The Detached Retina of Self-Righteousness

January 27, 2019  |  Craig St. John

By AC Alivizatos

In his most recent fight, boxing star Manny Pacquiao must have felt like he was on top of the world. Despite being forty, he not only convincingly won the fight but also managed to draw over 400,000 Pay-Per-View buys, a bona fide commercial success. The next morning, however, he saw things differently. He had suffered a detached retina in the match and remarked that it felt like someone had a hand over one of his eyes. His ability to properly perceive the world around him had become distorted. A detached retina is a serious condition that, if not treated properly, can result in permanent vision loss.

Spiritually speaking, vision is important. The ability to properly perceive ourselves and those around us is paramount to fulfilling our calling as Christians. After all, how can I love my neighbor as myself if I do not see myself or my neighbor through the right lens? Having a spiritual “detached retina” is a handicap none of us can afford. There are many things that can impede our ability to see clearly, especially legalism and self-righteousness.

Legalism is one of those Christianese terms that gets thrown around in so many different ways that it can be hard to know what someone means when they use the word. One of the dictionary definitions of the word is “excessive adherence to law or formula.” I think that’s a pretty good working definition for the way I will use the word in this blog, with the added theological dimension that the reason for such excessive adherence is to justify ourselves, or to prop ourselves into right standing before God and others.

The problem with legalism is that it produces self-righteousness, an insidious disease that can rot us from the inside out. When we strictly and successfully follow a moral code, we can be tempted to think of ourselves as morally superior to others (conversely, when we consistently fall short of the moral code we are striving to follow, we can be tempted to despair and think of ourselves as morally inferior to others).

Of course, every good Sunday school Christian knows that we all fall short of the glory of God. The issue is that we can think that some fall further than others. Usually, these thoughts do not come because we have taken the time to reflect on the totality of one’s life and story. Rather, we identify some parts of God’s moral law and make those rules the important ones. Because we keep those important rules, we think of ourselves as better than those who don’t keep those rules, and in the process, detach our retinas.

The reality is that it is equally true that we are created in the image of God and that the effects of sin have distorted that image. Clearly then, self-righteousness does not allow us to see ourselves and others as we really are. We forget that others are worthy of dignity, respect, and love, and we forget that we, too, have condemnation hanging over our heads, absent the blood of Jesus.

This failure to properly perceive ourselves or others is a direct impediment to the mission to which God has called us. What is that mission? We are to be witnesses of Christ and his coming kingdom as a contrast community in our specific cultural contexts. In the same way that a movie trailer is intended to provoke a desire to view a forthcoming film, the Church is intended to provoke a desire in those around us to be a part of the coming kingdom. How can we do that if we are plagued by self-righteousness?

In one well-known parable, Jesus highlighted this very tragedy that all too often takes place among God’s people. When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus responded by saying to love God and love others as yourself. Indeed, there was no better way for Israel to be a light to the nations than by tattooing those precepts upon their hearts. However, an expert in the law piped up, wanting to justify himself saying, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus immediately proceeded not to answer the question, but destroy it.

His response is what is commonly referred to as the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” In it, he painted the picture of a man badly beaten and left on the side of the road to die. Both a priest and a Levite walked by the man and left him to his imminent demise. The expert in the law probably was nodding along so far in the story, thinking that, of course, a priest and a Levite would keep going (they were the Democrat to his Republican, or Republican to his Democrat, depending on your political flavor). Surely someone like a scribe would have walked by and offered this poor man aid. What Jesus said next must have left everyone’s jaw hanging on the ground: of all people, a Samaritan stopped to help. Samaritans, of course, were so despised by Jews in this era that the Jews were forbidden to eat with or even enter the home of a Samaritan. There was no room for a Samaritan in the expert of the law’s definition of “neighbor.” Why not? Deeply-imbedded self-righteousness had distorted his vision to the point where he viewed Samaritans as beneath him. They were not worthy to be called “neighbor.” In fact, when Jesus asked him who was the one being a neighbor, he could not even bring himself to say the word, “Samaritan.” All he could muster was, “the one who showed compassion.” Jesus had destroyed the question of “Who is my neighbor?”

It certainly makes one wonder: how could Israel be a light to the nations when they didn’t even consider the nations as worthy of compassion? Of course, this certainly is not unique to Israel. When we go all the way back in time to the first human family, what was Cain’s response to God concerning the disappearance of Abel? “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It does not take a church historian to tell you how badly we have failed in more recent times to show compassion to our neighbors. As the Church, how can we be a preview of the kingdom to come if our definition of neighbor is not all inclusive of everyone? How can we show compassion to others if we do not view them as worthy of compassion?

I say this not as a person who has excessively and successfully adhered to this truth and now beckon the rest of you to get your act together. That would be considered not seeing clearly, and it would be lacking compassion. We are all in this together. We need each other. As James exhorts us in his epistle, we are to regularly confess our sins to one another. Not only is confession important in order to receive forgiveness, but it also serves the purpose of reminding us to see ourselves as we really are. When we fail to see ourselves as we really are, we undoubtedly will fail to see others as they really are. Redemption Tempe, let’s keep our retinas attached as we fix our eyes on the Author and Finisher of our faith and walk in the works he has prepared for us beforehand.