We heard from friends very recently about a woman (we will call her Nada) who is being severely harassed for converting from Islam to Christianity.
Many years earlier, she had heard the message of the Bible, that God loved her, and sent His Son Jesus to die for her sins and grant her the gift of salvation. She was powerfully impacted by this truth and her life was transformed. She became a Christian and was baptized. For many years she enjoyed her new life and freedom completely unhindered and without consequence.
That all was disrupted a few weeks ago when a local Islamic cleric heard about her story. He found her home and began stalking her, assailing her with physical and verbal threats and abuse. As I write this article, he is constantly insulting her, he has spit on her and has even forced entry into her home. Sadly, her story is not uncommon. It is repeated every day all over the world in many different contexts.
What caught my eye about Nada’s story is not ‘what’ is happening to her, but ‘where’ it is happening. It’s not in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, where persecution against Christians is a historical norm. It is in the United Kingdom. Nada and the cleric are both from Iran, but she has been a British citizen for many years.
To make matters worse, he not only has her in fear for her own life, but also in fear for her relatives still living in Iran. The cleric claims to have connections to the Iranian government and a very long reach back home. Nada’s family could now suffer because of her decision to follow Jesus.
So what grips this man so powerfully that the idea of one Muslim leaving the faith drives him to such hateful extremes? What fuel’s his insidious efforts to ruin her life and that of her family’s? What kind of force justifies his unflinching refusal to let her live her own life as she chooses?
We could blame the religion of Islam itself. But not every Muslim acts like this cleric does. There must be something more. I believe, ultimately, it is self-righteousness. It is the same thing that infects virtually every religious system in the world, not just Islam.
Self-righteousness, in a religious context, is the belief that we have in ourselves the ability to live up to some spiritual, religious, or ethical law that will make us ‘right’ before God. At the heart of self-righteousness is the belief that we can muscle our way into God’s graces by obeying a given set of rules and regulations. In essence it is the belief that God will be forced to admit that we are such stellar human beings that we belong in heaven.
Self-righteousness is a form of spiritual pride. “I’m good enough, holy enough, pure enough to be worthy of acceptance into God’s presence.” Again, we see it in every form of spiritual enlightenment. Christianity included.
At the center of self-righteousness we find faith in ourselves, more than faith in the God we claim to follow. When a person starts believing that they are self-righteous, it’s only a matter of time before that translates into judging others. “There’s ‘me’ and then there’s ‘you’. There’s ‘us’ and there’s ‘them’.” It’s been said that there is ‘No bigger stick to beat someone with than God’. Tragically, that is often taken all too literally. Self-righteousness in its purest form will make a person not only another person’s judge, but also their jury and executioner.
Interestingly, one of the most influential people in Christianity started out exactly like this cleric we’re talking about.
Saul of Tarsus, better known as Paul the Apostle, one of the greatest contributors to the New Testament, considered himself the embodiment of self-righteousness prior to his becoming a follower of Christ.
He writes of his life before Christ in Galatians 1:13-14 “…you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers…”
Very much like Nada’s assailant, in his effort to prove his spiritual superiority over others, Saul’s religious fervor turned toxic. He was so deluded by a sense of self-righteousness that he believed he was serving God by trampling over others he deemed less worthy.
In his hyper-zealous defense of Judaism, Saul led the persecution against the early church. His war cry against the fledgling band of Jesus followers would have been “the law of God commands us!” So convinced of his righteous cause, he even traveled far off to drag Christians away to prison and execution. Acts 22:5 says, “(Saul) went to Damascus to bring in chains even those (Christians) who were there to Jerusalem to be punished.”
A different man in a different age, but definitely the same spiritual condition.
Only years later, after a life changing encounter with the risen Christ Jesus, in 2 Corinthians 5:14, Saul, now named Paul, speaks of the new driving force behind his life and ministry. He says in beautiful simplicity, “the love of Christ compels us”.
The difference between ‘the law of God commands’ and ‘the love of Christ compels’ cannot be overstated. The Bible states that salvation cannot be earned, bought or obtained through any good works, religious or not. Salvation can only be received as a gift. A gift that Jesus paid for through His sacrificial death on the cross. The Bible says that God was willing to pay this price, not because we deserve it, but because He loves us. “The love of Christ, not the law of commandments, compels us!” Not only does this truth separate Christianity from all other religions, but it separates true Christianity from false Christianity. “The law” leads to spiritual pride and self-righteousness. “Love” leads to deep humility, where, after Jesus’ example, we put others above ourselves. It is the difference between self-righteous superiority and the self-effacing humility in Christ.
Nada’s life was transformed by faith in Christ. As yours can be! She discovered forgiveness, love, and freedom in Him. Like Paul, these things are the driving force in her life now.
Until this cleric can find this same grace for his own life, he will continue to be a slave of his own self-righteousness and pride. As you can be! But what God did for Saul so long ago, he is still doing today, and He can do for him or you.
It’s not only in the context of religion that we can succumb to the sin of self-righteousness. Pride comes in many forms. National, racial, financial, gender and more. My prayer is that you, like Paul, will “be found in Him (Christ Jesus), not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.” Philippians 3:9
By Pastor Tim Mattox
Paphos Calvary Chapel