Holier-Than-Thou

The Corinthians had a problem with spiritual arrogance. Paul had rebuked them for abusing their freedom in Christ (1 Corinthians 8). He warned them that “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.” (1 Corinthians 8:1)

Later, in chapter 9, Paul wrote these important words concerning his own ministry: “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22)

Those of us who claim the name of Christ have a huge obstacle that keeps us from reaching many people. It is one of those things that can be very difficult for us to see in ourselves. But the truth is that, to many unbelievers, we frequently come across as holier-than-thou.

Many nonchristians believe that we Christians perceive that we are much better than they are. They see us as spiritually arrogant. If that belief is in error, then we have work to do to correct it. Unfortunately, too often it is true that people who call themselves Christian come across with an air of superiority and arrogance. It is very ugly.

But even when we disdain spiritual pride and self-righteousness, others may think that we are that way when we, for example, decline to engage in or condone sin of some kind.

As a Bible believer, I chalk some of that up to a very real spiritual enemy, the devil. I think he likes to get unbelievers to think thoughts such as these: “That Christian is just an uppity spiritual snob. He thinks he is so much better than me! He’s such a hypocrite! At least I’m real. I may not be Mr. Goody-goody, but I am what I am. The last thing I want to be is a goody two shoes!”

Of course, none of us want to be goody two shoes.  Genuine Christians realize that our righteousness is not our own, but is a gift given to us by Christ. We also know how easy it is for us to slip into sin… including the sin of self-righteousness and spiritual arrogance.

But when it comes to relating to unbelievers, Christians need to understand that it is as if we already had two strikes against us! When unbelievers learn that we are believers in Christ, often their immediate tendency is to view us with great suspicion. We must work hard to prove that we are not hypocrites, that we hate self-righteousness as much as they do, and that we do not have a holier-than-thou attitude toward them.

Unfortunately, many Christians try to do that by acting as if there is really very little difference between believers and nonbelievers. That tactic is very foolish. It would be like a billionaire trying to convince an impoverished beggar that there is really very little difference between them. Or like a man safe on dry land trying to convince a man in a sinking ship during a raging storm that there is very little difference between them.

So what did Paul mean when he said that he became all things to all men? Well, certainly not that he joined them in their sin! And certainly not by minimizing or belittling his position in Christ!

So what did he mean? How can we apply these words to our own lives?

Well, here are a few thoughts. Perhaps you might want to add some of your own.

  • We must prove, by our actions, that we really love and care for people regardless of their sins and/or lifestyles. I am not talking about a condescending or patronizing kind of love. But the genuine love of Christ… the same Christ who was called a “friend of sinners.”
  • We must get the chips off our shoulders. If we are misunderstood, we should not be surprised. We should expect some of that. We just keep on loving. Christ was misunderstood. He kept on loving.
  • We must be willing to be the butt of a joke. We must learn to agree with others and join others in laughing about our own mistakes, foibles, weaknesses, and foolish actions. It’s part of genuine humility.
  • When we mess up, we must be quick to ‘fess up. We all mess up. Unbelievers know that. When we try to pretend that we don’t, we tend to deserve the unpleasant labels we are given.
  • We can be good listeners. When unbelievers share things that we can identify with, we can let them know. And we can prove that we are really interested in what they are saying by asking clarifying questions and encouraging them to keep talking.
  • We can pray that God will help us relate to them in a way that represents Him well.
  • We can pray that we will succeed in walking the delicate line that includes love and acceptance of the person, without communicating acceptance of sin. There really are ways of doing that! It includes choice of words, voice inflection, body language, etc. For example, we might lovingly and graciously (perhaps with a pleasant facial expression) say, “Well, I can understand why you might be tempted to do that, but I’m pretty sure that you can see how that might be counterproductive!” Or maybe, “I think that, deep down inside, you know that is really not the best way to respond, don’t you?” Or, “Uh-oh! Bad decision, huh? I’ve made plenty of them too.”
  • We can look for opportunities to say something like, “I don’t know if you’re ready to hear this or not, but I have to tell you that the only way I make it through is because of my Lord Jesus Christ. He has totally transformed my life. And He will do the same for you whenever you are ready!”
  • We can ask other Christians to be honest with us and help us correct ourselves when we begin to sound arrogant or self-righteous. If we are married, this is a wonderful service our spouse can provide!
  • We can remind ourselves frequently that, at least until they get to know us better, most unbelievers will expect us to be self-righteous and spiritually arrogant. With that in mind, we can work hard to prove it isn’t true.

Paul summed it up this way in 1 Corinthians 10. “Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:32-11:1)

And, in the same powerful letter, he also left us these wonderful words. “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant” (1 Corinthians 13:4)

God is willing to use us to draw others to Himself. By His grace, may we commit that we will do our utmost to keep self-righteousness (or the appearance of self-righteousness) from  being a barrier to His work through us.

Stay in the battle!

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