There, But for the Grace of God, Go I
Pride is a silent killer. Like a cancer, it can slip in relatively undetected, slowly rotting away the inside of a person. With deadly force, pride eventually strikes at the heart of its host leaving a trail of destruction in its path–a trail of broken friendships, shattered dreams, and shipwrecked faith.
Religious pride is particularly dangerous because it can mask itself in spiritual asceticism. Joining with its cunning counterpart called self-deception, religious pride produces a vast array of noticeable “fruit” (i.e. skillful prayers, Bible reading checklists, and a resume that rivals Billy Graham’s). When self-deception teams up with religious pride the result is a ticking time bomb waiting to self-destruct–the frog in the kettle, Haman’s noose, the undertaker unknowingly digging his own grave.
In college, I heard a chapel speaker preaching from Luke 15 make the following exclamation: “Let’s hear it for the son who stayed home!” He missed the point. Somehow, in his interpretation of the prodigal son story, the son who stayed home deserved to be the hero. Instead, Jesus insisted that neither the wayward son nor the son who stayed home were justified in their sin. The prodigal sinned in open rebellion. The other sinned in hidden self-righteousness. One sinned in public. The other sinned in private. But both had corrupt hearts in need of the Father’s forgiveness and unconditional love.
Religious pride has a sanitized presentation. It rarely boasts outright, “My cleverness or skill got me where I am.” It’s more subtle than that, but perhaps more deadly. Religious pride is perfectly fine saying, “God’s favor got me here.” But make no mistake, the follow-up belief is: “I DID something to earn God’s favor. I MADE God stand up and notice.”
In Psalm 30, King David is brutally honest about his struggle with self-deception and religious pride. Verses 1-5 reveal that David’s experience of favor and blessing could only be attributed to God. God brought healing. God brought victory over his enemies. God lavished grace.
In verse 6, however, David recounts the way pride slipped in and plunged him into an ocean of self-deception. He says, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘ I shall never be moved.’”
Temptation often arrives when we are on the mountaintop of success–temptation to believe we will never be moved or shaken–temptation to believe we have somehow earned God’s grace and favor. When we take our eyes off of Jesus, we begin gazing at the blessings of God more than God Himself. When that happens, the serpent whispers in our ear, “You deserve this.” What a dangerous place to be!
But the blessings of God are never designed to be an end in themselves. They are designed to drive us more and more toward God in gratitude, humility, and repentance. David finally realizes this, and so we find him in verse 8 repenting in brokenness and pleading for the mercy of the Lord. In his brokenness, he replaced his old mantra (“I will not be moved”) with a new one (“God will never be moved”). Once repentance had taken root, the mask of self-deception came off and David could see God and himself more clearly.
In recent days, I’ve been asking the Lord to reveal and remove any masks of self-deception that I may be wearing. It seems I can’t take to social media without hearing about another prominent evangelical leader caught in a moral scandal of one kind or another. Everytime I hear a new story, I’m confronted with a crossroads. I can go one of two ways: 1) I can tell myself, “That will never happen to me!” or 2) I can refuse self-deception and remind myself that apart from the grace of God, that person could easily be me. In the words of John Bradford, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” I pray that I will always choose the second option, and I pray that for you too.
My friends, may we never convince ourselves we are beyond the reach of moral bankruptcy. May we always refuse the mask of religious pride and self-deception. May we pursue Jesus with intense fervor. May we install honest accountability in our lives. And may we let the blessings of God and the successes of life drive us more and more to our knees in humility.
I leave you with a puritan prayer from The Valley of Vision.
“Under the conviction of thy Spirit I learn that the more I do, the worse I am, the more I know, the less I know, the more holiness I have, the more sinful I am, the more I love, the more there is to love.
Of all the hypocrites, grant that I not be an evangelical hypocrite, who sins more safely because grace abounds, who tells his lusts that Christ’s blood cleanseth them, who reasons that God cannot cast him into hell, for he is saved, who loves evangelical preaching, churches, Christians, but lives unholily.”