This word used to give me the willies. It was a big word to a little girl (and even now to a not-so-little girl), partly because it was hard to get my mouth around and also because there was a good deal of mystery surrounding it. This was a serious word. I could tell because people never smiled when they said it. It seemed to produce in grown ups the same reaction as doling out punishment, the same slight frown, a long drawing of breath and an eternal pause. I braced myself for righteousness with as much dread as I waited for my next grounding.
Never to be taken lightly, this word was to be pursued desperately as if by striving hard we might fall into it more deeply, though it was never certain that any of us had really gotten the fullness of whatever we were supposed to get. That didn’t stop some in our congregation from pretending they had found more of it than the rest of us. That didn’t stop my family from pretending we had found more of it or any of it.
Defined this way, it was a seductive word in all its self-glory, effective in its judgment of others, an ever present reminder that there was a God that loved us so much he wanted us to be perfect. Always uttered with a grimace as if the very weight of this word might keep us little ones in (a perfectly straight) line. For a while it did.
Eventually, we can’t keep pretending that sin will fit under a rug or behind a chair or under the couch. Sin can’t be trimmed, highlighted and stuffed in Herve Leger. By defining righteousness as our own blamelessness, we force ourselves to dispose of our own sin. Choosing ourselves as the blameless ones rejects the cross as a dumping ground. Our salvation hinges on whether or not we’ve effectively hidden our sin, and one day the cabinet comes crashing down for all the brokenness we’ve shoved behind the china. The fall is fascinating to watch but excruciatingly painful to endure; I have the scars to prove it.
My own pride is as ugly as any. But the beauty of what I’ve since learned steals my breath. Our perfection is so very unimportant. What matters is our response to who God is. Do we choose to trust him or steal his glory for ourselves? Is he the worthy author of space, time and history? Or, is he a hard-hearted prude reduced to a charicature that we can easily limit, define and mock? How we choose to respond to this God measures our righteousness by its true definition: a faith-filled, reverent surrender. To truly respond to who God is means an honest acknoweldgement of who we are as needy, desperate, dirty…..and forgiven. Never blameless. But pardoned. Despite me, God loves me. The beauty of this critical truth moves a deeply scarred heart to ache and, then, respond.
This choice lies at the very foundation of the human story. Have you ever wondered why the Tree of Knowledge had to stand in the Garden? Did you know there was also a second tree? (Genesis 3:22-24) We chose Knowledge over Life. To this day, we choose all sorts of sadness just for the right to choose it. This is not freedom but a curse. When we choose ourselves in place of God we assume that what he has to offer is not as good as what we want. In this, we grossly misunderstand and underestimate Who He is. Do we blame God for his perceived shortcomings or do we live in the everyday reality that it is not God but sin that limits us? Until we, as a human race, understand our sin, we will choose poorly.
Consider the bible’s “greats”: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Job, Jacob, Moses, David, Paul (Rahab for the ladies!), all of whom chose poorly at one time or another. Yet, in the moment God reveals himself, each one immediately responds righteously, kneeling, praising, seeking, obeying. Each one has the courage to believe in the power of this supernatural King, imperfect men convinced in the perfect One. A victorious God working out good purposes in the lives of those that choose him, the One that first loved gray.