Pretending, Self-Justification, and Grace
From James Cox, ed., Best Sermons 4 (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), pp. 258-263.
Copyright © 1991 by HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission of the
publisher. Originally a chapel talk at Trinity College.
I am thinking of announcing that I do not want to be known as a Christian anymore—not that I do not want to be one, but that I do not want to be thought of as one. When people think of Christians, when we Christians think of what it means to be a Christian, we think of high ideals, pure motives, sincere actions, and living in accordance with biblical standards.
When I probe my inner life, I find ulterior motives, insincerity, pharaisaical double-mindedness, the savoring of success and esteem, and more—things I am afraid to admit either to you or to myself. If people knew about these, I'm not sure they would like me. So I pretend. I pretend to be a good Christian, and I use this pretension to justify my existence. I convince myself that I really am a good Christian and that God should accept me because of that, thus blinding myself to God's grace.
When we were little, we loved to pretend. We dressed up as Mom or Dad, or we imagined ourselves being someone else. Doing so made us feel important. And it was easy. All we had to do was put on different clothes or a special hat or pick up a baseball bat, and we immediately became our admired person. When I was ten or eleven, one of my heroes was Hank Aaron—the great home run hitter for the Milwaukee Braves. As I lay on the living room floor listening to radio broadcasts, I imagined myself running
the bases whenever he hit another home run. And once in a while (when no one was looking), I swung my bat in the backyard just as I imagined he did.
We continue to pretend as adults, though perhaps we do so less consciously. We imagine ourselves being famous or worthy of other people's respect. We act in ways we think others will approve of. It is easy to pretend, and it makes us feel important and good.
When we pretend, we are putting on a show. We are trying to convince others that we are good. Perhaps we are afraid that they will not accept us if they knew what we were really like, if they saw our doubts, fears, hurts, and sins.
We pretend not only to others, but to ourselves as well, for we want to believe that we are worth something. So we act in ways we think are worthy, and we imagine ourselves being looked up to by others. By doing so, we convince ourselves that we really are good and important.
We also pretend to God on occasion, for we sometimes think of him as being like a person we have to impress in order to be accepted.
In a perceptive passion from Soren Kierkegaard's Attack upon Christendom, a book that was aimed at reintroducing Christianity into Christendom, Kierkegaard writes, "Where all are Christians, the situation is this: to call oneself a Christian is the means whereby one secures oneself against all sorts of inconveniences and discomforts. . . . and orthodoxy flourishes in the land, no heresy, no schism, orthodoxy everywhere, the orthodoxy which consists in playing the game of Christianity."¹
Kierkegaard's "attack" was directed against a nineteenth-century state church in which everybody in Denmark was born a Christian, officially proclaimed so at one's baptism as an infant. Kierkegaard's revealing insight in this passage is that, when we are with Christians, we have a tendency to play the game of Christianity. Whenever we are in a church, Bible study, prayer group, or Christian college, we find it hard to avoid imitation Christianity.
Playing the game of Christianity is going through the motions without the inner reality, it is pretending to be a Christian instead of being one for real. More subtly, it is living outside oneself, that is, identifying with the group and its patterns, in much the same way we identified with our childhood heroes.
What is behind this phenomenon of pretending, of playing at Christianity? Two deep-seated motives give rise to pretending: the need for approval and the impulse of self-justification. None of us wants to be too different; we want others' approval, sometimes desperately, so we act in ways that bring that approval—everyday, ordinary ways and spiritual ways as well. Underneath this need for approval is the need for self-esteem, the need for a sense of worth. We sometimes go to great lengths to obtain this sense; when we find ourselves part of a Christian group, we can obtain a sense of worth by acting in ways the group approves.
Also underneath the need for approval is the need to overcome separateness and aloneness. Each of us feels that among the millions in the human race, we will be left out. We can overcome aloneness by attracting others to us, which we can do by showing how good we are at being Christians. This need to feel that we are good is behind the impulse of self-justification, which drives us to do things we think will impress others. We feel that our very existence has worth when we do things that we know will make our Christian sisters and brothers think we are spiritual.
What tends to happen, then, when we are part of a Christian group is that we adopt its beliefs and practices, not because of personal conviction, but because of our need for approval and justification. Our acts and words, even our feelings, are not our own. Our faith is someone else's. We become impersonators.
For years my reaction to Ephesians 2:8-9 had been, "Oh, of course, I don't believe in salvation by works. It is by grace we have been saved, and ‘not because of works,' as Paul writes there, ‘lest anyone should boast.''"
That had been my same reaction to the Ten Commandments. I don't believe in cheating, lying, or killing, and moreover, I don't do those things. Then about two years ago it occurred to me that one of the reasons God gave us the Ten Commandments was that we have in us the impulse to cheat, lie, and kill. When I dared peek at my impulses, there they were. And I shrunk from that glimpse.
It is the same with Paul's rejection of self-justification. He must have known that our fallen nature strives intensely to justify itself by any means it can other than by grace. Most of what I have done with my life springs from this nearly irresistible passion.
These are the reasons it is so easy to pretend, to play the game of Christianity. These are the reasons pretending and playing at Christianity have a certain satisfaction. They flow from our fundamental needs.
And we have an image to maintain. Churches have an image to maintain, and Christian colleges do as well. We want to show that being a Christian makes a difference and that Christ transforms our lives. True as these are, they push us to cover up our problems, to pretend that everything is okay, and ultimately to justify ourselves because of how we live.
The strength of the impulse to self-justification can be illustrated by the difficulty we have in receiving gifts. We want to give something back in order to even the score or to demonstrate that we are as good as the giver. The same is true of accepting God's grace. We sometimes find ourselves wanting to give something back to God, not so much as a response of gratitude, but as a way of showing that we are worthy of his grace. We want to even the score so that we can demonstrate that we are not helpless as the gift of grace implies. "To know that God loves us not because we are good but ‘just because' is sometimes unbearable."² We want to convince God that we are pretty decent people whom he should admire.
But, of course, with God there is no way we can even things up, there is no way we can show that we deserve his gift, and he isn't impressed very much with our schemes and pretensions to convince him that we are decent and admirable.
How do we pretend? When we are bright and cheerful, others think that we are victorious Christians and that nothing is wrong with us—and we know that they think this of us. When we pray before meals or in prayer meetings or carry our Bibles, we are conscious of others observing us. We refrain from confessing our struggles so we will not appear to be weak. At the same time, when we do confess our difficulties, we sense that we are admired for our honesty. (We give up one game to play another.) We keep unacceptable emotions locked up but appropriately display other emotions. We act in ways we know our Christian group will approve of, use the right words to describe our faith, and avoid behavior we know will bring disapproval.
In a way, then, we need to pretend because we need to feel good and important. Yet we despise pretending because we want to be real and genuine. So we are caught in a dilemma: We can scarcely help pretending, yet we hate it.
There are two kinds of reactions we can have toward pretenders. We can point our finger at them, just as we instinctively point our finger at the Pharisee and at hypocrites. How deliciously delightful is this pointing; how gratifying it is to us. And what acute dismay we experience when we suddenly realize that someone needs to point their finger at us.
Or we can feel toward pretenders as we do toward people who are hurt. When we are hurt, we want someone to notice and to give us some understanding. When they do, we open up to them. They have broken through the shell with which we have surrounded ourselves. We find that we don't have to pretend with them or play at being a Christian. We confess a few of our deepest secrets and feel accepted by them in spite of our wounds. Our need to impress them melts away. Perhaps this is how God's grace works.
The truth is that we pretenders are hurt. We sometimes doubt our faith, and this is unsettling because we want the security of knowing the truth. We are lonely, wondering whether anyone likes us. We fight off the gnawing pangs of conscience, as the thought of a past indiscretion springs into our minds. We wrestle with self-rejection and feelings of
inadequacy. Some of us are depressed and can scarcely survive each day. Some of us have been betrayed by our parents—hit or criticized or handled sexually or neglected—and are wounded deeply by the memory. Many of us are restless, searching for something more, sometimes with quiet desperation, wanting intensely to tell someone yet even more fearful of doing so.
I would rather you not admire me as a Christian (though part of me secretly wants that). I would rather you think of me as a tax collector, as one who cheats, lies, and skims tax off the top of what I extort so I can live sumptuously. Think of me as being hurt: as having fears and doubts; as wondering sometimes what the point of life is; as being afraid to love; as having various temptations; as trying to impress people to cover self-doubt; as one whose inner life is sometimes disoriented, with ulterior motives and unsavory double-mindedness. And then come up to me, put your arm around me, and say, "I like you the way you are." That might puncture the barriers I have put around myself, and it might incite me to see life through the eyes of the tax collector.
If I could see life through the eyes of the tax collector, some of my impulse to self-justification might lessen in intensity; I might take off some of my masks; I might not strive for success and esteem so much or see these as the source of my self-worth. Maybe I would feel freer to be myself instead of someone else, freer to have my own faith instead of someone else's. Maybe I would feel in my heart, and not just think in my mind, that Christianity isn't just playing a game; perhaps I would experience God's grace for more than fleeting, scattered moments.
Is there any other way to dissolve pretending than by means of God's grace? Can anything else heal our wounds and salve our hurts? Can anything else satisfy our ceaseless strivings and restless hearts?
1. Soren Kierkegaard, A Kierkegaard Anthology, edited by Robert Bretall (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1973), 437.
2. Bruce Ritter, Sometimes God Has a Kid's Face (New York: Covenant House, 1988), 26.
Also by Clifford Williams: