What Can Westboro Baptist Teach Us About Grace?

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.”

Westboro fan protests

Westboro fan protests

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.


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What do YOU think?

18 thoughts on “What Can Westboro Baptist Teach Us About Grace?

  1. GREAT post today, Dad. I love the summary, concluding sentence:

    “Grace means we do now good deeds for Goodness sake, no longer for our own.”

  2. Sam great post I just don’t think you went deep enough. For the reason we search for significance is to be loved We believe that significance brings us love, we believe that living right, doing right, making a mark brings that significance,which in turn brings us love. We continue this as Christians in so many ways. It is why you and I get attacked for teaching it’s “OK To Live As You Please” (YES! According to everyone who would accuse us of teaching cheap grace)

    The truth of that matter is we really do not at the end of the day totally believe we are completely loved by God. If asked “if we sit on our rear ends all day and do nothing is that OK, we have to stop and think for a minute.” No the deeper problem is that we fail to understand our deep need for the ugly of the cross, that there is indeed nothing loveable about us. When God sees even now our best efforts to gain his favor, he replies with I would rather hold a live Skunk.

    As we gain a true awareness of our ugly and we recognize God was crazy about is and still us, it becomes easier to move to being OK with doing nothing but resting in his grace. When that happens Jesus truly becomes enough.

    Wrote a post that expounds on our ugly and God’s love. Hope you don’t mind reading it. http://worldprayrblog.org/humpty-dumpty-fell-wall-still-looks-better/

  3. Great post Dad. I still struggle with turning back to morality or doing good things. It seems to be initially motivated by a gratitude for what God has done–but I seem to too quickly lose sight and resort to a gratitudeless service. Any advice for how to keep this, the gospel message front and center?

    • David if I might answer, I personally find as I constantly remind myself of three things

      1) It ain’t about me, it’s about HIM!
      2) He loved me, chose me, made me HIS bride, HIS beloved even when I would sooner punch a ticket on the train of eternal condemnation and would rather spend time in the pleasures of chasing my own needs and was completely dead,
      3) I still smell worse than a jiffy john on a hot summer day. Yet, there still is no condemnation and nothing can separate me. Making the question never what must I keep doing but rather how will I say thanks today.

      Thats what helps me!

    • Hi son David,

      I think we all struggle the same way. Thus my article.

      I think the key is Paul’s exclamation to boast in the cross. The more we can keep the cross in our hearts and minds, the more likely we’ll actually be MORE moral, and more likely our morality will be grace-based.

      The cross is a tricky thing, and it is not universally loved–even by us believers. It holds two thoughts together: we have been so bad that the only solution possible–even to God–was the horrible, agonizing death of his son, and we are so loved, he died joyfully.

      Love you son,

      Dad (Sam)

  4. Sam,

    Your post was fabulous, but the responses of your sons is what blesses me the most. It is an indication that your have a true, honest, fun, real relationship with them. Is that not what the Father wants with us. You are wealthy in relationships. Wealthy in love, with the Father first, and His image and likeness in your sons, and I ‘m guessing , many others as well. Thank you for showing us a little of Christ, in you.

    • Hi Fred,

      Wow! Thanks.

      My sons are great men, and I’m proud (hopefully in a good way!) to have them as sons.

      They have seen through the worst of me and still love me. I think that’s grace working in them.


  5. And yet again Sam you have prompted self examination.

    And in the nick of time.
    Can I be honest? I was sitting at my computer this morning looking at some fantastic photography that really showed the beauty of God, it bought me to tears, but it wasn’t my work, it was a friends, I want to be that good, that’s my passion, that’s my heart, I want people to see God thru my work, I want people to see it and say well done, great job.
    But my calling is to encourage others, whether I get it back or not, to lift them up and help them in their calling, so I cried, tears of selfishness, but as I looked thru my tears at the beauty of God, my tears turned to ones of contentment, if I can encourage people to walk in their calling and that stirs emotions that point you to God then that’s what I will do, put aside my selfish desires so God can be glorified.
    I dont need to be in the spotlight, drawing attention to myself (honestly sometimes I would like it) but lets lift people up and not pull them down.

    • Hi Beth,

      Thank you for sharing your personal reflection, for sharing so boldly and vulnerably. Yes, we all want to be in the spotlight, and so we sometimes brag for it.

      Two observations. First, you ARE encouraging. And don’t you think that the part of you that longs to give encouragement is the same part of you that wants people to see God through your work? When you encourage, you are seeing the beauty of God in that person and speaking it into being.

      Second, I LOVE your pictures. Folks, if you want to see some beautiful, outdoor Australia photos, check out Beth’s site: http://www.bethcolephotography.com/index.html#/snowy-monaro-images/


  6. Sam,
    The desire for permanent significance is desperately apparent in the population I work with (terminally ill hospice patients) day after day. Sometimes folks are willing to embrace the grace “lavishly poured into us” by Jesus, sometimes not.
    Returning to your conversation with the college students, one of the challenges we face in a culture with low biblical literacy, and blinded to the gospel by the adversary to boot, is drawing a distinction between the liberating, life-giving message of Jesus and the Galatian alternatives. Jesus tells us that not everyone addressing Him as “Lord, Lord” is truly one of His, but to the casual observer, the wheat and the weeds sure look a lot alike. Why bother making the distinction?

    • Hi Doc,

      Great to have you back.

      yeah, the whole book of Galatians is addressing this point.

      We are left with two options: try to GET it or just RECEIVE it.

      It is very humbling–and it takes humility–to be satisfied with just receiving it.


      • One is reminded of Peter’s willingness to eat with “those people” until the delegation from Jerusalem arrived (Gal. 2:11ff). In a later letter (Col. 3:11) Paul reminds us that even Scythians–truly a barbarian’s barbarian–are renewed in Jesus Christ. In addition to being humbled in God’s presence to receive Christ’s lavishly poured out grace, we must remember that we were once among those whose sins we are often to quick to condemn (1 Cor. 6:11). “I got mine, now you can go rot” is not the gospel of Jesus Christ and not the message the world needs to be hearing.

  7. I don’t understand how Westboro can be a mirror if you don’t know any of them and can’t even bring yourself to type in their URL.