Stop using others to affirm your own rightness

The Pharisees were right about a lot of things.

Like many Christians today, they knew their Scripture inside and out.  Challenge them on any issue, and they could cite twelve verses to support their case without batting an eye.  CS Lewis wasn’t even around back then, but I’m willing to bet they quoted him anyway.

As the religious authority of their day, the Pharisees were deeply familiar with Levitical Law and its implications for their culture.  They knew the 613 commandments listed in the Torah and could tell you the consequences for each and every last one of them.

Don’t try to tell me how they were just “nominal” believers, either.  They were one hundred percent willing to talk the talk and walk the walk.  Take the story of the adulterous woman in John 8, for example.  When they discovered this young, married woman “in the very act” (v. 4) of adultery, they knew the Law required her to be stoned to death and were prepared to carry it out.

Obviously, we don’t stone people today for making stupid decisions, no matter how harmful or destructive they might be.  Yet according to the Law of that time, the Pharisees were obligated to follow through with an execution.  The woman was guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt, and the consequences for her actions were laid out rather black and white.  It seems harsh, but you could say the Pharisees were technically in the right here.

So when we read this story today, why don’t we acknowledge the Pharisees were simply doing what they were supposed to?

Their Game of Thrones style of punishment aside, the Pharisees turn the situation into something else entirely.  Rather than approach Jesus with an honest search for truth, the Pharisees make a scene of the woman and her wrongdoing.  They drag her out into the temple courts in the middle of the day, where an audience has gathered to hear Jesus speak.  From the start, you know it’s not about some moral dilemma the Pharisees happen to be facing.  They’re here to put on a show.

They say to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.  In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now what do you say?” (v. 4-5)

Yet by the time they open their mouths to speak, Jesus can tell they’re not seeking answers.  Rather, the Pharisees are looking to make themselves appear more righteous.  They’re pointing a giant, flashing arrow at themselves to show everybody just how right they are.  Which is why, when they ask Jesus what they should do, he immediately points out the exact opposite.

He says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (v. 7)

He doesn’t acknowledge the accuracy of their claims.  He doesn’t tell them not to judge others, as many interpret this verse to mean.  Instead, he looks deep into our hearts and challenges our habit of calling out others just so we can be on the winning team.

To me, this message is more meaningful and relevant than ever.  If you’ve been on social media at all this past week, you might feel the same.  Between the conservative reaction to the Caitlyn Jenner story and the liberal reaction to the Josh Duggar story, our tendency to use the actions of others to affirm our own rightness has been on full display.


Needless to say, it’s been a rough week.  Every time I log onto Facebook or Twitter, I can’t help but feel bogged down by all the aggressive rhetoric and people shouting, “Look at me!  I’m on the right side!”  Give me five minutes of reading that sort of thing and I’m ready to throw my phone across the room.

To be clear, I’m not saying anything about either group here—in fact, this article has almost nothing to do with those issues at all.  Let me repeat: for this sake of this article, you are unarguably correct in your views.

What I do want to point out is how you can be totally right—in the same way that the Pharisees were totally right—and still miss the point.  You can share countless articles and blog posts affirming your view and still only be saying one thing: “I am right.  You are not.”

And yes, I understand the Duggar and Jenner stories took place on a very public level.  I get that they’re important and we need to talk about them.  But the key question here is, “Are we doing it to effect change and create awareness or craft a more righteous image of ourselves?”

Perhaps the worst I saw this week came from a writer who thanked those who agreed with his opinion.  He ended his post by saying, “Normal people still exist out there!”

Once again, I’m not saying anything about this writer’s views.  But . . . “normal people”?  Are you kidding?  Instead of sharing one’s convictions with humility and grace, it’s, “You’re not even a normal human being unless you agree with me.”

It’s, “Thank God I wasn’t sheltered growing up like THOSE PEOPLE.”

It’s, “I’m going to continue to use his (not her) given name despite the pain and baggage and years of torment it brought him (not her) because I’m making a STATEMENT.”

To which I reply, yes.  You are.  But in all three cases, it’s a statement that has less to do with Jenner or the Duggars and more to do with how “right” you are and how you look to others.

It’s become so popular these days to “win the internet” by calling out other people’s bigotry or ignorance on social media.  Somebody says something transphobic?  Get a thousand retweets for putting the haters in their place.  Westboro Baptist threatens to picket?  Get a Buzzfeed article written about you for returning their bile with more bile.

Author Mat Johnson recently touched on an interesting truth about Twitter in an interview.  He says,

“You get a cookie for getting offended about something. People are like, ‘If I get offended about that, it means I’m righteous.’ On Twitter, you get a cookie not only from more people approving of you but from more people following you. You raise your profile by being offended. So the natural consequence of that is that people get more and more offended. Because the thing is, there’s nothing to risk by being offended. Once you’re offended, you’re partly saying, ‘I’m more pure than this, and as such I reject this.’ There’s just nothing at risk.”

Look, those people you’re offended by might be totally wrong—just like the adulterous woman was in John 8.  But shaming them does nothing but draw attention to how “right” you are.  You can’t bully them into having the right attitudes.  You can get some nice publicity it seems, but you’re not starting a conversation and you’re not making anyone want to change their minds.  It’s just me standing over you, saying, “I’m better than you.”

What we so desperately need right now is more people who are capable of sharing their convictions with humility and grace.  It is so easy in today’s age to drag people into the temple courts of social media and point out their flaws and mistakes, when all we’re really doing is building up our own egos.

We also need people who know when to say nothing at all.  Maybe commenting on that person’s post is less about “defending the faith” and more about winning the argument.

And whatever you believe about Caitlyn Jenner or the Duggars, remember that being right is not anywhere near as important as loving and respecting your neighbor, no matter what their views might be.