“But wishing to justify himself…”
Lately, this line from Luke 10 (Jesus conversation with the lawyer and the parable of the good Samaritan) haunts me each time I read it . Why? Because I have become increasingly aware of just how often this very same motive determines the words that come out of my mouth…and my behavior…and the way I choose to prioritize my life.
I’ve become convinced that I spend an inordinate amount of time and energy making sure I am perceived the way I wish to be perceived.
I’d like to believe that this is because my heart is really in a good place and I just don’t want to be misunderstood. But I don’t think that’s usually what’s going on. It’s probably a little more along these lines:
I haven’t been living with the diligence or integrity I ought to and I’m afraid it might be obvious.
I procrastinated and the result is embarrassing.
I chose to rehearse an ugly thought and it ended up coming out of my mouth.
I told half-truths and I fear the other halves will be found out.
Or any number of other ways I might violate my own conscience and subsequently have a strong desire to keep it under my hat.
Even if defensiveness isn’t employed for the purpose of justifying particular sins, isn’t it at least an attempt to protect an image that does not reflect my actual character or habits?
Isn’t it hoping to appear to be something I’m not? It’s still deceit and a really bad idea, right?
While cleaning the kitchen the other day, I listened to a 2009 sermon by David Platt, entitled Empowering the Poor. I enjoyed the sermon, but I was mostly intrigued by Platt’s invitation to his listeners to imagine how differently the Luke 10 conversation might have gone if the lawyer had responded differently to Jesus’ words.
I’d never considered that.
The lawyer’s initial question came from false motives. He didn’t really care what Jesus had to say about inheriting eternal life—he was trying to catch him in some error. When his strategy was thwarted and he looked the fool, he could have recognized Jesus’ wisdom and repented—but he didn’t. He reacted defensively and resorted to self-justification.
I wonder how much he missed that he could have gained at that point. If he had confessed his weakness and his error, how might Jesus have responded? What might his eyes have been opened to? What transformation could he have undergone? We’ll never know. Instead, generations get to read about his hard heart and his folly.
Not exactly what he was going for.
As I talked to my husband about this, he pointed out that there was a scribe who began a similar conversation with Jesus (Mk 12). He too was confronted with the greatest commandment, but he was impressed that Jesus had answered well—and said so. Apparently his question was in earnest. It was not asked in order to manipulate or to prove something. However skeptical he may have been of Jesus, his own lack of pretension allowed him to recognize and affirm truth and wisdom when he heard it. Jesus told him that he was not far from the kingdom of God.
I think I’d rather be that guy.
Trying to prove that I am right and justified is an unworthy use of my time and energy. If I am right, I don’t usually need to prove it. But if I am in the wrong, defensiveness robs me of the opportunity to confess and repent. If I practice defensiveness and self-justification, I effectively prevent my own growth. And if I persist in it, I will actually lose ground.
If I refuse to be honest now, I am intentionally keeping the road open so I can continue on my current course without anyone calling me to account for it. A defensive, self-fixated posture is a prison that distorts my perspective and prevents me from seeing and caring about other people. (Besides that, few of us pull it off as slick as we think we do. We’re probably just embarrassing and annoying others.)
Unfortunately, defensiveness often involves self-deceit and self-justification, so we can easily become blind to it. It’s pretty hard to stop something when you no longer recognize it.
I read a spiritual disciplines book a number of years back that suggested setting aside a specified period of time (30 days or something like that) to refrain from any speech that was intended to defend or justify oneself. I thought it was a little impractical and silly at the time. Why would I do that? And what if I needed to explain myself to someone (like a boss)?
While there are times when explaining and defending are necessary and appropriate, I can now see the value of an exercise like this. It would certainly help to make me aware of just how often I default to a defensive response, and what sort of thought process is involved.
I guess I just have to endeavor to pay attention and catch myself—to change the focus from fixing how I appear to fixing me. I’ll have to intentionally be more open to hearing and weighing criticism. Even if it means stopping myself and apologizing mid-defense.
And probably awkward.
Oh well—this is the part of the training ground the Holy Spirit has me on right now. Got any thoughts?