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Let me share with you one of the more embarrassing moments in my life. It was 1988 when I met a young man who was at the end of his rope. Life was not turning out for him the way he had hoped. He had relational problems, drug problems, employment problems, financial difficulties, tattoos, and tattered clothes. He had long, messy hair, few friends, and he did not know Jesus. He also smoked cigarettes.
Most of his problems were easy to see. The discerning eye could even pick out many of his heart’s dysfunctions. After a few evangelistic-type questions, it quickly became apparent he not only needed a friend, but he needed a Savior. At first, I was unsure if he was interested in what I had to say or if he was just another lonely dude. Regardless, we hit it off and struck up a friendship. I am sure my religion was a curiosity to him, and he was not offended by me.
He was open to hearing about Jesus and even accepted my invitation to attend one of our Sunday evening church meetings. Because he did not have a license or a car, I offered to pick him up to bring him to our service. On the way to the meeting, he asked if he could smoke a cigarette. Let me give you some context: I had just purchased a brand spanking, new Buick LeSabre. It was the Lord’s car, and the only smoke the Lord approved was holy, and I was pretty confident my new friend was not exhaling that flavor.
He left me with no choice. Without hesitation, I told him that he could not smoke in the Lord’s car. I mean, how could I have an unbeliever tainting my vehicle with his worldly smoke? It all seemed so obvious to me back then. He consented, and after we arrived at the church building, I parked the Lord’s car, and we began walking toward the Lord’s building.
As we approached the church building, he asked me once again if he could smoke—this time before he entered to worship with the Lord’s people. One of the things that struck me was his humility. It reminded me of when I was a kid and how we refrained from doing certain things on Sunday. We were hard-core unbelievers, but we had cultural respect for religion. It was probably his humility and his persistence that wore me down.
This time I acquiesced and permitted him to smoke his cigarette outside the church building. I figure if I did not let him smoke, he might light up inside. I will never forget that night when I stood on the sidewalk, alongside our church building, with my new friend and his lit cigarette. What made it memorable was how consumed my mind was with this one thought:
What do my brothers and sisters think about me associating with a cigarette smoker?
There were about 500 people who filed by me that night. It seemed like five thousand—not counting the women and children, of course. I was humiliated. Think about it: I was hanging with an unbeliever who dared to light up outside a church building, only moments before we were to worship our holy God.
I did not want anyone to see me with him in that context. I was ashamed. It is one thing to be talking to the pagans in their trailer park, but to bring them to your place where people are clean, pure, and holy. Really? Who would do such a thing?
I am a white, male, middle-income, God-fearing American who was doing his darndest to separate from the world, and I was dragging the dregs of our society right into God’s house. Gasp! I am not altogether sure why I chickened out that night by letting him smoke outside the Lord’s house. I should have stood firm for Jesus. That is not how it went.
There I stood on the sidewalk, alongside my church building, completely naked: all of my self-righteousness exposed before God and humanity. I have no idea what happened to my friend. Did God save him? Honestly, I do not remember anything beyond our smoked-up sidewalk scene. Maybe he was regenerated. If that is true, it happened despite me, not because of me.
I probably could not have done anything more wrong in being Jesus to him. This story probably does not relate to you. If you were in the same circumstance, you would have let my friend light up and not given two hoots about what others thought about you or your friend.
I am sure he could puff away, flick his butt, and fear or self-righteousness would never have crossed your mind as you and cigarette breath entered the Lord’s house. I am sure your thoughts would have been more about his soul than his lungs. But let me be honest. I was not thinking about his lungs or his soul. I could only think about myself. Whether he went to heaven or hell was not nearly as important to me as what my Christian friends thought about me.
My self-righteous story reminds me of the Savior’s friends—those He was trying to train. In Mark 10:13-16, we see how they were struggling similarly with an arrogant, self-important, and self-righteous attitude that put them in direct opposition to the one they were supposed to be following.
And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them (Mark 10:13-16).
I am fully confident that night on the sidewalk had more to do with me than cigarette-breath. My self-righteousness reeked to high heaven. Worse than the elder brother looking down on his prodigal sibling, I was hindering the work of God because of my biblical immaturity (Luke 15:28).
I was so concerned about my reputation and how my friends perceived me that I could not see the yearning Savior, who moves through the smoke of our world to capture the hearts of the needy. In some ways, I wish I was more like my smoking friend. There was a humility about him. Rather than a willingness to cave to societal expectations or religious snobbery, he had a genuine and authentic interest in learning about the Savior that night.
This story from my past is not a morbid walk through the darkness of my deceived and depraved heart. I am not guilt-tripping, though I think it is good to take occasional deep heart-dives now and again. The heart is the fountainhead from which all the issues of life pour forth (Proverbs 4:23). Therefore, I must be bold enough and humble enough to take my soul to task occasionally. As John Donne said much better than I,
Poor intricated soul! Riddling, perplexed, labyrinthical soul! —John Donne
The inter-maze of my heart is daunting and depressing for sure. To top it off, I am self-deceived. I do not fully understand the depth of my depravity, and on that night on that sidewalk, I missed the mark. This reflection is one feeble attempt to look but not linger as I review where I was, where I am, and where I need to be. Ephesians 4:22 urges me to be aware of what to put off to discard the old man with his deeds. I cannot put off the old man if I do not know what to remove.
If I must take out the trash of my heart—and I must—then I need to know where and what the garbage is. The good news is I do not have to think too long about the where question—sin is in my heart. The what question can be tricky though. Through prayer, community, and personal reflection, my goal is to experience change by the grace of God, by mortifying the deeds of my body to glorify God in my sanctification (Romans 8:13).
Self-righteousness is a foundational sin. Apart from unbelief, this is one of the biggest hindrances in my walk with God and others. You could easily see how it hindered my relationship with my pagan friend. To be self-righteous means to have a higher view of myself than what God does. My self-righteousness was the smoking gun. I fell to the temptation of comparing myself to my friend as well as to my brothers and sisters.
I had a high view of myself, and I did not want any of my friends to think less of me. The only opinions that mattered in the parking lot that night were those I could see rather than from the one I could not (Hebrews 11:27). Because of the great love that I had for myself, I lived out biblical hatred toward my friend. I was not serving him in the manner that Jesus would have helped him.
Without a severe course correction, my self-righteousness would have matured to the point that I would have diminishing sensitivities to the Spirit of God. Sin dulls the senses. In time, I would have lost all touch in how to serve others as my legalism grew (Mark 10:45). Self-righteousness does more than look down on others. It is an unloving sin that elevates you while putting distance between what you could provide for others. It circumvents the love of Christ from affecting those in need.
Over a quarter-century ago, the only light that mattered was the one on the end of my friend’s cigarette. What should have counted most of all was whether the Light of the world was going to light up my friend’s heart (John 8:12). Perhaps you are not as legalistic as I was. Maybe your issue is not with cigarettes. What about gays? Are you more concerned with their souls than their lifestyles? What about people who do not have your skin color? Can you look past their pigmentation to see their souls?
Perhaps you do not struggle with people’s sins or skin, but you are impatient or unloving, or unforgiving toward those who cannot seem to get it right. Sometimes we can look down on those who sin in ways that we do not. What about you? What kind of sinner tempts you to sin the most? The truth is, you are no different from them in that you are not perfect. We all have our issues, right (Matthew 7:3-5)?
Cigarettes may be a small thing for you, but if you spend a little time making personal and reflective applications, you might find someone you do not care for or someone who tempts you. When you do, you will discover self-righteousness in your heart. Perchance you do discern how self-righteousness has captured your heart, a simple prayer can begin changing your life and relationships. That is where I started.
My point is not to condone any sin. There is a time and place to deal with those matters. The big idea here is about self-righteousness that gets in the way of building a relationship with someone so you can show them a better way to live.
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