The Burden of Self-Justification

Modern day people of faith have much to learn from their ancestors in the faith—even the desert fathers and mothers who lived in the Egyptian desert beginning in the third century. These odd monastic characters went out into the solitude of the desert seeking a deeper relationship with God. Their wisdom can show us the way to a deeper connection with God.

Several years ago, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, delivered a series of addresses in Sydney, Australia on these strange characters, which eventually became a book, “Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another.” As I was reading this book for the umpteenth time last week, I was struck yet again by his reflections on a saying by John the Dwarf: “We have put aside the easy burden, which is self-accusation, and weighed ourselves down with the heavy one, self-justification.”

What is this desert father saying? Williams puts it this way: “Self-justification is the heavy burden because there is no end to carrying it; there will always be some new situation where we need to establish our position and dig a trench for the ego to defend.” For example, think of how parents respond when asked  about their kids. Very often we give a litany of all their accomplishments, and a story line that suggests that everything is working out pretty much as planned. In some cases, we sound like a verbal resume for our son or daughter. What is going on here? Although there is nothing wrong in rejoicing over a child’s accomplishments, our account of our children often seems driven by the need to justify their life and ours. That is, my kid won’t really matter—and I as a parent won’t really matter—unless I make a case for how remarkable my kids are. Such self-justification is the heavy burden because there is no end to makingthis case, andbecause it requires a lot of energy to tell a story that edits out the unattractive chapters of their lives.

I am guessing you can relate to the burden of self-justification.  But what about the other piece of John’s saying?  Is self-accusation really a light burden? Being honest about our failings will only be light if we know that God’s mercy—not our failures—is the last word about us. Because of God’s mercy we don’t need to be afraid to be honest about all of who we are. The self that needs to justify its existence is constantly editing out our failures; the self that knows it is loved, in spite of our flaws, can afford to acknowledge all the chapters of our lives. Self-accusation is the light burden when we have the capacity to love ourselves—warts and all.

This saying not only applies to individuals, but also communities like a church. How often have you found yourself weighed down by the need to convince someone that your church is a “real” church (in contrast to all those frauds out there) because of the extraordinary faith and commitment of the people? Certainly, Christians should rejoice at how God is using their church community. But a truly grace-filled church community would be one in which members can freely accuse themselves of their faithlessness because they know God’s acceptance—not their disobedience—is the last word. Such self-accusation isn’t beating ourselves up, but the fruit of realizing that our lives have been justified by the grace of God regardless of our performance.