Back in the olden days when I was involved in prison ministry, I learned something remarkable about human nature. We have a nearly infinite capacity for self-justification.
Over and over again, I had kids tell me the story of some crime they committed in which they would explain how they had convinced themselves that their actions were justifiable. Some kids were far enough along their journey that they could see that the story they had told themselves was rubbish. Others were still so convinced by their self-justification that they continued to think of the crime and its consequences as regrettable, but understandable given the circumstances they had been dealing with. They didn’t really see themselves as guilty.
Commonly, I would talk with kids who were struggling to let go of their self-justification and truly own their errors and responsibilities. They could mentally accept that they had wronged and had caused harm to themselves and others. Usually they could even understand that healing and taking their lives back was dependant on accepting responsibility and were highly motivated to do so. But they just couldn’t let go of their self-justification. The story they had created for themselves to explain why they did the things they did still felt so true, so right, so unassailable to them.
(“If I didn’t go along with stealing that TV from an old woman’s apartment – she was blind, by the way – then I would look like a punk. In the neighborhood I live in being known as a punk gets you killed. What was I supposed to do? My choices were either to help steal the TV – did I mention that the old woman was blind? Or die.”)
This impulse to create stories in which we are the good guy, always the victim or the hero, lies very deep in human nature. If I confront my 7 year old because she hit her sister, you can be sure that she be able to give me a detailed explanation for why what she did was totally justified in light of what her sister was doing. She’s the real victim, don’t you know. And she will be able to regale me – on the spot – with all manner of evidence and logic and obfuscation to back up her self-justification.
Over the years I have become convinced that we engage in the story telling of self-justification in a desperate attempt to hide from our shame. Shame is such a toxic emotion. Shame says that our identity is created by our errors. It tells us, “there’s something wrong with you as a human being. Your core identity is ugly, disgusting and unlovable.” Shame sent Adam and Eve into the bushes to hide and it compels us to cover our own guilt with self-justifying evidence, logic and stories as well.
The more shame we have lurking deep inside, the more we will engage in self-justification. The more stubbornly we will cling to these stories, this evidence, our logic. We will cling to our self-justification, demanding that our story and evidence be disproven, piece by piece, to our own satisfaction before we let any of it go. Then we will concede a point, shift our position and desperately set about re-arranging the evidence into a better, more unassailable story with which to protect ourselves.
And along comes Jesus, wanting nothing more than to remove our shame. “There’s no condemnation in me,” he tells us, “there’s nothing wrong with you; you’ve just been lost. I am the way back to who you are. You’re not ugly or disgusting. You were made in the very image of God. Your sins may be like filthy, bloody rags around you, but let me remove them so the beauty you are can be revealed. You’re not unlovable. I love you so utterly, so irresistably that I left all the privileges of heaven just to be with you. I love you so much, I died for it.”
As he woos us away from our shame and into communion with himself, Jesus tells us, “stop trying to justify yourself. You don’t have to prove to me or anyone else that you are justified. Your justification is in me, not in yourself and all of your stories and evidence and logic.”
But this impulse to justify ourselves is very deep in us. Instead of resting in the justification Christ has provided us, we continue to compile our evidence and write our stories, telling how we are always the good guy, always the hero or the victim. We use them to comfort ourselves when things don’t go our way. We repeat them to ourselves and others in order to stave off our shame when we are in error. “I’m not perfect, but I’ve been doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Here’s the real story.”
Then an accuser from without or within shows up and tells a condemning story of your failures, your guilt, your inadequacies. The accuser knows that you’re going to fall for the trap. That you will compulsively protest and self-justify. You’ll counter the accuser’s story with your own. You’ll pull out your evidence to refute the evidence against you. You’ll use logic to shred the fallacies used to construct the allegations against you.
But it’s a trap. It doesn’t even matter whether the accuser’s story is right or wrong, fair or outrageous slander. Even if you can refute him point by point and demolish the accusations against you with evidence and logic, the accuser will not concede his error. He will not give you your due and declare you innocent.* So long as he can get you to justify yourself to him, his goals will be accomplished.
Our self-justification exists to keep our shame safely hidden away. The enemy knows that so long as we continue to self-justify, we may hear Jesus’ words, we may mentally assent to them, but we do not own them. They are not at the core of who we are. Shame still remains on its throne, a malevolent, hidden power reigning over our heart.
The tricky part is we can’t own the truth Jesus speaks to us with shame reigning in our heart. But we can’t get rid of the shame until Jesus’ truth – his justification of us – has taken its place at the core of our being. Which is why we need to rely on our faith. We need to believe in what we cannot yet see – that we are completely justified in Christ. That he’s vouched for us and is telling the truth when he renders his judgment of us as beautiful, cherished and without blemish.
My friend Jolene was the chaplain at the prison I volunteered at and she used to tell the boys, “whatever your accuser says, don’t bother trying to defend yourself. Just agree with him. Say, ‘yes, you’re probably right.’ You don’t have to explain yourself or your actions. It could be that they are beyond justification anyways. It doesn’t matter because your justification is in Christ, not in yourself. So go ahead and agree with your accuser because Jesus has already provided all the justification you need.”
When we refuse to engage in self-justification, no matter how sorely we want to, but rely on our justification in Christ, it allows Jesus to sink a little deeper into our heart. And as Jesus sinks deeper into your heart, there is less and less room for shame. When shame is dispelled, the Kingdom which Jesus says we carry within us will be revealed and ruled over by the truth – you are beautiful, ravishing and a delight. You have nothing to be ashamed of anymore.
*I find it maddening and ironic that what we (I) really want is for our accuser to declare us innocent? But that’s not what the accuser does. The truth is that the accuser has no right to define you or label you as guilty or innocent, lovable or repulsive or any other thing. Only God has the right to say who you are. And he has already declared you innocent, lovable and fully justified. So stop waiting (, Rebecca,) for your accuser to concede your innocence. Surely the accuser’s words should not carry more weight than God’s?