Righteousness is not at all like school grades. With school grades, the man who scores 99.9 is a genius, and has perhaps earned the right to carry a chip on his shoulder, and scorn the laggards who score in the lowly 20s and 30s. With righteousness, the man who scores 99.9 in moral matters and the one who scores 0.9 both similarly fall short of the glory of God.
This is what the Pharisee who went to pray in the temple did not understand. As he stood there feeling quite impressed with his own moral accomplishments, he said to God, ‘Thank God, I am not a sinner like everyone else, especially like that tax collector over there! For I never cheat, I don’t commit adultery, I go without food twice a week, and I give to God a tenth of everything I earn.’
Incredulous right? How does a person stand in the presence of God and instead of being overwhelmed by the glory of the thrice holy one, he instead takes to tooting his own horn. You see, wherever moral pride blossoms, pride is at the root. Pride – that terrible disease of the spiritual sight that makes us see our own wretchedness as gloriously better than the wretchedness of the fellow standing nearby.
This is how the Pharisee saw the tax collector standing nearby, praying in the temple. He probably thought the tax collector had no right to even come into the temple to pray where moral men like himself stood to pray. This is how the men who caught a woman in adultery saw her (John 8:1-11). They thought she was unworthy of living and breathing the same air as them. This is how the servant (Matt 18:23-30) who received forgiveness for his huge debt saw his fellow servant who owed him an infinitesimally smaller debt – he considered him unworthy of the freedom that his own master had granted him.
We face a grave danger when we consider ourselves good in comparison to others – when we think in the terms of 99.9% being better than 20% or 20%. The danger with this kind of thinking is that God calls us to 100% – be ye therefore perfect as your father which is in heaven is perfect. God does not call us to measure ourselves with other men, He calls us to look unto Jesus and to continue looking until we are transformed into the same perfect image of him who is the express image of God.
To the 99.9 percenter who came to Jesus with that noxious air of self-righteousness (Mark 10:17-22), Jesus’ response was, “you yet lack one thing.” The very notion that we can come to God with anything but a complete sense of our own spiritual destitution is proof that we have the grave sin of pride in full blossom within our soul.
Let us hear then what Jesus says to that moral young man who by his undisputed testimony had kept all the law since he was a young lad: “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18b). We derive our goodness entirely by our connection to God. A branch is foolish to consider itself anything other than an appendage of the vine. Whatever goodness we may seem to possess flows in fact from the vitality of our connection as branches to the vine.
Let us beware then of the vile pride that makes us think that others are more ungodly than we are, for our own godliness is the work of God who works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).