I tend to think passivity and the middle-way are pretty safe ways of life. But choosing neither virtue nor vice is more dangerous than choosing vice. If I am an outwardly vicious person, I cannot deny my viciousness. On the other hand, by internalizing, that thereby ignoring, my own vice, I risk denying its very existence.
Consider Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees (Mark 3.4):Jesus: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” Pharisees: *crickets*
Their problem here is not the typical Pharisaical hypocrisy. It is a subtler, more paralytic hypocrisy. They are silent because they hate public correction. They would much rather be correct than corrected. If they open to the possibility of their own error, then they also open to the pain of correction.
In life, the ways we tell ourselves we are don’t need correction are just as subtle and crafty.
For example, let’s say that I get really angry when my roommate retires early to bed because it prevents me from staying up late studying in our room (a totally theoretical situation). In response, I can either lash out in anger, communicating how much I dislike the inconvenience of his early bedtime, or I can pretend it doesn’t bother me in the least bit. Ignoring my anger seems the holier option, but it turns out to be the more dangerous one.
It seems that resisting anger could be the better option in the following ways:
- It exemplifies a holiness that should be emulated.
- It resists the natural tendency to sin in this way.
- It displays self-control, which is Spiritual Fruit.
- It avoids painful confrontation.
- It practices self-denial.
Nevertheless, what if this passive response is more deceptive than constructive?
Notice that my pretending not to be angry is just that: a pretense. It is just like that Pharisaical lie that tells me I don’t need correction: it communicates something false about myself. Thus, being bold in the wrong ways will tell me more true things about myself than my silence.
Whenever we convince ourselves to live safely, we actually hinder the process of sanctification. By “safe living” I mean choosing the least confrontational, most holy-seeming option available. These can vary from offering a service you really don’t want to do to seeming really solemn during a worship service to Pharisee-like silence. We sometimes think seeming like the caring person is more important than actually caring for others. This sort of self-deception does two things:
First, in these pretenses we hide from men. Instead of confronting us about our flaws and failures, they praise our purity. By producing this positive image of ourselves, we deceive others.
Second, this success in hiding from men actually conceals us from ourselves. If we hear their praises enough, we will actually start to believe them. Then, when the pretended safe living becomes our truest form of living, we have trouble recognizing our own flaws. By extension, we will also have trouble with sanctification. The temptation to sanctify a projection of ourselves paralyzes the process of the true purification that works at the core of who we are, where Christ is. We feel safe because we try to hide from the exposing power of sanctification.
By safe living, we distance ourselves form our fundamental identity in Christ. As we continually try to reinforce the self-perfection we have constructed, we rely on the people around us to tell us how sound this self-perfection structure is. Affirmation can feed the monster within that desperately wants others to confirm the false perfection we outwardly project. We forget to cling desperately to the perfection of Christ, subtly defending, instead, our own self-righteousness. We choose to identify with a false righteousness instead of the perfect righteousness Christ offers us.
Fortunately, this form of self-deception is relatively easy to identify. We must, however, be open to the fact that we practice deceptive safe living in the least suspecting areas of life. There are two main ways to recognize this self-deception. First, you have an unexplained need for affirmation. If you need others to approve of you in certain areas of your life, dangerous safe living has probably crept into those specific spaces. Second, you are hurt deeply by personal flaws that people bring to your attention. If you feel a powerful aversion to a confrontational remark or probing question, search for self-deception lurking nearby.
The Holy Spirit will bring people into your life to provide this service. He will also remind you of the painful remarks people make about your flaws. These all serve to keep us truly safe, in Christ, not deceptively safe, in ourselves.
One who finds freedom in Christ is free to live dangerously. You are no longer bound to sin, so why be burdened by the thought that others might consider you sinful? Instead consider those occasions when the deep darkness inside you swells to the surface as opportunities to boldly confront that deep darkness and give it, with all its twisted ways, to Christ.
It is unhealthy to have sin, but it is fatal to silently pretend it isn’t there.
The truly safe man rests in this prayer:
Lord I need you, oh, I need you
Every hour I need you
My One Defense, my Righteousness
Oh God, how I need you.