The title of this entry is borrowed from a Charlie Peacock lyric, taken from my favorite song of his, “In the Light.” (Yes, Charlie Peacock wrote “In the Light,” not DC Talk.) The full verse that the lyric is pulled from is quoted below:
The disease of the self runs through my blood
Like a cancer fatal to my soul
Every attempt on my behalf has failed
To get this sickness under control.
The inspiration for this post was a conversation I’ve been having with Jonathan Rogers by email about the insidious nature of self-righteousness. It infects and infests the Church because it infects and infests us all. We may not all struggle with self-righteousness in the same area and to the same degree, but we do all struggle with it in some area and to some degree. The more adamantly we declare our freedom from it, the more surely we are guilty of it.
Despite the clear testimony of scripture that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and that if we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (I John 1:9), we each and everyone seem to be hard at work in some form or another to justify ourselves. Of course, attempts to justify one’s self are not acts of rectification, let alone redemption, for unless wrongdoing is acknowledged, there is no admission that there is anything to redeem, anything to be rectified. Rather we engage in a massive cover up, following our first parents by trying to hide from the eyes of God, wrapping our sin in not-so-clever excuses that may fool us but can never fool Him.
The story of the Gospel, the story of salvation, is the story of the rescue of Man by God, which is why, of course, the full depth of Man’s depravity and need of rescue must be acknowledged for the full scandal of God’s grace and mercy to be understood. This is why self-righteousness is a disease, why it is fatal: it seeks to nullify the grace of God by erecting a monument to human goodness – namely our own – in its place.
This is also why a sure mark of growth in grace is marked by a deepening awareness of our own sinfulness. We find it in the Old Testament, in the penitential Psalms, where David, the man after God’s own heart, cries out to God for deliverance from his sin. We find it in the New Testament, where the Apostle Paul moves from being the self-satisfied persecutor of the church, to being the least of the apostles, to being the chief of sinners. We also see it throughout history and in our own experience. The most godly men I have known have not proudly proclaimed this fact, nor have they verbally refused it while every word and act that flowed from them reeked of self-satisfaction. Instead, they have freely and consistently acknowledged their own unworthiness without resorting to an insincere language of self-loathing designed to solicit assurances they really aren’t that bad, while at the same time living with the settled peace and assurance that can only come from reliance on the God who is the source and sustainer of that peace.
All of this is part of the reason why one of my favorite literary characters is Msimangu, a character in Alan Paton’s brilliant novel about South Africa called Cry, the Beloved Country. Msimangu epitomizes love and mercy throughout the book, and when the man who is the beneficiary of this love and mercy, Stephen Kumalo, tries to credit him with being the source of this love and mercy, Msimangu consistently but graciously redirects the praise, saying, I am a selfish and sinful man. God has put his hand on me, that is all.
If anything good and right, worthy and true, beautiful and blessed, is found in me, or in any of us, then that is all. Likewise with you, reader. That is all. Thanks be to God, who reaches down, and puts His hands on us.