Do you ever have that feeling where you look at other people and secretly feel really smug about your own righteousness? Do you ever derive some perverse sense of pleasure when others screw up, because it makes you feel that little bit better about yourself knowing that at least you’re not quite as bad as that? I suspect that most of us go through life with a sense that we’re basically pretty good people – we’ll admit that we’re not perfect (we’re only human, after all!) but we’re mostly decent and upstanding in the grand scheme of things. We often do good, lending others a helping hand, giving money to those less fortunate, allowing that pregnant woman to take our seat on the crowded train, sacrificing our time and energy to support a struggling friend. These are all wonderful things to be doing – and let’s strive to do so more and more – but the Bible warns us that we’re in real danger the minute we start relying on these good works of ours to justify ourselves, that is, to start thinking that God must be really pleased with us because of all the great things we’ve done. If we start thinking our good works are grounds for pride, we’re in real trouble.
Just as last week we saw that the Apostle Paul counted all his righteous deeds as loss compared to the righteousness of Christ, so the prophet Isaiah spoke of our good works in these stark words:
“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.” (Isaiah 64:6, NIV)
In the sight of God, even our best deeds are like filthy rags compared to the awesome purity of his holiness. His holiness is like a consuming fire that burns up all impurity in an instant. When Isaiah was confronted with a vision of God, he was so overcome with a sense of his guilt and unworthiness that his immediate reaction was to cry out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). Likewise the prophet Malachi describes the coming of God’s presence in these terms:
“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (Malachi 3:2-3)
Here and now we may be tempted to take pride in our good works, but when the Lord Jesus comes in judgement all of the secrets of mens’ hearts will be laid bare, and all of our motives will be exposed. It won’t be enough to show what we did: we will be required to explain why we did it as well. How many of our good deeds will really stand up to that level of scrutiny? How often did we really have mixed motives for our righteous acts, perhaps seeking to look good in the eyes of others or to avoid being thought of as selfish? Often when I fail to do the right thing in a given situation, my first thought is not of how I have wronged God and others, but rather fear that others will think less of me. That can be a powerful motivator to try harder next time. But if we think we can be made right in God’s eyes by doing things purely for the sake of upholding our reputation, then we’re sorely mistaken. That’s not serving God – that’s serving ourselves, and that is the essence of sin.
I remember finding that thought quite shocking as a young Christian: the idea that a seemingly good deed could be as sinful in God’s sight as something obviously wrong like theft or adultery. But that’s because I was defining sin in terms of external actions rather than as an attitude of the heart. It is striking that the first of the 10 Commandments is entirely an internal action: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”. And that explains why idolatry is such a serious offence to God: it is loving something created in place of loving the creator. If you do outwardly “good” things out of love for your favourite idol, be that the desire for reputation, for status, for money, for security, or just to impress someone special to you, no matter how seemingly good the act, if it’s done for the wrong motives it’s still deeply offensive to God and in fact is tantamount to adultery.
When I was a first year student at university, I did all manner of crazy things in order to try and impress a girl I was rather fond of. I even went as far as taking ballroom dancing lessons so that I could spend more time with her (I would say that it was an opportunity to demonstrate to her how suave I was, but that would require me to have had some skill on the dance floor!) My desire to please her overcame my natural desire to avoid dancing like the plague, and made me act in all sorts of out-of-character ways. It’s exactly the same with all our idols: what we love will always show itself in how we act, and that will often manifest itself in very respectable looking acts of apparent righteousness. But in God’s sight they are but filthy rags, symbols of our betrayal of him.
The prophet Jeremiah portrays it like so:
“Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:12-13)
When we act to please our false gods, it’s like sticking two fingers up at God and saying that he’s not worth pleasing – at least, not as much as our idols are. Throughout the Bible, God frequently uses the image of a marriage covenant to describe his relationship with his people Israel. Their idolatry is then compared to the actions of an unfaithful bride – sometimes in quite brutal terms! Take the next chapter of Jeremiah, for instance:
“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore?” (Jeremiah 3:6)
So be careful of resting on your good works as grounds for pride – they may not be quite as good as you think they are!