Taking Out the Garbage of Self-Righteousness

“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 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” (Philippians 3:7-9).


The dictionary definition of self-righteousness usually goes something like this: “Confidence in one’s own goodness or virtue, especially while being smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.” That’s not a bad place to start, but it’s more descriptive of the symptoms of self-righteousness than the underlying disease. The deeper problem is legalism—the notion that we could somehow generate enough righteousness on our own to make ourselves acceptable to God for salvation. The idea is ridiculous on its face because it makes us partially our own saviors. 

Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector specifically to “those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else” (Luke 18:9). The pious leader in Jesus’ story assumed his acceptance with God was based on his own actions, while the tax collector recognized there was nothing in him by which he could commend himself to God; he was totally dependent on divine grace for his salvation. Quite significantly, it was the despised tax collector who “went home justified before God,” according to Jesus, not the religious leader (Luke 18:14). Repeatedly in the Gospels, Jesus warns his followers about the dangers of self-righteousness, emphasizing that without him, they could do nothing (cf. John 15:5).

The problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn’t feel like sin. Most of the time it feels like holiness. Most of the time it feels like something God should be pleased with—something that should make him smile. To do our good works, and catalog our achievements, and then present them all to God—that feels like something the Almighty should appreciate. After all, God is holy, and he demands holiness from his people, right? 

Yet everywhere in Scripture, that kind of a self-righteous approach to God is sharply condemned. It’s sharply condemned not only in Luke 18, but also in Philippians 3. In fact, not only is it condemned in that chapter, it’s severely ridiculed. Paul calls it “garbage” in verse 9. Other versions say “rubbish.” Those are awfully polite translations.

The problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn’t feel like sin. Most of the time it feels like holiness.

The original word is skubalon, which means “dung,” “manure,” “excrement,” and a few other words that preachers aren’t supposed to say. Why such colorful language? Why such a linguistic jolt in holy writ? Because there’s an important distinction to be made between presenting our good works to God as a gift and presenting our good works to God as currency. The gift says, “Thank you, God. I obey you because I love you.” The currency says, “Pay up, God. I’ve been good; you owe me.” The two approaches are light years apart. 

But what’s so terribly wrong with that second view? It sounds logical, doesn’t it? I do this, and God gives me that. Quid pro quo. Makes sense. But here’s the problem: Self-righteousness is offensive to God because it fails to take into account that—as fallen human beings tainted by sin—there’s something inherently deficient with even the good things we do. Just take an honest look at your motives and attitudes some time. Have you ever done anything with completely perfect attitudes or motives? Chances are slim. No one bats a thousand all the time, so without God’s mercy, we’re toast.

When one of my swim coaches was in college, he used to walk past the President’s house every day on the way home from practice. The university President had a horse, and my coach would stop by and pet it every day, feeding it apples and other treats. After doing this for several years, my coach developed a good relationship with the horse, so one day he just took it home with him. He stole the President’s horse!

Word went out over campus radio that someone had stolen the President’s prize possession. It was a major scandal since the man loved his horse. After several hours of not being able to locate the animal, the college began offering a sizeable cash reward for its safe return. When my coach heard about the monetary reward, he returned the horse…and collected the cash!

Now, we can probably all agree that it was a good thing that my coach returned the President’s horse. It was a good work. But I’m sure we can also agree that there was something very wrong with that good work. Here was the thief now cashing in on his own criminality! And so it is with fallen people before a holy God. Even the good things we do are tainted to a certain extent.

Self-righteousness is offensive to God because it fails to take into account that—as fallen human beings tainted by sin—there’s something inherently deficient with even the good things we do.

So, when we do our good works and present them to God, it must always be with the understanding that we’ve already stolen something from him. We already have a criminal record against him. And trusting Christ alone is the only way to get rid of our rap sheet against heaven. That’s what Paul argues in Philippians 3. Consider the “good things” he could point to in his own life that contribute nothing to our standing with God:

Religious ceremony cannot make us right with God.
“…circumcised on the eighth day” (5a)

Ethnic identity cannot make us right with God.
“…of the people of Israel” (5b)

Social status cannot make us right with God. 
“…of the tribe of Benjamin” (5c)

Orthodox tradition cannot make us right with God. 
“…a Hebrew of Hebrews” (5d)

Theological conservatism cannot make us right with God. 
“…in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (5e)

Spiritual enthusiasm cannot make us right with God.
“…as for zeal, persecuting the church” (6a)

Impeccable morality cannot make us right with God.
“…as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (6b)

It’s all skubalon, says Paul. Having seen Jesus for who he is and what he’s done for the entire human race on the cross, Paul abandons all reliance on a good resume to make himself right with God. Indeed, he fires a silver bullet into the heart of self-righteousness by telling us to reject all sources of self-righteousness, and trust in Christ alone for salvation. Or, to put it simply, Paul tells us to take out the garbage of self-righteousness. It stinks to high heaven, and it needs to be removed.

Why? As human beings created in the image of a good God, we were made to do good works—but there’s nothing meritorious about those good works. We don’t congratulate water for being wet. It’s supposed to be wet. Nor do we congratulate human beings for doing good things. We’re supposed to do good things. It’s how we’re made. As a result, we can never put God in our debt by doing good works. As Edward Mote put it:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name

Paul’s desire was to be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of his own that comes from keeping the law, but that which comes from trusting in Christ alone for salvation—“the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phil 3:9). He took out the garbage of self-righteousness. We must do the same.

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When You Have Eaten and Are Satisfied

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” – Cicero

“Ingratitude produces pride while gratitude produces humility.” – Orrin Woodward

“Gratitude bestows reverence…changing forever how we experience life and the world.” – John Donne

 “God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say thank you?” – William Arthur Ward

“It is not happy people who are thankful. It is thankful people who are happy.” – Anonymous


Prior to the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land, Moses issued a call to his countrymen for the ongoing praise and remembrance of God for his miraculous deliverance from Egypt and his gracious provisions in everyday life. His call is really a summons to daily thanksgiving—a fitting reminder on this day of feasting in the United States:

“When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

 He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.”

Deuteronomy 8:10-18

The Apostle Paul echoes a similar sentiment in 1 Corinthians 4:7: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” 

Israel’s many psalms of thanksgiving in the Psalter fulfill Moses’ call to the Israelites to express their grateful praise to God. Moreover, such is the abundant blessings of God to his people in all ages that Paul can instruct believers to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5:18). As Nancy Leigh DeMoss has said:

“I have learned that in every circumstance that comes my way, I can choose to respond in one of two ways: I can whine or I can worship! And I can’t worship without giving thanks. It just isn’t possible. When we choose the pathway of worship and giving thanks, especially in the midst of difficult circumstances, there is a fragrance, a radiance, that issues forth out of our lives to bless the Lord and others.”

DeMoss is right. The latest lockdown has altered our plans for today, but we still have much to be thankful for. The table will be full and so will our hearts. We’ll eat and be satisfied, sharing the delights of the season, albeit with a smaller group than originally planned. And in the process, we’ll remember the Lord our God for who he is and what he has done.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING to all the readers of This New Life. Thanks for stopping by. Feel free to drop me a line if you have a need, would like to share a prayer request, or just want to chat.

May God richly bless you!

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The God of Yes: He Is There and He Is Not Stingy

Across the street from where I grew up in East Reading, Pennsylvania, there was a vacant lot where we used to play stickball every chance we could get. We lived in a middle-class section of rowhomes, and about eight of those homes featured backyards that lined up perfectly to serve as the outfield “bleachers.” Our goal, of course, was to hit the ball into one of those yards for a home run. (We always used soft rubber balls, so cracking a window was unlikely. It only happened once.)

Most neighbors would sit out on their porches and cheer us on as the game unfolded. If ever we hit a ball into one of their yards, they would simply get up, retrieve the ball, and throw it back to us, and the game would continue. Unfortunately, there was also a grizzled old dame in the bleachers—enshrouded in a bright babushka, and far too rickety to stand up straight—who would always pick up the ball, cuss at us in Pennsylvania Dutch, and then harumph her way back into the house, taking our ball with her. End of game. (It wasn’t even her window we broke that one time.)

Sadly, many people today picture God more like the crabby old lady with a foul mouth than the kindhearted neighbors who served as our cheering section. He’s in the heavenly stands with his arms folded and his hands fisted, always perturbed and glaring at us, eager to convey his divine contempt whenever we send one into his upper deck. We’re major league sinners in his book, and we always will be. If we strike out too much, he’ll send us down to the minors. Or worse. End of game.

Theologian Kosuke Koyama once said that Christians need to make a basic decision in our approach to theological questions: “[We] need to decide whether the God of Scripture is a generous God or a stingy one.”[1] The context of his statement was soteriology, but we can broaden it to include the entire sweep of Christian theology. 

When I first made that shift in my own thinking, it helped me realize how important it is that Genesis 1 and 2 precede Genesis 3. That’s a simple observation, yet it’s vital in the grand scheme of things. Life on planet earth was good—“very good” (Gen 1:31)—before it was ever bad. As such, my theology cannot start in Genesis 3; it has to start where the Bible starts. It has to start “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1). 

Specifically, to help us answer Koyama’s challenge, we can notice that God’s openhandedness is seen on the very first page of Scripture: “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food’” (Gen 1:29; emphasis mine). Right out of the gate, God is a giving God. We can safely conclude, then, that generosity is a prevailing attribute of his.

It’s not specified in the text how many edible plants and trees were available for the taking. Were there a hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? A million? We don’t know, but the scene is marked by lush and lavish provisions from the hand of the benevolent God who gave them. Indeed, Yahweh is portrayed as a God of abundance. He says to the first human, “Eat!” and only one tree was said to be off limits—“the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17). 

Trust the story. It tells us that God gave about ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.” Read that sentence again. Don’t pass over it too quickly. God gave ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.” Consequently, he’s not a stingy, crotcehtey God at all; he’s a God who overflows with blessings, provisions, kindness, and grace. And even the one “no” he gave was for our benefit, not our misery. Indeed, it was meant to prevent our misery.

God gave ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.”

In the end, Jesus Christ is God’s full and final “yes” to every good promise he ever made (2 Cor 1:20). As Paul put it, Jesus is God’s “yes” and “amen.” That means he really is for us (Rom 8:31), not against us.

Is this the God you know—the one who cheers you on as you’re trying to find your swing? Or is he the god who cusses you out whenever you strike out? Is he the god who benches you after making an error in the field? Is he the god who tells you to hit the showers early when you’ve had a bad inning? If so, maybe you’re on the wrong team. In fact, maybe you’re playing for Baal instead of Yahweh. Ask to be traded.

Francis Schaeffer famously said of God, “He is there and he is not silent.” To that we can add, “He is there and he is not stingy.”

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[1] Kosuke Koyama, as cited in Richard J. Mouw, “More Thoughts about Generous Orthodoxy,” NetBlogHost.com (March 29, 2011).

‘God’s Many-Splendored Image’: A Review of Harrison’s Theological Anthropology

In many respects, Nona Verna Harrison’s book God’s Many-Splendored Image is a helpful and hopeful work on the subject of Christian anthropology. To those who might be jaded by the often harsh and unnecessarily critical Augustinian view of post-lapsarian personhood, this text can serve as a positive respite. But it is only a respite; it is not the final word, nor is it the only word that needs to be considered. From where I stand, GMSI is a legitimate counterweight to the despairing extremes of Reformed anthropology, and there are certainly many virtues here to extol.

But a counterweight is simply that—a correction to excesses; it cannot stand on its own, not if it seeks to be biblically faithful, historically comprehensive, and fully correspondent to our common human experience. This assessment is no slam on what the book seeks to accomplish. Harrison shows us one important facet of the theological diamond, and she makes it sparkle in brilliant, emotionally satisfying ways. Still, there are other facets to consider.

In this review, I’ll offer my positive assessments of the book. Then I’ll share the helpful challenge the book has made to my own spiritual formation. And finally, I’ll conclude with my concerns about the book as a whole, with a concluding question for the author.

Positive Assessments

I was delighted to see Harrison’s references to the issue of disabilities scattered throughout the book. She speaks of “Lepers as God’s Image” (pp. 99-102); “Affirming Royal Dignity Today” (pp. 102-106); and “Maximus the Confessor’s” contributions (pp. 131-37). The author repeatedly connects the personhood of those with disabilities to the image of God while highlighting several key figures in church history who have done the same. Indeed, Harrison notes that part of what it means to be made in the image of God is that persons have “a legitimate sovereignty rooted in their very being” (p. 90). As such, care should be taken to safeguard the sovereignty even of those with disabilities, not just the population at large. 

That sovereignty, however, creates a host of ethical challenges concerning the degree to which certain disabled persons—depending on their capabilities and functionality—may determine the nature and extent of their own care and participation in society. For example, declining eyesight may require the revocation of a person’s driver’s license. Increasing dementia may require the transfer of banking privileges to a responsible family member. Both of these actions we’ve had to take with my mother-in-law within the past few years. A guiding principle in such situations would be to work toward preserving both individual dignity and public safety as degrees of sovereignty are being surrendered. That’s not always an easy balance to find, but relational theology requires the effort.

Harrison puts the issue of imago Dei under the theological microscope using the lenses of early Greek sources. This approach is a welcome methodology, as nearly every non-Eastern Orthodox retrospective on theological history shreds the philosophical traditions standing behind the development of Christian doctrine (especially Plato and Aristotle). F. Leron Shults, for example, does a fair amount of shredding in his book Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality—a journey that gets laborious and overly critical at times.

Harrison, on the other hand, recognizes that all theology is contextual, so why not give our ancestors in the faith the benefit of the doubt? Examine what they were doing in their context rather than sitting in judgment of their work with what amounts to an attitude of “chronological snobbery.” For example, she can call Origen “a third-century student of Platonic philosophy” (p. 12) without listing all the obligatory caveats and warnings about how Platonism is incompatible with biblical Christianity. Kudos to her for letting the early Christians speak from where they stood. We probably would have done the same had we been in their sandals. 

And it has to be said that the very fact of Origen’s Hexapla tells me he was quite advanced in his intellectual capacities. How many of us today could translate the Scriptures in to six languages at such a young age—let alone any age? I suspect Harrison takes the approach she does because of the value she places on humility. Let these early writers be who they were at the time they wrote.

I also smiled with delight when I kept bumping in to Harrison’s metaphor of human beings as “works of art” having a few tears and tarnishings on them because of sin (e.g., “God invites us to remove the dirt hiding in these facets and polish them until they show with the beauty God bestows on each of us”; p. 5). I share a similar view. I do so because the metaphor is legitimately derived from Ephesians 2:10, where Paul refers to his readers as God’s poiema, or “workmanship” (i.e., his “poetry”). It’s an uplifting image, especially in light of the metaphor he uses nine verses earlier where he tells his readers they were “dead in sin.”

I was also sympathetic to Harrison’s concern, stated various times and in myriad ways, that, “Many outside the church think Christianity teaches that human beings are inherently bad and guilty and that human freedom is dangerous and gets us in to trouble. Many inside the church fear they might be right” (p. 4). Used wrongly, human freedom can get us in to trouble, but that doesn’t mean we’re “inherently bad.” Perhaps “inherently broken ever since Genesis 3” is a better way to say it. That expression retains the glorious value of human personhood without diminishing the real problem that exists in our species.

A Challenge to My Spiritual Formation

Harrison is at her best when she shares vignettes from early monasteries and other faith communities, and then derives thoughtful applications from them for our day. The stories on pp. 58-62 were especially poignant, and I found them to be particularly challenging to my own postures and demeanors as a pastor. She writes charitably of Abba Poemen’s gentle treatment of a sinning brother, which was more likely to lead him to repentance than a severe rebuke. She also speaks of the compassionate treatment of a young pregnant girl by Bishop Ammonas. Such “wise and discreet actions moved everyone involved toward healing,” she writes (p. 61). Christ would be pleased not only with such an outcome, but the method by which they got to that outcome.

I need to hear these stories as a pastor who is sometimes called to respond to people’s sins and failures (not to mention my own). Defending God’s righteousness does not have to involve denuding people made in the image of God of their royal dignity. (Cf. Joseph, a righteous man, had in mind to put Mary away secretly so as not to subject her to public shame.) We can shame people for their past, or we can inspire them toward a better future. Those who’ve been on the receiving end of the latter approach seem to have deeper and longer lasting transformations, not to mention deep bonds with those who restored them gently (cf. Gal 6:1).

Indeed, Harrison models this latter approach herself throughout the book. Rather than “scolding” other camps for their missteps or excesses, she quietly puts the responsibility on her own shoulders by saying things like, “I am thankful to those who manifest the image of God in their character and actions, because they make it easier for me to find and know God” (p. 58). It’s a beautiful sentiment beautifully stated.

Some Issues with the Book

My two issues with GMSI were: (1) the selective nature of citations from the early church, leaving us with the impression that Augustine invented the concept of Original Sin; and (2) the lack of a sufficient hamartiology by which to account for both the biblical record and the sad state of human affairs that we’re all a part of today. 

Harrison will routinely speak of humanity’s “fallen condition,” but she devotes little energy to exploring where that condition came from, and how it comes to us today—outside a brief hat tip in the direction of a misuse of human freedom. Well, we already knew that, but where did our universal impulse to misuse our freedom come from, and why does everybody, at some point, do it? Any doctrine of sin must seek to account for its ubiquity, intensity, and propensity. Harrison doesn’t really go there, except to acknowledge that sin is a sad fact of life. Period.

There is wide variegation among those who took up the issue in antiquity, even before Augustine, so, it is misleading to suggest that the Western Church, and its post-Reformation acolytes engaging in ad fontes, are to blame for people’s low self-esteem today. Jewish literature had spoken for centuries of human sin deriving from Adam (e.g., IV Ezra 3:7; Sifre Deut 323; 2 Esdras 3:10, 21-22, 26; etc.). The Psalms and the prophets also made similar connections (Ps 51:5, 10, 143:2; Isa 64:6; Jer 17:9). So did the Gospels (John 1:13, 3:6, 5:42, 6:44, 8:34, 15:4-5) and the general epistles (Jas 3:2; 1 John 1:8, 10, 5:12). 

Then, of course, there are “The Two Adams” teachings in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. Under Adam’s headship, the whole race is broken and destined for death; under Christ’s headship, many are made whole and destined for life. Add to these two central passages the existential struggle of Romans 7, and it was only natural for subsequent thinkers to synthesize the biblical (and experiential) data the way they did. Here is a sampling of nascent concepts concerning Original Sin prior to Augustine. Quite significantly, not all of them are from the Western church.

From 100 A.D. to 200 A.D.

Irenaeus: “Men cannot be saved in any other way from the ancient wound of the Serpent except by believing in Him who according to the likeness of sinful flesh was lifted up from the earth on the tree of testimony and drew all things to Himself and gave life to the dead.” (Against Heresies 4:2:8)

Irenaeus: “Just as the human race was bound to death by a virgin, it is released through a virgin, the obedience of a virgin evenly counterbalancing the disobedience of a virgin. For the sin of the first-formed was wiped out by the chastisement of the First-born, the wisdom of the Serpent was conquered by the simplicity of the dove, and we were released from the chains by which we were bound to death.” (Against Heresies 5:19)

From 200 A.D. to 300 A.D.

Cyprian: “[Since] nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace, how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins—that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another.” (Letter 58, To Fidus)

From 300 A.D. to 400 A.D.

Hilary of Poiters: “[David] does not think he lives in this life, for he had said: ‘Behold I have been conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my mother bear me.’ He knows that he was born of sinful origin and under the law of sin.” (Exposition of Psalm 118)

Ambrose of Milan: “Before we are born we are stained by contagion, and before seeing the light we receive the injury of our very origin, we are conceived in iniquity. [Scripture] does not say whether that of our parents or our own. [But] in sins his mother gives birth to each one. Nor does [Scripture] state here whether the mother gives birth in her own sins or whether there are already some sins in the one being born. But, consider whether both are not to be understood. The conception is not without iniquity, since the parents are not without sin, and if not even a child of one day is without sin, so much more are those days of the maternal conception not without sin. Thus, we are conceived in the sin of our parents and are born in their iniquities. But birth itself also has its own contagions, and the nature itself has not merely one contagion.” (Defense of the Prophet David 11)

Gregory Nazianzen (an Eastern Father): “Let the word of Christ persuade you of this, also, as He says that no one can enter into the kingdom of heaven unless he is born again of water and the Spirit. Through Him the stains of the first birth are cleansed away, through which we are conceived in iniquity and in sins have our mothers brought us forth.” (Oratio in natalem Christi.)

Basil of Caesarea (an Eastern Father): “Fasting was established in paradise by law. For Adam received the first commandment: ‘From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you must not eat.’ But, ‘you must not eat’ means fasting, and the beginning of the Law. If Eve had fasted from the tree, we should not need [forgiveness]. For it is not the healthy who need a physician, but they who are sick. We have fallen ill through sin; we are healed by penance. But penance without fasting is vain. The accursed earth shall bring forth thorns and thistles for thee. Are you not ordained for sorrow and not for delights?…Because we did not fast we fell from paradise. Let us fast, therefore, that we may return to it.’” (Sermon 1)

John Chrysostom (an Eastern Father): “When Adam sinned that great sin, and condemned all the human race in common, he paid the penalties in grief.” (Letter to Olympia)

John Chrysostom (an Eastern Father): “Christ wept because mortality had transgressed to the point that, cast out from eternity, it loved the world of the dead. Christ wept because the Devil made mortal those who could have been immortal.” (Homily on the Resurrection of Lazarus)

John Chrysostom (an Eastern Father): “It is clear that it is not the sin which comes from transgression of the law, but that sin which comes from the disobedience of Adam, which has defiled all.”

Conclusion

In his book Against Julian, Augustine answers the charge that he invented Original Sin by seeking to: (a) show it from the Scriptures; and (b) show it from the Fathers. In light of the foregoing evidence, it is difficult to maintain the charge that Augustine was being innovative. One can say he may have been out of biblical balance at times, but he was not out of biblical bounds. To the extent that Harrison helps put us back in balance, we can all be grateful. But it must be said that the textual impulses leading to the doctrine of Original Sin don’t go away because they’re ignored or minimized. Better to wrestle with the doctrine honestly, as did Blaise Pascal:

“Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine; and yet, without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves. The knot of our condition takes its twists and turns in this abyss, so that man is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is inconceivable to man.”

If I could talk to the author directly, I would ask her, “Given the variegated hamartiology of pre-Christian and early-Christian writings, are you content to be only one, albeit an important, facet of the theological anthropology diamond?” Given the inherent humility with which she writes, I am quite certain that Harrison would say yes.

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Oh, My Word, Part 4: Negaholics and Complainiacs

Several years ago, a man joined a monastery, where, in addition to the vows of celibacy and poverty, he was required to make a vow of silence. According to the rules of the monastery, the man was allowed to speak only two words a year, and only during his annual review in front of the evaluation board. The new monk served his first year in absolute silence. At year’s end, when his performance was being evaluated, he finally was permitted to speak. The two words he uttered were, “Food cold.”

The monk served his second year in absolute silence. At year’s end, his two words to the evaluation board were, “Bed hard.” The man then served his third year in absolute silence. At the end of the year, when he showed up for his final review, his two words were, “I quit.” To which the monastery leader responded, “Your decision doesn’t surprise us; after all, you’ve done nothing but complain since you got here.”

If only my complaining were limited to two words a year, how much more peaceful and quieter my life would be! “Do all things without complaining,” said Paul in Philippians 2:14. But is that really possible? Can a believer truly live a complaint-free life? It sounds unattainable, but God’s commands are meant to challenge the ruts and routines we sometimes carve out for ourselves in this life. 

What Is Complaining?

Believers who want to heed Paul’s admonition first need to know what complaining is. Simply put, complaining is giving expression to one’s self-centered discontentment. It’s a spiritual heart murmur with vocal chords. It’s the verbal vomit that spews forth when we don’t get our own way. Sometimes our complaining takes on less verbal forms, too—a rolling of the eyes, a grinding of the teeth, huffing and puffing, stomping off, or body language that conveys defiance, disrespect, or disapproval.

It’s important to point out that complaining is not the same as grieving. God invites us to mourn when it is time to mourn. Neither is complaining the same as speaking out against injustice, danger, or heresy. Scripture gives us guidelines on when and how to do those things. Complaining is not even vocalizing the deep distresses of the heart when life is insanely difficult, provided we do so in a godly way. The Psalms are loaded with vivid laments to God that are both real and raw. Complaining is much more sinister because it involves the assertion of self to secure one’s comfort at all cost. It’s a lashing out rather than a looking up.

What We Usually Complain About

What do I find myself complaining about the most? In a word—people. People! (I wonder if some of them complain about me.) As I reflect on this dynamic in my own life, I find that most of my internal complaining (which may be quiet but is still sinister) usually revolves around people who don’t think the way I do. They’re different from me in their interests, worldview, politics, attitude, demeanor, etc. They may be media figures who mislead the public. They may be pundits who cram eight or nine logical fallacies into a single sentence. They may be church members who refuse to change and enter the 21st century. They may be curmudgeons who have little good to say about anything. Irritating people come in many forms.

Other sources of my complaints include life situations I don’t particularly like but are usually out of my control. The weather. The stock market. Long lines at the store. Excessive taxes and regulations on small businesses. Slow cars in the passing lane. The Phillies and the Eagles. What are the things in life that irk you enough to complain? I don’t really like myself when I go down the path of internal negativity. 

Shackled Yet Free

Significantly, Paul denounces complaining while shackled in a jail cell—not exactly the best of circumstances to endure. Apparently for Paul, complaining is not a legitimate response even to the lousy accommodations of a first-century prison system. Instead, recognizing that God is in charge of the affairs of this life, Paul views himself as a prisoner of the Lord, not as a prisoner of Rome. He may have reasoned, “If I’m incarcerated right now, it must be because God wants the people around me to hear the gospel. I can tell them my own bad news through complaining, or I can tell them God’s good news through service and proclamation.” Paul chooses the latter, in part because he discovered an important clue to victorious living and gospel winsomeness. 

I tend to think that I’ll stop complaining when I finally get happy. Paul seems to suggest that I’ll get happy when I finally stop complaining. The difference is practical and profound. He argues in Philippians 2:14-16 that murmuring Christians look and sound like the depraved generation of which we’re are a part. That’s a serious charge, but the stakes are high. What unbeliever would want to follow Christ if he apparently makes little difference in my own life?

Desert Storm

Paul’s admonition to avoid complaining is rooted in Israel’s history. One of the saddest cases of the nation’s griping is recorded in Numbers 14, where God says, “In this desert your bodies will fall—every one of you . . . who has grumbled against me.” For them, entry into the Promised Land was denied, in large measure because of their complaining. What a tragedy! Israel griped about their leaders, groused about their food, and grumbled about their difficult challenge to occupy Canaan. God was fed up with their incessant carping, as their long and hot wanderings in the desert reveal. 

According to Deuteronomy 1:2, it should have taken the Israelites less than two weeks to travel from where they had received the Ten Commandments to the edge of the Promised Land. As it turned out, their trip took forty years. No doubt the scenic route was God’s way of telling them to “walk it off!” Why such a storm of judgment? From God’s perspective, to complain is to doubt his promises and provisions. To complain is to slander his sovereignty and assault his lordship. To complain is to accuse God of being a bad Father.

Thoughts of complaint easily become words of criticism—verbal grenades launched against other people’s character, beliefs, speech, or behavior. Recently I found myself in a meeting trying to debrief a certain event with others when I felt myself verbally “crossing the line” in my critique. Evaluative assessments—even negative ones—are sometimes necessary, but they should never be used to make someone look small. I feared that I had unnecessarily diminished someone, so I quickly apologized and reeled myself in. Others didn’t think I was being unkind, but my own perception was that I could have said it better. Avoiding the desert is a conscious choice.

Jesus and the ‘Complainiacs’

Interestingly enough, the Bible indicates that Jesus was every bit as intolerant of complaining as his Father. In fact, Jesus repeatedly set himself against the most menacing and destructive type of complaining there was—the kind where people complained about other people. In other words, criticism. In the face of that kind of speech, Jesus responded the same way every time.

All told, Jesus fields complaints against five different types of “other people” in the Gospels—the fortunate, the insensitive, the outsider, the unspiritual, and the wicked. Two of the fourteen complaints about other people occur within parables, which Jesus may have crafted from real-life scenarios common in his day.

Complaints about Those ‘Fortunate’ People

  • The Heir’s Complaint about His Brother (Luke 12:13-21)
  • Peter’s Complaint about John (John 21:20-25)
  • The Ten Disciples’ Complaint about the Two Disciples (Matthew 20:20-28)
  • The Hired Worker’s Complaint about the Landowner (Matthew 20:1-16)

Complaints about Those ‘Insensitive’ People

  • Martha’s Complaint about Mary (Luke 10:38-42)
  • The Invalid’s Complaint about Those Who Ignore Him (John 5:1-8, 14)

Complaints about Those ‘Outside’ People

  • John’s Complaint about the Unknown Exorcist (Luke 9:49-50)
  • James’ and John’s Complaint about the Samaritans (Luke 9:51-56)

Complaints about Those ‘Unspiritual’ People

  • The Disciples of John’s Complaint about the Disciples of Jesus (Matthew 9:14-17)
  • The Pharisees’ Complaint about Jesus’ Disciples (Luke 5:27-32)
  • Judas Iscariot’s Complaint about Mary (John 12:1-8)

Complaints about Those ‘Wicked’ People

  • The Jews’ Complaint about Pilate (Luke 13:1-9)
  • The Pharisees’ Complaint about the Adulterous Woman (John 8:1-9)
  • The Man’s Complaint about His Younger Brother (Luke 15:25-32)

Consistent Response

When all the complaint stories are taken together, several truths emerge about how Jesus handled people’s complaints about other people:

(1) Jesus never gave the complainer the satisfaction he was looking for; 

(2) Jesus never allowed the complainer to persist in his complaining; 

(3) Jesus never tolerated the excessive ripping apart of another person’s character, even the ungodly; 

(4) Jesus often turned the tables and offered a telling insight about the complainer’s own heart; and 

(5) Jesus sometimes even issued a spiritual warning to the complainer himself.

Essentially, Jesus responded to every complaint about other people with a simple and sobering challenge: “Complaint denied!” (Such consistency may be a subtle hint at his deity.)

The story of the heir and his brother in Luke 12:13-21 is a case in point. A man complains to Jesus about his brother’s failure to divide the family inheritance with him. Jesus responds by stating that his own sacred mission does not involve being wedged into the middle of such disputes. Furthermore, Jesus warns the complainer about his own inclination toward covetousness, and then tells an instructive parable about the foolishness of greed. The warning is severe, and the man’s complaint is ultimately denied.

The Antidote to Complaining

Are you a complainiac? Have you ever grumbled about people who were more fortunate than you, insensitive toward you, outside your group, less spiritual than you, or just plain wicked? In light of the biblical evidence, believers should take to heart that such complaining does not enjoy the sanction of heaven. Jesus himself rejected these types of complaints and often used them as boomerangs to spiritually challenge the complainer.

As it was in the days when Jesus walked the earth, so it is today. Wanting his followers in this generation to “do all things without complaining,” Jesus often says to us, in love, “Complaint denied!” While that can be a tough message to hear, the good news is that Scripture goes beyond pointing out our faults; it also shows us a better way.

The antidote to my complaining and criticizing is not just a matter of changing my speech. God deals with each of his children uniquely and deeply—at the heart level, where real transformation begins. His emphatic “no” to one type of behavior is an invitation to practice his emphatic “yes” to other types of behavior. 

For example, liars do not cease to be liars when they stop telling lies; they cease to be liars when they start telling the truth. Likewise, complainers do not cease to be complainers when they stop complaining; they cease to be complainers when they start giving thanks as a way of life. Christian gratitude is the attitude that must be cultivated in order to conquer complaining and criticizing. As with all spiritual disciplines, this is a lifelong journey of trial and error, cultivation and pruning.

Ultimately, we do well to remember that Jesus himself was not a complainer. Instead, he gave thanks as a way of life. Before he fed the 5,000 (Matt 14:19), before he fed the 4,000 (Matt 15:36), before he raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:41), before he distributed the bread and cup of Holy Communion (Matt 26:26-27), before he broke bread with the Emmaus disciples (Luke 24:30), Jesus expressed sincere gratitude to his Father. Undergirding this lifelong gratitude was the world-changing prayer he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father . . . not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). May that be our prayer as well.

Conclusion

I am reminded in this regard of one of my favorite TED Talks—Benjamin Zander speaking on “The Transformative Power of Classical Music.” He ends his presentation with these words:

It really makes a difference what we say, the words that come out of our mouth. I learned this from a woman that survived Auschwitz, one of the rare survivors. She went to Auschwitz when she was just fifteen years old. And her brother was eight. And the parents were lost. She told me this. She said, “We were in the train going to Auschwitz, and I looked down and saw my brother’s shoes were missing. And I said, ‘Why are you so stupid? Why can’t you keep your things together for goodness sake?’” The way an elder sister would speak to a younger brother. Unfortunately, it was the last thing she ever said to him because she never saw him again. He did not survive. And so, when she came out of Auschwitz she made a vow. She told me this. She said, “I walked out of Auschwitz into life, and I made a vow. And the vow was: I will never say anything that couldn’t stand as the last thing I ever say.” Now can we do that? No, and we’ll make ourselves wrong, and others wrong. But it is a possibility to live into.

It’s a possibility I want to live into, as well. And with God, all things are possible.