taking the words of Jesus seriously

There have been a number of photos circulating the Internet in which people hold posters that say why they are or are not part of “the 99%” represented by the Occupy Wall Street movement. The pro-99% posters typically sound something like this: “I’m a single mom with five kids who works 80 hours a week and pays $20, 000 a year for childcare. I am the 99%.” The anti-99% posters typically sound like: “I worked five jobs to pay my way through college and now I’m going to graduate debt-free. I would not blame the government or Wall Street for my own bad decisions (if I had made any). I am NOT the 99%.”

I would say that each type of poster expresses in a different way being part of the 99% of human beings who don’t get God’s grace, at least not how it’s described in Eph. 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

The 1% of people who understand God’s grace to be the foundation of their being live in the incredible freedom of not needing to justify themselves before others and twist the stories of their lives into arguments for why they should get to tell other people off.

There are two primary forms of self-justification at play in the debate between the pro-and-anti-99% posters. One side justifies themselves by talking about how hard they work (which means that other people who aren’t as hard-working should stop whining). The other side justifies themselves by talking about how hard their lives has been or how well they sympathize with people who have hard lives (which means that people who lack sympathy should recognize their moral inferiority). Both forms of self-justification cause us to be presumptuous, judgmental people who either call all rich people greedy or all poor people lazy, when in fact there are many generous rich people and many hard-working poor people, and there are even people who choose to live in poverty because they want to grow closer to God as well as people who make lots of money in order to do lots of good with it in the world. Self-justification is the basis for most hatred in our society, particularly between those who see themselves as “responsible” and those who see themselves as “oppressed” or “sympathetic” with the oppressed.

Jesus died on the cross to save us from self-justification, because it keeps us eternally separated from God. As long as we see our lives as supporting arguments for why we deserve respect, salvation, wealth, etc, we are going to be incapable of receiving the grace that God only gives us as a gift and never as a reward. In fact, God has given us all the character traits about ourselves that we use to justify ourselves — our work ethic, our organizational skills, our humility, our courage, our compassion, our integrity. They are His gifts that we scorn when we turn them into our basis for looking down on others. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4:7 need to be tattooed to the inside of our corneas: What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

How about we stop trying to prove how “responsible” or “sympathetic” we are in order to have the self-satisfaction of judging others? Instead, let’s be grateful for all that God has given us and use it as responsibly as we can, so that we can be extravagantly generous in how we share it with other people. Then maybe we’ll get to be part of the 1% who actually experience the joy of living under God’s grace, which is a joy I hope to experience one day when I’m finally free of my poisonous self-justification.

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Morgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Virginia, and a Christian who continues to seek God’s liberation from the prison of self-justification Jesus died to help him overcome. Morgan’s blog “Mercy Not Sacrifice” is located at http://morganguyton.wordpress.com.

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About The Author

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Morgan Guyton is a United Methodist elder and campus minister who leads the NOLA Wesley Foundation at Tulane and Loyola in New Orleans, Louisiana with his wife Cheryl. He released his first book in April, 2016: How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes To Toxic Christianity. He blogs at www.patheos.com/blogs/mercynotsacrifice and has contributed articles to the Huffington Post, Red Letter Christians, Think Christian, Ministry Matters, the United Methodist Reporter, and other publications.

Morgan grew up in a moderate Baptist family in the aftermath of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. His mother’s people are watermelon farmers from south Texas while his father’s people are doctors from Mississippi, which left Morgan with a mix of redneck and scientific sensibilities.

Morgan’s greatest influence as a pastor was his grandpa, a Southern Baptist deacon who sometimes told dirty jokes to evangelize his grandson. From his grandpa, Morgan learned the value of irreverence as a pastoral tactic and the way that true holiness is authenticity.

Morgan used to have a rock band called the Junior Varsity Superheroes, but after becoming a father, he turned to electronic dance music, which he performs every summer at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes to throw basement dance parties with his sons Matthew and Isaiah.

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