Moving From a Self-Justifying Church To A Failure-Admitting Church

This is my contribution to the Eighth Letter conference we are running coming up in October. Thanks to Rachel for organizing a Syncroblog of all the letters.

To The Church in North America

It’s odd writing a letter to something that I’m a part of. It’s like writing a shared-diary. I consider myself part of the church of North America, part of the body of Christ that God has called to participate in the reconciling of all things; to reconcile and to be reconciled. So this letter isn’t just to the church “out there” it’s to the church that I have chosen to move alongside of. This letter is for the church, but it is for my church; it is a letter to me. Taking some cues from Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), I’d like offer a bit of advice.

This letter then becomes a self-evaluation with a list of recommended steps. The problem is that when we self-evaluate, we always have skewed judgment. We self-justify our actions so that every decision we’ve made and every step forward has been good, healthy and the right move. We move very quickly from self-evaluation to self-justification. We always give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, make excuses for ourselves and eventually destroy any opportunity we have to ask ourselves if we were wrong, or if we made a mistake or if we’ve been going in the wrong direction all this time. Our indoctrinating techniques and “discipling” has not produced disciples who are more intelligent or better Christians, rather it has only served to produce more confidence in our intelligence and our faith. So my letter will be an attempt to practice what my letter is about. Removing barriers of self-justification so that we may stop flattering ourselves, revel in forgiveness and grace then begin to actually change to be more like what the kingdom values.

The church deeply suffers with cognitive dissonance. ┬áThis is an inconsistency from what we believe to how we act. However, we also refuse to admit this inconsistency so instead we try to change either the way we act or what we believe. This is self-justification at work, and we as the church have chosen to change what we believe so that it will line up with the way we want to act. When Jesus tells the rich man in Mark 10 that he has to go sell everything and give it to the poor, the rich man was disappointed and walked away. He knew, and admitted that his actions and lifestyle did not match up to his beliefs or what was expected of him. He did try though. He proclaims that he has kept all the laws and he’s done this and he’s done that. He really tries hard to justify his life, but for some reason he’s still curious that there is more. Maybe he had an inkling that all those things wasn’t what was needed to have eternal life. When the rich man gets wind that Jesus really does want him to sell everything, he walks away disappointed, because his actions did not line up. The rich man did not suffer from cognitive dissonance, he knew and admitted by walking away that he wasn’t not being consistent.

We however, do suffer from cognitive dissonance. I have yet to meet anyone, anywhere that thinks that Jesus actually expects us to sell everything and give it to the poor. The plethora of excuses to get out of that belief is remarkable. We’ve seen entire prosperity theologies rise up in our continent that is the complete opposite of Jesus’ forward instruction but where are the movements of those that are selling everything and living with the poor? We justify and justify our way out of these awkward instructions from Jesus because we aren’t actually living like that, and if we aren’t living like that, then we are wrong. Christians can’t be wrong. So, instead of changing the way we are living so it is consistent with our belief, we change our belief so it is consistent with how we are living.

Self justification has bigger ramifications than just changing our own beliefs. Self justification effects deeply the way we see everyone else. We justify our own actions by changing our beliefs, but we’d never justify someone else’s actions by changing our beliefs. When we self-justify our own behaviour, it hinders us from accepting any other position as legitimate as our own. We end up thinking that our way is always the better way and always the more reasonable way. We flatter ourselves by making excuses for our behaviour and making it seem not that bad, but we will never do that for someone else. If you yell at your friend and call him a nasty name, the next day when asked about it you will probably explain that you were “having a rough day” or it was “out of character” or “they really deserved it.” However, if someone yells at you and calls you a nasty name we get angry assume they are always like that and they are just a horrible person that doesn’t care about anyone else. We barely ever make excuses for their behaviour like we do our own. We would never say about ourselves that “it’s just who we are and that we are a horrible human being that doesn’t care for anyone,” we always give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. This deep seeded self justifying behaviour is the beast behind failing relationships, spreading love and reconciliation around the world.

If we are called to love others as we love ourselves, then we would offer the same kind of self-justification to others and their actions as we would to our own. When we self-justify every action we make and refuse to do that for anyone else, we end up creating categories of people; those that are sane and those that are insane, those that are conservative and those that are liberal, those that are kind and those that are unkind, those that are right and those that are wrong, those that are Christian and those that aren’t. Anyone who does not believe what you believe becomes them over there, and everyone who lives the way you do becomes us right here. A story is told by one psychologist who’s daughter comes home and states that “boys are crybabies.” She said this because she had seen two boys crying at school. The psychologist asks her daughter whether or not if there were any girls who cried. The daughter’s response was “oh yes, but only some girls cry. I didn’t cry.” Can you see how this splitting up the world into categories of us and them, results from self-justification? This girl put all boys into the negative category, but refused to put herself in the category by the same logic.

I wonder how many things that we as the church have self-justified so that we don’t have to live the way kingdom-oriented people should live? Selling everything and giving it to the poor? If you just have enough faith you’ll be healed? Sunday services are the pinnacle of your Christian walk? Paid staff at churches should be the norm? Ten percent is all God asks of us? God is going to destroy the earth anyway, so we don’t have to take care of it now? Evangelism is the most important role of a Christian? You only have something valid to offer on stage if you’ve written a book? Women shouldn’t be in leadership? Elderly should stay locked up in their villages? Sponsoring a child is a good way to fulfill our duty to the poor?

The church has a bad track record. I think I can say that without too many of us trying to justify our way out of the crusades. It’s easy to refuse to justify something we didn’t directly participate in but what about things that we all do and participate in now? Are we just self-justifying our way through life so we don’t actually have to change? My accusation is this, and this is why I write a letter like this, that most of the things we believe today are a result of self-justification and an inability to be humble or admit that we are wrong. We honestly believe that everyone else is crazy and we have it all figured out. The Catholics, Muslims, Gays, Calvinists, Emergents, Pentecostals, Liberals, Conservatives….they all got it wrong, they are all wrong, they are all completely ignorant and if only they will believe what we believe about the world then nothing can be right. This is a dangerous way to look at the world. When we can’t give our neighbour as much grace and self-justification as we give ourselves then we cannot expect to love them.

There is two ways out of this. Either we start justifying everyone else’s actions around us. We start making excuses for their behaviour. We always give them the benefit of the doubt, as we do for ourselves. This is a tougher decision because it means that we will always be changing our beliefs and constantly adapting what we believe to how people act. Or, we can stop self-justifying our own actions and admit that cognitive dissonance haunts us. We are not living like we should. We don’t make all good decisions. We have made mistakes. Stop changing your beliefs and start admitting our failure to live what we believe. Christ’s death removed the need for us to self-justify anything, to anyone. Whatever decision we make, whatever direction we go in, they both equalize our relationships. It puts us on the same level as everyone else. When we can admit our own mistakes and our own need for forgiveness, then we learn to forgive others and love them because we see that we are just like them.

The church cannot be the church unless “we” learn that we are “them.” Self-justification cannot fit into this. It’s time to just admit we were wrong, admit that we will probably be wrong again, walk humbly and love God and love others.

5 thoughts on “Moving From a Self-Justifying Church To A Failure-Admitting Church”

  1. Nathan,

    I don’t see why your two options have to be an either/or. I’ve been trying to do a both/and (i.e. justify others while refusing to justify myself).

    Also, I’ve been sorely tempted to write something like the following letter:

    Dear Church,

    It is with great sadness and regret that I write to inform you that we are irredeemably fucked. Things, unfortunately, will now have to get a lot worse before we draw near to God so that God may draw near to us. I wish this wasn’t the case — and am doing my damnedest to try anything to make it not be the case — but it is. My heart is broken.

    What can I say to those plunging into darkness? Just this: learn to love the stars — they make the night less terrifying. In that way, we might be able to find a hope that is sustained until our children’s children catch a glimpse of the dawn.

    Salvation is not for us. It is for us to drink from the cup of wrath, even if it is still a long way from being drained.

    But — and this is the crucial part — while drinking we must never forget that salvation will come for others. Thus, we must drink without bitterness and we must pass on the memory and the hope of that salvation to future generations. God will not come and save us in the way that we desire, but he will come and save others. In this, we must rejoice.

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