Pretending or performing – two of the things that draw Christians away from a God-centred, gospel-saturated life to a self-centred life of impression management. i know i’m guilty of both. It’s so easy to keep up appearances, especially playing up to others’ expectations (“You’re studying at BI? Oh, you must be such a holy Christian…”). At heart i remain deeply competitive and insecure, feeling the need to prove myself to other Christians, if not to God. And with this comes the temptation to feel that the world, or God, owes me something. i need to keep coming back God’s rebuke to Baruch in Jeremiah 45: “And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not…” If i understand Baruch correctly, he was a diligent and faithful secretary to Jeremiah, serving God, pained at the the wickedness and suffering and impending judgement on his people. Yet somehow he seems to have slipped into a dutiful service – a joyless service where his experience of God’s goodness indeed did become very small. Did he think, “I’m not as bad as those people,” or, “I deserve better”?
i see myself reflected in Baruch, in his desire to serve, in his heartache at the evils of the world around him, and at his apparently self-righteous expectation of something better for himself. i consider my motives in serving: usually, i hope, genuinely to help others and to serve the gospel, but often tainted by a desire for recognition and something in return because i “deserve” the favour of others in this world. And, paradoxically, i am aware also of evading service by justifying that my work in some other area is of greater importance, and others should do the more “mundane” work because, again, i “deserve” something better. In all these tendencies i see my sinfulness in the midst of my desire to serve. i inadvertently reduce God and His righteousness; i make service of Him something through which to win the favour of others, even if i’m not trying to win merit with Him. i never actively think of it that way, but when it comes down to the heart of the issue this is really an attempt to add to the righteousness i have in Christ the favour and approval of others. And insofar as i try to add to Christ’s finished work on the Cross, i cheapen the costly grace He has so freely given; i shrink the Cross and minimise my sinfulness and need of the Saviour.
Tim Keller, in his hard-hitting book The Prodigal God (New York: Dutton 2008), talks of the “elder brother” mentality of “[using] his moral record to put God and others in his debt to control them.” He quotes a profound rebuke from a wise teacher, identifying the barrier between Pharisaical righteousness and God as “not their sins, but their damnable good works.” (See the parable in Luke 15.)
He continues: “To find God we must repent of the things we have done wrong, but if that is all you do, you may remain just an elder brother. To truly become Christians we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right. Pharisees only repent of their sins, but Christians repent for the very roots of their righteousness, too. We must learn how to repent of the sin under all our other sins and under all our righteousness – the sin of seeking to be our own Savior and Lord.” (pp. 77-78)