“Being Christian” and Rethinking Righteousness


(The following is a revised portion of my sermon from Sunday – if you’d like to listen to the sermon in its entirety, you can find it here.)

According to Forbes.com, Louis C.K. is one of the top 5 grossing comedians on the planet. Knowing this, but being unfamiliar with and curious about his work, I caught several minutes of his cable show the other night as I was flipping through the channels. Low and behold, as is often the case with comedians, I found some interesting cultural insights on American spirituality.

From what I gathered, in this episode, C.K. had gone over to Afghanistan with other performers to entertain American troops stationed overseas. In the part I caught, the comic was having a conversation with a young, (presumably) Christian woman after his set. And the young woman (19 or 20 years old) was lamenting the fact that Louis C.K.’s jokes were so incredibly vulgar. She said, “I just don’t understand why you can’t be funny and be more CHRISTIAN?” The comic responded with a confused look. They discussed this for a little longer and eventually Louis, whose daughter had secretly deposited her pet duckling in his luggage to help keep him company on his trip, took the baby duck out of his backpack and began to play with it. Finding his behavior silly and endearing, the young woman began to laugh. She asserted, “Now you’ve got it! Now you’re being funny AND you’re being Christian.” 

The average person’s perception of Christianity (or at least this 19-year-old cheerleader’s) is that to “be Christian” means to “be moral.” Now, so far as I know, Louis C.K. is a self-professed agnostic. As writer and producer of the show, he created this scene and apparently this has been his net takeaway from Christianity. And to be honest, if Christianity were indeed just systematized morality, I’m not convinced that agnosticism is not the route I’d go either.

This is unfortunately the common American perception. The average person has come to define “righteousness” as “moral purity/performance” and righteousness is understandably so closely associated with Christianity, that Christian faith and the Christian church is simply understood to be a collection of fairly morally pure (albeit somewhat hypocritical) people who believe in certain traditional moral tenets.

I’m not exactly sure why that is the societal perception of Christianity, but if I had to guess, I think it may be because many Christians themselves have come to define righteousness (and thus Christianity) this way.

However, in the Bible, righteousness is a relational word. In essence, it means “to be right with” someone. It means to find favor, acceptance, and welcome from someone. Consequently, the opposite of righteousness is NOT immorality. The opposite of righteousness is rejection.

The Apostle Paul wrote about this concept throughout the New Testament. For instance, in Philippians 3:8, Paul, after stating his resume for why he’d reasonably be considered the paragon of virtue amongst Jews, says that he now (post conversion) considers all of these credentials to be “garbage” (NIV11), “rubbish” (NIV84), “dung” (KJV), “I can’t believe I stepped in that with my new shoes.” (J.M.Hein13)

According to the Jewish way of thinking, Paul’s pedigree was excellent, his moral record was virtually impeccable, his church attendance was spotless. But it wasn’t until Jesus blinded him that his spiritual eyes were opened to the fact that he couldn’t make himself right with God. Only then did he realize that  It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Rom. 9:16), “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). He agreed with James that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (James 2:10)

As a result, the Apostle Paul knew that he would need a righteousness (again, understand as “acceptance”) apart from the law. He said that he used to consider himself to be a “good guy” based on his moral performance (especially in comparison to others). But then he realized how self-centered, condescending, and violently unloving he’d been. He now knew the only shot he had at being “right with God” was through grace, “I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” (Phil. 3:8-9) Paul knew that’s exactly why Jesus came (1 Tim. 1:15). To save Paul. To save us. To be the embodiment of God’s grace to us. To be our righteousness.

Moral purity will undoubtedly be a desire of the regenerate heart of a Christian. But to suggest that Christianity is about our moral performance is like suggesting that Moby Dick is a how-to guide on catching whales. Yeah, that concept is in there, but it’s not the main emphasis. In fact, the emphasis of the Bible, in some respects, is nearly the opposite. The Bible obviously doesn’t encourage immorality, but, in no uncertain terms, it teaches the inability of mankind to make ourselves right with God. Despite this, the overwhelming love of God comes to rescue those who have rebelled against him. Jesus was the only one who was truly pure, and yet, on the cross, he gave that up and became sin (2 Cor. 5:21), so that we, covered with his innocence, could legally be declared as God’s righteous children.

My moral purity has its high and low points. But my salvation is not compromised by this. Jesus has already grabbed hold of that for me. My life quest then is not to “be righteous” or “find righteousness” but to “know Christ” (Phil. 3:10), who is my real righteousness.

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