Repenting of Smugness?

Today’s thought continues the one from yesterday concerning judgment. Paul seems not to relent in making his readers rethink whatever standard of judgment they may have been working with. The renewal of our own minds may require the same admonition. Romans 2:12-24, the text for the Fourteenth Day of Lent:

12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

In John Wesley’s day (18th century) there must have been Christian sects who saw it their duty to point out all the short-comings of others, especially those of the national church. He insisted that his Methodists were of a different mind: “We set out to criticize ourselves, not others.” The point of the movement he was heading was to have believers examine their own lives, in the company of their peers, so as to truly exhibit the new life they had found in response to the gospel of Christ.

I am reminded of this essential Wesleyan principle when looking at today’s passage from Romans, which demonstrates what inevitably happens when it is neglected. Believers all too easily end up engaged in the same sinful patterns of life as their unbelieving neighbors. And the name of God is, as Paul put it, blasphemed because of us. Whatever the term blasphemy actually means (it continues to be debated), it isn’t good. And it continues.

There is a certain smugness that emanates from some conservative Christians about their status among “the saved.” I think of this when I see bumper stickers such as the one that says, “I’m not perfect; just forgiven.” While the intent may be perfectly innocent and perhaps even a nod toward humility, it is too easily read as being dismissive of behaviors in our own ranks which we find condemnable in others outside the faith. The only difference, in other words, is that we our forgiven of our continuing lust, envy, anger, and adultery while others are not. Paul and Wesley thought there to be something wrong with this picture–not because the premise of forgiveness is wrong, but because the failure of reformation of character has created an impression of a smug attitude of superiority toward others, many of whom may actually be more upright in conduct than the believers themselves.

Today let us reflect on how others outside the faith might hear our pronouncements relative to how they see our lives.