Hurricane Sandy was the second most devastating hurricane in United States history. On October 29th, 2012 it stormed ashore in New Jersey, leaving a wide wake of destruction.
A week after the hurricane, I saw a post on Facebook. It showed the picture of a man standing in front of his unharmed house, while the scattered remains of his neighbor’s house lay completely destroyed by the storm.
Under the picture was this caption:
The LORD’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the home of the righteous (Pr. 3:33).
I never met the man and I don’t know his heart. I hope his insensitivity was simple naiveté, and that the judgment of his neighbor was unintentional.
But it smacked of smugness. It reminded me of the ugliness of religious-righteousness.
Why is it ugly?
Religious-righteousness is self-righteousness with a dash of religion. It oozes the arrogance of inner self-goodness as it scorns the evils of the less fortunate; it takes credit for personal success while it altogether forgets grace.
True kingdom living nurtures humility, “I can’t do it on my own—even be good.” And if I can’t do “it” on my own, how can I despise anyone else who also can’t?
Verses like “God blesses the righteous” are prescriptions for hope in God’s power; they are not diagnoses of our own moral greatness. When we use external circumstances to quantify our goodness, we snub others with our superiority.
Or—if the circumstances are negative—we despair. I personally know real believers who recently experienced terrible losses:
- A man who lost his son to a brain tumor
- A woman who lost her husband in a freak accident
- A friend stricken with a congenital nerve disorder
Did they lose their son, husband, or health because of their wickedness while you and I prosper because of our goodness? Were they faithless while you and I were faithful? Goodness no!
When we use such verses as self-congratulations, we are insensitive, mean, and ugly. Jesus said, “God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45).
Maybe our good circumstances have nothing to do with our goodness. Maybe they’re just God’s mercy.
Let’s strive to be good
The law tells us to strive for godly character, and the modern world doesn’t like it. It smacks of moralism. But the world is filled with violence, oppression, brutality, and treachery. It suffers because people do not strive for goodness.
We should teach, preach, cajole, and encourage everyone to live morally, full of goodness.
But it won’t be enough.
The overlooked point of the law
Our feel-good, therapeutic view of the world—I’m Okay, You’re Okay—will dislike the second purpose of the law even more than the first. First the law tells us how we are supposed to live, and then it tells us how we can’t do it on our own. Luther wrote:
The Law is a mirror to show people what they are like. The foolish idea that a person can be holy [or righteous or good] by oneself denies God the pleasure of saving sinners.
God must therefore first take the sledge-hammer of the law in his fists and smash the beast of self-righteousness and its brood of self-confidence, self wisdom, self-righteousness, and self-help.
When the conscience has been thoroughly frightened by the Law it welcomes the Gospel of grace with its message of a Savior who came … to preach glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, and to grant forgiveness of sins.
Few people seriously admit their own contribution to the evils in the world. I’m told that Hitler thought himself a pretty good guy. Using the law as a mirror to reveal our inadequacies will drive us to God for his grace.
If using the law as a mirror simply makes us humbler, the world will be a better place.
The beauty of gospel-righteousness
Tim Keller says, “Jesus came to live the life we should have lived and to die the death we should have died.” Jesus didn’t come to earth just to die for us. He also came to live for us.
That means Jesus perfectly lived a life of love, holiness, obedience, and righteousness. In his righteousness, though, he didn’t snub us. Instead he poured out his goodness into us. When God looks at us, he literally sees the goodness and righteousness of Jesus.
Therefore we can stand confidently in righteousness, and we stand humbly because it isn’t self-righteousness. Even righteousness is a gift, and that “gift” is the law of grace.
If grace rules, all circumstances can bring peace. If our house escapes the next storm, we rest in his righteousness. If our house is flattened in the storm, through the resurrection we know that God brings the greatest joys out of the darkest nights.
It’s all grace.