Happily Falling for the Greatest Swindle Ever

Everyone – and in this one instance I really do mean absolutely everyone, myself included – tends to respond to personal moral failures by seeking the false comfort afforded by listening to the relentless inner voice that stubbornly insists, “Come on! You’re a pretty good person!” And once we accept the proposition that we are, after all, “pretty good,” the next step toward being voluntarily hoodwinked is the follow-up deception that comes hard on its heels: “That really was not such a big deal, OK?”

So this is pretty humiliating to admit publicly – even if I were not working in Christian ministry – but, just this morning, “the F-bomb” exploded out of my mouth before I had even given a thought to reining in my tongue. The heart of anger flared; my mouth accurately reflected an inordinate amount of frustration and impatience that had no business occupying energy in my soul in the first place. And of course, my immediate response to my weakness being “exposed” – even though no one other than God Himself was in earshot of this sorry event – was to run to something like, “Wait! I didn’t really mean that!”

Jesus in Luke 6:45Well…as a matter of fact, yes, I did. I really did mean that.

In this particular instance, my human pride was “righteously indignant” at the (admittedly-First-World Problem) of a voice mail interface that would not work “as it ought” and, tellingly, it only took about three or four “unforgivable” mechanical errors for my soul to manifest its true colors. “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Will I never get any better? Why does the Christ-empowered process of sanctification take so dang long? (And…there I go with the language again!)

In the decades prior to coming to accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior – which includes His Lordship over my speech, whether I choose cooperate with Him or not – this particular expletive was one of my all-time favorites, regularly dispensed at the drop of a hat, or even just for “humorous sport.” I was an equal-opportunity offender, sparing neither man, woman, beast nor even child from exposure to my immature, hateful profanity. So I suppose my horror at how quickly my tongue became unleashed is itself a sign of progress; in years gone by, I wouldn’t even have given it a second thought.

And I suppose it’s also a sign of progressive sanctification that I no longer accept the labels “heckuva guy” or “good man” when offered sincerely by another. For those taking notes, the proper Reformed Tradition response to “Warren, you’re a good guy!” is something like, “You wouldn’t say that if you could see my heart.” But I am encouraged that this response now stands for substantially more than just a correct answer on a Reformed Doctrine exam; it represents a deeply-held belief that 1) Jesus was right about me, and 2) we are all rotten sinners, every last one of us. There are, at bottom, no truly “good people;” Jesus made that point abundantly clear during his encounter with the Rich Young Ruler in Mark 10:17-22. (You might want to highlight that section as a guardrail against future temptations to pat yourself on the back.)

Time has taught me that (like it or not) progress is slow and incremental; I may as well rail against the sea tasting salty. That being the case, my “penance” for today’s colorful failure is to simply share a few resources that I have returned to time and time again over the years, touchstones not just for conquering the tongue, but more importantly for dismantling the self-important delusion that it is my hard work, maturity and/or grit that has been largely responsible for the more-visible, positive changes in my life; I need to take seriously the idea that I am self-deceived and only Jesus, working through the Holy Spirit, has the power to strain out the filth that permeates my soul and can easily contaminate relationships if left unchecked.

Five Antidotes to Our Shared “Good Person” Delusion

  1. Jeremiah 17:9-10. Whenever we do make it to the new Heaven and the new Earth, I’m pretty certain we will all spend a few thousand years dumbstruck by all of the dearly-held beliefs that turn out to be nothing other than self-justification in disguise. Even now, on this side of eternity, I am able to enjoy a good laugh with a few close Christian friends simply by mocking myself with, “Hey! Come on, now! After all, I’m a pretty good person!” (Uproarious laughter.)
  2. Sinclair Ferguson: The Tongue, the Bridle, and the Blessing: An Exposition of James 3:1-12. I was privileged in 2008 to hear Ferguson deliver this sermon in person and, thank God, it stuck. Of course, a video file can’t come close to matching the experience of actually being there, but it’s a great start. If, like me, you tend to downplay the scorching rhetoric that James, the half-brother of Jesus, uses to describe the great damage we can do merely by speaking, then this presentation will be one hour of your time exceedingly well-spent. (Turns out the problem is far worse than we think, and we really do need a Savior.)
  3. Paul Tripp: “Why did the water come out of the bottle? I’m not sure this illustration originated with Tripp as I’ve heard other speakers use it, but for my money, his delivery hits me right where I live, especially when he talks about his mother’s insight regarding a drunken relative who degrades himself by making lecherous remarks in front of other family members. It was Tripp who finally taught me to stop saying “I didn’t mean that!” and replace it with “Actually, I’m feeling humiliated that you just saw a tiny sample of what’s really going on in my heart.” In Luke 6:45, Jesus provides the foundation for everything Tripp has to say in the video linked above.
  4. C.S. Lewis: The Screwtape Letters. Lewis does what I consider the all-time best job of making the devilish work of unwittingly cooperating with the enemy of our souls accessible to the widest-possible audience. I’ve literally lost count of the number of times this particular book has alerted me to the various ways in which I am kidding myself, drifting along happily in a cloud of sin and stupidity.
  5. Prayer. “Jesus, help my unbelief.” The incident this morning was a reflection of me bringing my agenda to nearly everything I do, i.e. a self-focused presupposition – “This task should take about five minutes.” – transforms itself into an emotional petty potentate that turns my expectations into an iron-fisted dictatorship. “This is taking waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too long!” is another way of asserting our belief that we should sit on the throne of our lives…not Jesus!

My greatest hope for sharing these resources is pretty straightforward: If even one person benefits by intentionally moving away from the lie that we are “really pretty good people,” this public confession/humiliation will be entirely worth it. In the upside-down Kingdom of God, interestingly, it is only after you confess that you are not a good person that you actually begin to manifest the very thoughts, words and deeds that might lead others to think – erroneously! – that you are a pretty good person.

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