I’m blessed to have friends with whom I can talk about spiritual matters. Yesterday I had breakfast with one such friend, and one of our topics of conversation was righteousness. She said she no longer prays to be righteous, because she had been righteous with people close to her for many years and it only served to build a wall. Now, she prays for that ever-elusive quality of humility.
This idea struck me again when I read today’s epistle to the Hebrews about the usefulness of discipline and earthly trials. “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”
In my experience, righteousness is not a peaceful fruit.
The first righteous person I remember from my youth was an evangelical baptist girl who lived down the street. She used her righteousness to bully me into making me share and do things her way, because if I didn’t, “Then you’re not a Christian.” Fortunately I knew myself and my God well enough even at that tender age that her words rolled off like beads of water on the back of duck.
Sadly, I have also experienced the unpeacefullness of righteousness in my own attitudes and actions. I don’t need to go through the list of people I’ve cut off and cut down in the name of being right. Righteous indignation is an addictive high, and I give in to it far too often. Usually it results in me turning into a raging lunatic, not a peaceful protester.
Ask my parents. They are usually the recipients of my righteousness – not aimed at them, but vented on them. Why is it that I go to them first with my anger about the religious or political injustice of the day? Probably because I know deep down how ugly I can get, and I trust that they, of all people will love me anyway and not hold it against me when the storm passes and I go back to being my easy-going, accepting self.
At best, righteousness in myself and others tends to come off as smugness. There is nothing peaceful about smugness. Being right is often ugly.
The ironic thing is, one of the best definitions I’ve ever heard for humility is “being in right relationship with God and other people.”
What if righteousness is not about being “right” or knowing “the truth,” but about knowing who I am in relation to others, myself, and a higher power?
Who am I in relation to other people? When I have done as Paul suggests and accepted with joy the hardships of life as loving discipline rather than as an undeserved punishment, I have learned that we are all equals. I am no better or worse than anyone else, and in most cases, life is not fair in my favor. We possess equal dignity and deserve equal respect. That is one of the peaceful fruits of righteousness.
Who am I in relation to myself? This question reminds me that if I’m going to compare myself to anyone, it should only be to who I was yesterday, or a year ago, or some other past incarnation of myself. Comparing myself to anyone else is like apples and oranges. Am I growing more healthy or less heathy right now? Am I becoming more peaceful or less peaceful in my interactions with others? Can I sleep with myself at night knowing that today I’ve done my best, or do I still have lingering feelings of guilt and shame that I’m nursing? This is the only comparison I can make that is fair.
Finally, who am I in relation to God? This answer will look different for every person because every relationship with God is unique. For me, my relationship is one of Creator and created. Father and daughter. Teacher and student. Shepherd and lamb. Wind and leaf. River and fish. Vine and branches. Some of these images are biblical, some more organic, but they work to keep me centered on the most important aspect of this relationship – that I am not God.
I could be an atheist who is unconvinced that there is any evidence of God, and still be in “right relationship” with a higher power as long as I remember that I’m not God, either. Who am I in relation to the universe? Who am I in relationship to the ever-marching beat of time? Who am I in relation to the mountains of Yosemite or the depths of the Grand Canyon or the plunging waters of Niagra Falls?
When I accept hardships as a gift rather than an opportunity to feel sorry for myself, I get to relate to God, myself and others in ever more peaceful ways. I develop compassion for the suffering of others. I get to see who I am and perhaps change direction. And I begin to trust that the God who brings me to it will bring me through it.
Righteousness is not about being right at all; it’s about knowing that something greater than me is in control and is working in my favor in the big picture, even if in the short term I don’t see it. I have the choice of what attitude I take on, and that is what makes all the difference. An attitude of acceptance produces peace. An attitude of victimhood produces self-righteousness.