“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me - put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:8-9).
Righteousness is our commodity. It is what we buy and sell. It is what determines value. It is what we use to build our personal portfolio. It is how we judge one another. It is how we determine who is worthy and who is not. We trade in righteousness.
It has always been this way. We humans have always attempted to make ourselves valuable, to justify our actions as pure and right before God and before the world. But I wonder if, in our current context, our righteousness is on steroids. We are tripping over ourselves to be more righteous than the next person. In days long gone the righteous ones were those who died for the faith, the martyrs. Soon it changed to the spiritual Ubermensch who disassociated themselves with the dirty reality of day-to-day life. They went away to pray and to think and then to pray some more. Or how about the sexually pure, especially the life-long celibate? Then came the crusaders: the crusaders of Holy Lands or the crusaders of temperance. But even many of those long-ago movements of righteousness pale to the righteous indignation of today.
I wonder, maybe, just maybe, if a part of our problem is our wealth. Now some of you do not have this problem because you truly come from places of poverty. And getting to the next financial rung is where you are tempted to ground your value. More success equals more money, which means I am a good and valuable person. But don’t be tricked into that way of thinking. It’s just not true.
But for the vast majority of us living in developed countries, who have everything we need and almost everything we want, we have trouble judging value. Who is better, and who is worse? We are all rich and successful to some degree, so how can we judge? Righteousness becomes the litmus test. And not even righteous acts. We are too busy for that. We are so busy being righteous that we don’t have time to perform righteous acts. So righteous thoughts and righteous words and righteous opinions and righteous social media posts are perhaps our most valuable commodities. A righteous commodity we use to build up our portfolios and to judge others. We judge the “others” because they have not said the right thing, in the right way, with the right moral superiority.
When there is nothing more to trade, no more commodity to buy and sell so that we can know who is better than who, we have nothing left but our righteous thoughts. But this righteousness is fake, and we all know it. It is not excellent, it is not admirable, and it is certainly not worthy of praise. And the tragedy upon tragedy is that those who have been truly victimized suffer twice the humility. First, they are abused, and second, then they are used as pawns in a game of one-up-manship between those who want to “out-righteous” the next person.
For what is supposed to be given by Christ through us for neighbor is used up by us, twisted for our righteous gain
But tragedy, upon tragedy, upon tragedy, is that there is no response of love and forgiveness. And without forgiveness and love, I am afraid there is no freedom and only fear. We are left to always look over our shoulders at the next person’s righteousness to see how we fare. We are too busy worrying about how righteous our indignation is at the world instead of truly getting lost in love of the world. And it is our neighbors who suffer. For what is supposed to be given by Christ through us for neighbor is used up by us, twisted for our righteous gain. And what a sad life that is.
But I hope that you and I can be different. It’s not because of our purity (as if that were ever the case), but rather that we are free, free from the debilitating burden of making ourselves worthy before God or before the world. This is found in Christ. He is the only one with true righteousness. He is the only one loving and gracious enough to give that righteousness away instead of hoarding this commodity for himself, so he can say, “Look at me, how much better I am than you.” This gift of righteousness covers your sins, even the self-righteous ones. And now you are free.
You are free to think about such things. You are free to think about excellent things and admirable things and praiseworthy things. It is more than a job for which you search. It is more than standing for which you strive. It is more than money for which you suffer.
But here is the most excellent, the most admirable, and the most praiseworthy: the love of Christ. Specifically at the cross. This is it. This wipes away all our tragic attempts at righteousness and transforms us into people of love, still sinners, but also at the very same time, lovers of the world.