For some reason the other morning, when I was coming out of the Y, the stickers on the back of the car next to mine caught my attention. The owner of that car had some impressive school affiliations and likes to vacation at a nice beach, has a child on their country club’s swim team and has a family member who is associated with a very competitive soccer club in town. Learning all of this about this otherwise unknown person unexpectedly sort of stressed me out. My response, really, was to feel this driver’s challenge…”I’ve got status yes I do, I’ve got status how ’bout you?”
Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. Luke 11:46
It finally struck me the other day, as I processed my newly felt response to bumper stickers, that they communicate yet a new set of laws by which I live to make myself righteous. Self righteousness is not limited to the goody goody know it all girl at school or the right wing evangelical politician, it is what I do daily when I create any form of a rule by which to justify myself. These self justifying attempts come in all forms and include any method I come up with by which to signal I am good, I am worthy of other people’s honor and respect, I am the winningest winner of all – as Dr. Seuss says. And yes, they make just about as much sense as some of Dr. Seuss’s made up phrases. They critique sitting presidents and truck makers, brag about band allegiances and children on the honor roll. At times they are the driver’s effort to market a new school or business, but it seems most often, they set out to promote or market the driver.
Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—Phil. 3:2-3
I am that dog, that mutilator of the flesh, who puts confidence in my flesh far above confidence in the pierced flesh of Jesus. How do I know? Because I am no different than the bumpers of cars that stress me out as I place burdens on other people or myself to justify myself apart from the person and work of Jesus alone. Here are the new laws I cling to for self-made righteousness (or which daily condemn me): the schools I’ve attended (I’m pretty important because I went there), the neighborhood in which I grew up, the neighborhood in which my dad grew up, the neighborhood where I live now, where I played soccer, where and how well my daughter plays soccer, the leadership positions and titles I have held, the community involvements I have participated in, the books I have read or am reading, the news source I subscribe to, my knowledge of restaurants or movies or bands (all of which are humorously limited!), choices about our parenting, the food that goes into my body and the list just goes on.
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. Is. 64:6-7
I seek to justify myself by one limited set of marketable achievements or associations. And, like the Pharisees, I neglect the deeper mandates of the Law – to love others above myself, to serve rather than be served and to have only one God. My new laws have no interest in making myself less visible so He can more visible. My new laws and justifications of self never ever strive to lay hold of the person and work of Jesus because they are too consumed with the person and work of me.
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.” Mark 17:17-18
Only God is good, and therefore, only Jesus the God Man can claim His adherence to the Law as complete, exhaustive and satisfying of its demands. Even the laws for holiness that I seem to obey are fraught with selfish ambition and vain conceit…and I spend so much energy promoting them that I overlook the enormous body of the law which I haven’t even come close to acknowledging. When I stick my bumper in other people’s faces, arrogantly claiming goodness because of the accomplishments and associations announced there, I overestimate the goodness and justification of those claims and underestimate my great need for redemption from outside of myself. When I feel condemned by the bumpers of others, my sticker collection not measuring up to theirs, I have exchanged the truth of God for a lie – that righteousness and justification can be found in any source other than the person and work of Jesus alone.
I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” Gal. 2:21