperformed me in all of my categories, I was devastated. Worst of all, morality just became one more category, the category that trumped them all. My belief in God, my adherence to moral principles, was my last resort when all else failed. No matter how smart, athletic, or musical the competition, I always had this: that I was a good person, that I was a moral person. And the last balm that would soothe my wounded pride was really the most poisonous of all, pride in my righteousness and pride in my humility.
But the Gospel shatters all our self-justification. Jesus says to us: none of you can be his own savior. You are all sinners: the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the Pharisees, the pastors, the bishops, the kings, the businessmen. You’re all suffering, you’re all dying inside. There’s only one difference: the tax collectors and the prostitutes know it; they know they can’t save themselves. But you, Pharisee, and you, Neil: you still think you can.
That’s why the Gospel was fire and water to me. It saw through all of my attempts at self-justification, which is what all of the competition and virtue was. It saw through my attempts to pass myself off as a success. Who of us, when we are being most honest with ourselves can truly say that he doesn’t need any help, that he’s got it all together? If you think that you do, let me just suggest to you that you might be as terrified as I was to admit to the opposite. And most of the time, we can convince ourselves that we’re basically doing ok. But we’ve all had glimpses. God always allows us to go through times when suddenly everything falls apart and we realize how desperately in need we are.
But the Gospel also offers the hope that is the only real hope: God loves even the worst of us. In all my self-justification, in all of my pride and contempt, what I was seeking was a verdict: a verdict that my life had meaning. I had tried to earn that meaning through academic success, through athletics, through all kinds acheivement, but it was never enough. And worse, the gospel told me that I was completely lost and morally bankrupt. But when everything else is shaken, only the unshakeable remains. Throughout the Bible, Jesus’ message is that God loves us not because we are good, but because He is good. Jesus came to save not the righteous, but sinners. He gives us the verdict that we are all longing to hear: that we are loved, that our lives are worth something, worth so much, in fact, that God gave up the treasure of his heart to save us. What we couldn’t earn despite our best efforts, God freely gives.
Knowing Jesus has made a tremendous difference in my life. I still struggle with pride, but now I can look to Jesus who “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” I still struggle with feeling superior to others, but now I can say, along with St. Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.” At the same time that I am humbled by the knowledge that it cost Jesus his life to save me, I am reassured by the knowledge that he did it willingly, because of the great love he has for all of us. Now I can obey God out of love and gratitude, not out of fear of punishment or desire for reward. Paul, who himself was a Pharisee and whose moral zeal and self-righteousness surpassed even my own, put it this way: “If anyone thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eigth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persucting the church; as for leagalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”
I hope that the rest of my life will be spent learning to depend entirely on God’s grace. As Paul concludes, I conclude, “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”