The Ever-Escalating ‘Body Count’ That Comes with Always Being Right

“You sound awfully sure of yourself.”

This simple sentence was offered to me as a rebuke, born out of genuine concern for my well-being…though delivered with no small amount of sarcasm. On that day, those cutting words were exactly what I needed to hear, a slightly-unorthodox “apple of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). This particular person knew me well enough to know that what I most needed was a mild slap to get my attention, followed immediately by a larger truth to wrestle with. It worked then. It still works today; I regularly begin to mistrust myself when the facts appear to all line up on “my side.”

Balaam and the Ass by Rembrandt (1626)

Balaam and the Ass by Rembrandt (1626)

Since that encounter, my wife and I have been quicker to inject similar thoughts into difficult conversations with each other, giving one another permission to toss out Relationship Road Flares that sound something like, “Yes, you probably are right…just be careful not to go wrong in all of your rightness.” It doesn’t necessarily work all the time – emotions sometimes overrun our best intentions – but it works often enough that it’s become a permanent addition to the relationship-management tool box.

As of this writing, I’m 20 years into my sobriety from drugs and alcohol, and roughly ten years into Christian ministry.

Needless to say, walking away from an addiction to drugs or alcohol is exceedingly difficult. Like most addicts who start off by working in their own power, I went through periods of sobriety, crashed and burned, and repeated the cycle…several times. It was only when I honestly acknowledged my inability to stay sober apart from God’s enabling that authentic transformation took hold. Even so, the battle is still fought “one day at a time.”

As difficult as it was to step away from chemical addictions, a process that took years of struggle before coming to fruition, the pursuit of an honest desire to live at peace with others makes drug and alcohol rehab look like a walk in the park. Fulfilling Paul’s charge to engage in a Christ-centered ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21) is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted. It’s hard because, as it turns out, I am even more addicted to human pride than I was to Jack Daniels.

Walking away from an inner desire to hang onto a (false) sense of our own moral superiority and “perceived rightness” is, apart from the work of God, impossible (John 15:5).

The first reliable sign that you are unlikely to engage in meaningful combat with pride is your own sense that you don’t have a problem in this regard. For those who remain unconvinced, I suggest that you review the list of people you “just can’t stand,” places you won’t go anymore because so-and-so is a frequent customer, changes you’ve made in your daily routines as a means of avoiding contact with this or that particular person, and so on.

Unlike pride, humility is free to walk above ground, interact honestly with a wide range of people and in no way “keep score.” Pride, on the other hand, leaves us with a “body count,” a list of people we don’t want to be around. An unrepentant heart can be spotted simply by noting that the list is getting longer, contrary to the commands of Christ. Sadly, I’m as guilty of this as anyone else.

How do we do battle with pride? Some suggestions to enable us to move at least a little closer to Jesus (and the people we struggle to love) might be:

  • Embrace the freedom that comes with accepting that you are not a big deal. One of the most successful books of all time – Christian or otherwise – begins with four simple words: “It’s not about you.” Our prideful human nature tends to recoil from this obvious truth, but that antipathy causes us to lose out on the tremendous freedom and inner peace that accompanies acceptance. Yes, you are a big deal to God, an incredibly big deal (Romans 5:8). But this truth leads us to live our lives as people who don’t insist on being made much of; instead, we are called to give up our lives for the good of others. Accepting our own smallness helps us to loosen our death grip on wanting to be a big deal to family, friends, acquaintances, social media followers, etc.
  • Assume you are wrong. Whenever conflict arises, just assume that you (not the other person) are the primary problem. Odds are good that you will discover that you are indeed wrong – in heart attitude if nothing else – and the humility that comes with knowing you are fallen, finite, and not all that smart is an appealing character trait that will often shift the tenor of the conversation and perhaps (by God’s grace) even “win over” your opponent!
  • Measure your responses by the truth of Scripture. This is a lot more involved than merely asking the question, “What would Jesus do?” That’s a great place to start, sure, but I’d like to suggest we instead ask the question, “What will Jesus say?” This serves as a reminder that one day I will be held accountable for every word that comes out of my mouth (Matthew 12:36). If I can just bring that ultimate reality – being face-to-face with Jesus – into my here-and-now, it almost always changes my outward behavior…and very often changes my heart.
  • Don’t be a smart phone/email coward. It’s important to recognize when a conversation has exceeded the boundaries of a text exchange or an email novella. “Hiding” behind a smart phone screen whenever it is time to pick up the phone or arrange a meeting is a sure sign that the enemy of your soul is coercing you to hang onto the awful feelings you are keeping hidden (or so you think). Instead, if things are getting tense with another person, pick up the phone and arrange to talk through the issue in person. Go into that conversation assuming you might be wrong, remembering that our words have eternal impact, and knowing that it’s not all about you, and you have a perfect opportunity to respond to this challenge with the freeing grace of the gospel.

What should guide all our words and interactions is love, not rightness. When we find ourselves puffing up at an injustice, we should rightly fear our feelings of righteousness. Odds are decent that even if we’re “right” in some ways, we’re absolutely wrong in that we’ve long ago stopped loving the other person, something God cares far more about than our imagined “objective, impartial rightness.”

Jesus in Matthew 12:36-37 (ESV)
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Jesus in Matthew 18:15
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”

2 Comments

  1. Mona said:

    Warren,
    Thank you for addressing head-on the sin of pride. I had never considered the truth that I, too, have left a body count in the wake of my prideful interactions where I believe myself to be right. The idea of a body count is a mental picture that hit home for me in a way I had not considered. I have become quite skilled at excusing and/or explaining away my resistance to interacting with certain people. Thank you for using God’s Word to confront me with the truth of my sin of pride. Lord bless you as you minister to all of us who read your commentaries.

  2. Judy Sheppard said:

    Powerful article and so appropriate for me. Love your transparency , relevance, and most of all, that it lines up with scripture.

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