I once talked with a group of college students, and one of them asked, “How do you explain Westboro Baptist? I can’t stand Christianity because of churches like them.”
Have you heard of Westboro? They picket military funerals in protests against gays. Their website is, God Hates Fags dot com (I can’t bring myself to type the link).
Westboro Baptist is a tiny church. Where they fail to attract many members, they excel at attracting the media. And where they fail to represent the True Church, they excel at representing what’s wrong with the church.
I’ve never met a soul from Westboro—and I’ve never met anyone who’s met someone from Westboro—and I cannot say anything about any of its members’ hearts.
But I can say this: if we don’t understand churches like Westboro, we’ll never understand grace.
Why do we do the things we do?
Everything we do is driven by a motivation. While minor actions, like eating dinner, are driven by minor motivations, like hunger (I’m speaking of the affluent), every major action is driven by this major motivation: we long for significance, we need to know we matter, we have to be special.
But our personalities differ, and our solutions for significance differ too. So our lives, decisions, and the groups we join, look incredibly different as well. But underlying these differing choices lies one unifying drive: we need to know we’re significant.
- Some crave power and use every fiber of their being to dominate, often ruthlessly oppressing others to grasp for control.
- Romantics long for love, and you’ll find them flitting from one affair to the next, unfaithfully betraying one lover when they find someone more satisfying.
- The greedy think wealth will mean they matter, and they cold-bloodedly seek money, even cheating and betraying friends to seize it.
And many get their significance by being good. These people flock to our churches.
It’s not every church member, but…
Jesus said that the church will be filled with wheat and weeds (Matt.13:24-30). We suspect those hypocritical weeds are the adulterers and thieves hidden among us, and we think the wheat are the good people. Like us.
But Jesus says that many of weeds are actually the ones doing good deeds:
On judgment day many will say, “Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and perform tons of miracles in your name?” I will clearly tell them, “I never knew you. Get away from me” (Matt. 7:22-23 PAR).
And Paul writes,
If I have enough faith to move mountains, but lack love, I’m nothing. If I give away every penny I have, and even if I surrender my body to be burned, but lack love, I gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:2-3 PAR).
Some church-weeds are those wicked sinners, but many of the weeds are those moral people who preach, heal, give away tons of money, and even die for the faith.
Are we scared yet? We should be.
How can this be?
Every evil in the world comes from self-centeredness and our constant crusade for self-significance. So dominators rape, greedy pillage, and love-hungry lust. We “ruthlessly, ceaselessly, unsmilingly concentrate on ourselves” (C. S. Lewis, paraphrased).
And if our self-significance comes from being a good person, we ruthlessly and unsmilingly join a church, the place where morality is praised.
Evil deeds are motivated by self-centeredness, but many good deeds are too.
Jeremiah 9:23 describes it this way. We normally hear this passage read with the word “boast” but the literal Hebrew is “hallelu-himself” or “praise himself”:
Let not the wise man praise himself for his wisdom, let not the mighty man praise himself for his might, and let not the rich man praise himself for his riches.
And when Isaiah says that all our good deeds are as filthy rags (Is. 64:6), he could just as easily have told us, Let not the good man praise himself for his goodness.
We desperately need significance to know we matter, so we save ourselves with self-applause through our wealth, wisdom, and strength. And our goodness.
What are we to do?
Every problem in the world is caused by our self-centered solutions to satisfy our longing for significance. The conundrum is that we are made for significance. We are made to matter. It’s in our DNA. We are made in the image of God.
Our longing for significance isn’t the problem. The problem is our self-saving solutions for self-applause—in both the wicked and the moralist. The only solution that will work (and the only solution that will heal the world) is the right praise from the right person.
Paul exclaimed, “God forbid that I should praise myself in anything but the cross of Jesus Christ.” The solution to our need for significance is to receive applause from the right person: “At that time each one will receive his praise from God” (1 Cor. 4:5 PAR).
What does it mean to be a Christian?
Being a Christian is more than believing that Jesus is God’s son (Satan knows it too); it’s more than being a good person (which may only be our self-saving); and it’s more than the magical claim that we have a good heart (if we have one, why doesn’t it show?).
Being a Christian means that our self-saving has died with Christ—that old person that self-applauded through self-significant deeds is buried six feet deep.
It means we have risen to a new life where all the significance we ever needed is lavishly poured into us—even though we didn’t deserve it—in the self-sacrifice of Jesus who died for the joy of having us as his brothers.
Being a Christian means we finally cease from the interminable striving for self-applause, and we rest by faith in the significance freely given to us by God’s grace.
So what does all this have to do with being moral?
Our immorality (and morality) used to come from grasping for self-significance. When we finally have the only significance in the world that will satisfy, something changes.
What does grace have to do with morality? Everything.
- When we’re tempted to lie to save our reputation, we now have the only reputation that will really satisfy us; we are the beloved of God.
- When we’re tempted to control others for self-glory, we now have the only glory that will ever fulfill us; we have been praised by God.
- When we’re tempted to steal, we now have the only wealth in the world that will content us; we ourselves have become the treasure of Christ.
How does Westboro Baptist help us understand grace? By using it as a mirror we see ourselves, clutching and clawing, grasping and gnawing for self-significance through immoral hatred or self-serving goodness. And we turn to the free gift of grace.
Jeremiah closes his passage above with this: “But let him who praises himself praise himself for this, that he understands and knows me” (Jer. 9:24 PAR).
And by grace we finally do know him, the only truly Good person ever. Grace means we now do good deeds for Goodness sake, no longer for our own.