Tonight I learned about sin.
Because of sin, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6). Not only are our sins ugly to God, the ways we try to measure up in good deeds are ugly to him too–like a polluted garment. Self-righteousness, the way we so often convince ourselves we’re better than another, is as disgusting as long-unwashed laundry (Romans 2:5).
Tonight the ugly head of self-righteousness reared its head in every person at my dinner table.
I went out to dinner with my parents and some of their dearest, funniest friends. They are wonderful people. All four of them are quick to support me and teach me–for this I am grateful. But sin is still alive, at work, fighting for each of our hearts.
At one point, the conversation turned to homeless people. Story after story was told to support the point that “if you give homeless people money, all they’ll use it for is booze or drugs. If you try to give them food, they will be ungrateful and picky.” One story depicted how when trying to offer a hungry homeless man leftover food from a nice tapas restaurant, he replied, “I was really in the mood for a Big Mac.” Another story was of a woman who denied Mexican food because she “couldn’t handle spicy food.” Behind each of these stories was the subtext of, “If I’m giving you something, just take it and say thank you.”
I kept thinking,
Why does someone being homeless automatically take away his or her right to food preferences?
If I told someone I was in the mood for a Big Mac or couldn’t handle spicy food, that person would probably respect my preferences. It’s just a hunch, but I feel like this has something to do with the fact that I have proved I can provide for myself: I am in good health, I worked hard to get into Vanderbilt, I work hard to get and keep jobs.
In reality, all of those things are gifts from God (James 1:17). If my health were suddenly compromised by a disease, or I hadn’t been accepted to Vanderbilt, or I were fired from a job, I’m pretty sure I would be consoled by others in ways that emphasize my strengths:
“You’re strong enough to get through this.”
“They don’t know what they’re missing.”
“They let you go unfairly.”
We are quick to attribute situational traits to a person’s character. If I am seen as a person who can provide for herself, people will be quick to affirm me in this. But the Lord giveth and taketh away (Job 1:21), and any argument for my personal achievement besides this is self-righteousness. We are quick to attribute situational traits to a homeless person’s character, too. Homelessness and begging are so often seen as a result of laziness on the individual’s part. This breaks my heart. I pray that arguments for laziness are replaced with compassion for the situation of the individual, and a desire to help, without expectations.
I appreciate our friends’ willingness to give away what they have when a need arises. Generosity is a Biblically valued trait, a fruit of the spirit. However, generosity laced with self-righteousness is not a fruit of the spirit.
The Message translation of 1 Peter 7-11 says this:
Everything in the world is about to be wrapped up, so take nothing for granted. Stay wide-awake in prayer. Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything. Be quick to give a meal to the hungry, a bed to the homeless—cheerfully. Be generous with the different things God gave you, passing them around so all get in on it: if words, let it be God’s words; if help, let it be God’s hearty help. That way, God’s bright presence will be evident in everything through Jesus, and he’ll get all the credit as the One mighty in everything—encores to the end of time.
“Be generous with the different things God gave you, passing them around so all get in on it.”
“That way, God’s bright presence will be evident in everything through Jesus.”
“He’ll get all the credit as the One mighty in everything—encores to the end of time.”
To give God the encores to the end of time that he rightfully deserves, we are to be generous with everything we have been given. This is to be done without self-righteousness, without acting as the Savior of people less fortunate. If the Lord takes away from me, that less fortunate person could be me in an instant. The good news in all this is that God is good. God is good, he loves each and every one of his children, and praising him is what we were made to do.
I want to say that I learned about my own sin tonight too. After reading once that “judging judgy people is judgment too,” I knew I had found my sin. I want so badly to be like Jesus that I take it to the extreme of self-righteousness. Often. Sitting at dinner, I knew that sin was attempting to control my parents’ lives and our friends’ lives, but my own as much as theirs.
The picture at the top of the page is of Robert Reirden, a Nashville man who died in December. He had no constant source of housing and attempted to keep warm on a bench not far from the Tennessee State Capitol building (seen in the top right corner). You can read what was published in the Nashville Scene about him here. I visited that bench over spring break, because it was spent in part learning about how homeless people live. They are some of my favorite people. If they want Big Macs, I think Jesus would want them to have Big Macs.
Jesus, my prayer is this: Continue to break my heart for what breaks yours, including the state of my sinful heart. Help me to flee from self-righteousness, running straight to you. Show me how to be generous so everyone is included at the table. Show me how to die to myself so your bright presence shines through it all. Show me how to truly live 1 Peter 7. Amen.