Sunday, January 20, 2013

"My Righteousness"

Christians of all ages, backgrounds and social standing have often  turned together to the Psalms to find comfort and counsel that speaks to the very core of their being.  These inspired songs from the pen of David and others resonate with our souls.  If we are in trouble, we easily find a Psalm that gives expression to innermost longing: "Bow down Your ear, O Lord, hear me; for I am poor and needy (Psalm 86:1)."  When the Christian longs for solid ground amidst the shifting sands of a world sold-out to relativism, then "Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in heaven" (Psalm 119:89)  steadies our soul.  When the stain of sin burdens our heart, Psalms of repentance echo our own experience: "For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me (Psalm 51:3)."

And we could go on.  But there is one expression in the Psalms that I have sometimes struggled with.  It does not seem to fit into the channels of my own experience.  It is the phrase, repeated several times, "my righteousness."

For example:
Psalm 7:8  "The Lord shall judge the peoples; Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, And according to my integrity within me."
Psalm 18:20 "The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness; According to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me."
Psalm 18:24 "Therefore the Lord has recompensed me according to my righteousness, According to the cleanness of my hands in His sight."

Maybe it is just me.  But I think these expressions of confidence in his own righteousness are something we as Christians find uncomfortable.  And I think the discomfort arises from 3 sources:
1)  I don't feel righteous most of the time.  Unless a person belongs to a tradition that reduces "sin" to only the most egregious offenses against God's law, most of us know that our hearts are veritable cesspools of iniquity.  Therefore any expression such as "my righteousness" seems foreign and unfamiliar.
2)  Scripture tells me I am not really righteous.  It couldn't be any clearer than Paul's words to the Philippians when he writes "NOT having my own righteousness...but that which is through faith in Christ (Phil 3:9)."  Elsewhere we read that all of our righteousness is as "filthy rags." 
3)  And finally, David - the author of the Psalm quoted above - hardly seems the Bible character who should be singing about his own righteousness.  David?  The adulterer?  The murderer?  Singing about "my righteousness?"  Really?
Frankly this puzzled me.  How are we as Christians, then, to understand the expressions of the Psalmist?  How could I possibly, in good conscience, sing those words?  Of course, one tactic is to just try and imagine they really DON'T mean what they say.  We could say:  "Well, what David really means is that it is God's righteousness he is relying on.  He calls it 'my righteousness' but what he really means is God's righteousness."  But such explanations do not tend to satisfy for very long.  They lower our confidence in the very words of Scripture.  What David is saying is pretty clear.  Every translation affirms it. 
Faithfulness to the integrity of Scripture forces me to recognize this:  David is actually talking about his own righteousness.  He is speaking, albeit narrowly, about his actual commitment to obedience in pressing and trying circumstances.  He is expressing his practical living-out of God's commandments when pressures to sin abounded.  He is talking about holiness.  He is talking about going against the grain of modern life.  He is speaking of pleasing God rather than pleasing man. 
"My righteousness" seems boastful to me.  But maybe the fact that I have some struggle with this language actually exposes some weakness in my own way of thinking.
1)  Maybe I have not fully grasped the magnitude of true forgiveness.  Only a soul that knows that magnitude of forgiveness could sing of "my righteousness."  David had sinned greatly.  I have, many times, sinned greatly.  But forgiveness is even greater.  "Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound."  If I think to myself "How could David talk about 'his' righteousness - especially after the sins that stained his record?" then maybe I am not really grasping the true nature of the atonement, the cross and the forgiveness of God.  Am I carrying around in my mind a record of my own sins?  Sins which I have already repented of and the Lord has already forgiven?  Forgiveness is so good, it seems almost too good to be true.  But it is true.  The cross of Jesus Christ proclaims it is true. 
In the context of grace and forgiveness, the expression "my righteousness" is not a boast, but rather a humble acknowledgement of grace.  In fact, my very discomfort with the expression exposes an arrogance against God's gift of which I should be ashamed. 
2)  But maybe also I have not really appreciated the joy and confidence that obedience really brings.  Just because my "righteousness" will never be capable of "earning" eternal life, does not mean that practical righteousness is without conscience-comforting value in this life.  Practical obedience has practical value, not the least of which is confidence in the face of enemies or accusers.  But our prayers also may be benefited through pleas of obedience.  For example...
The struggling but obedient Christian teenager can pray "Oh Lord, I have not sacrificed my chastity, though all my friends think I'm a fool - please help me!"
The struggling but obedient young entrepreneur can pray "Oh Lord, I have not cheated or traded my integrity for a quick sale or promotion - help me!"
The struggling but obedient husband or wife can pray "Oh Lord, sinful responses to my present situation abound!  But I have not availed myself of them, though they would be easy and almost excusable.  Therefore, Oh Lord, help me in this marital struggle."
"My righteousness" thus, when considered as an expression of obedience in the midst of pressure to sin, becomes something which we CAN relate to.  The expression reminds us of the greatness of forgiveness - removing the very remembrance of sin from our minds.  The expression reminds us of the value of practical obedience, particularly in fueling our prayers.  And the expression most of all points us to Jesus Christ.  He, above all, could truly say in every situation, Behold "My righteousness."  That is the hope of our salvation.  That is the real medicine for our souls. 
As the hymnist put it so well:  "My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus blood and righteousness."

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