Book Review of “Single Gay Christian”

I just finished reading Gregory Coles’ moving memoir Single Gay Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (IVP, 2017). In many ways, there is much to admire about this book. Coles is a great writer and has put together a real page-turner. This is not a boring book. Coles’ honesty and vulnerability come through in just about every page. Coles is telling his own story—warts and all—and he’s gut-wrenchingly honest about his emerging awareness of himself as a same-sex attracted man.

Coles’s story is a very human story, and just about anyone (same-sex attracted or not) can resonate with the humor and the pathos that he narrates. By the end of it, you feel like you know the man. And this is a man who embraces the Bible’s prohibitions on same-sex immorality. Because of that, he has dedicated himself to a life of celibacy out of faithfulness to Christ. As hard as it is, Coles has concluded that faithfulness to Jesus on this point is more important than pursuing a gay relationship.

So there is much that I resonate with in Coles’s story. In the end, however, I share the same concerns about the book that Rachel Gilson expressed in her review at TGC.

First, this book falls squarely within the celibate gay identity genre, in which the author rejects gay sexual behavior and gay marriage but embraces a gay identity. Coles argues that being gay is “central to my identity” (p. 37). He resists referring to himself simply as one who experiences same-sex attraction. Coles believes that describing himself as same-sex attracted might imply that the experience is merely a “phase” he is going through (p. 63). He maintains that being gay is something that defines him at the core of his being. His sexual attractions are not just how he is but who he is. Coles writes:

I began to realize that my sexual orientation was an inextricable part of the bigger story God was telling over my life. My interests, my passions, my abilities, my temperament, my calling—there was no way to sever those things completely from the gay desires and mannerisms and attitudes that had developed alongside them. For the first time in my life, I felt free to celebrate the beautiful mess I had become (p. 43).

Coles not only argues that homosexuality is core to his identity, he even suggests that it may be a part of God’s good design.

Is it too dangerous, too unorthodox, to believe that I am uniquely designed to reflect the glory of God? That my orientation, before the fall, was meant to be a gift in appreciating the beauty of my own sex as I celebrated the friendship of the opposite sex? That perhaps within God’s flawless original design there might have been eunuchs, people called to lives of holy singleness?

We in the church recoil from the word gay, from the very notion of same-sex orientation, because we know what it looks like only outside of Eden, where everything has gone wrong. But what if there’s goodness hiding within the ruins? What if the calling to gay Christian celibacy is more than just a failure of straightness? What if God dreamed it for me, wove it into the fabric of my being as he knit be together and sang life into me? (pp. 46-47)

Coles suggests that same-sex orientation may be a part of God’s original creation design and that homosexual orientation within Eden is an ideal that exceeds that which people experience outside of Eden.

I do not know how to reconcile this perspective with scripture or with the natural law. Same-sex orientation is not simply a “creational variance” (as Nicholas Wolterstorff has described it). Scripture teaches explicitly that homosexual desire and behavior are “against nature”—meaning against God’s original creation design (Rom. 1:26-27). Nor can I reconcile this perspective with what Coles says elsewhere about same-sex orientation being a “thorn in the flesh,” which suggests that same-sex orientation is not a part of God’s original design. Which is it? A thorn in the flesh or something God “dreamed” for people as a part of his original design?

The answer to this question is not clear in this book, and that omission has enormous pastoral implications in the lives of people who experience same-sex attraction. Should they embrace their attraction as a “gift” from God that is a part of his original design for them? Or should they recognize those attractions as a part of what has gone wrong in creation? Should they try to find something holy in those desires, or should they flee from them? I am concerned that readers will not find a clear answer in this book. And there can be soul-crushing consequences for answering those questions incorrectly.

Second, Coles says that the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality and same-sex marriage is not as clear as conservative Christians suggest. After studying the issue and really digging into it for himself, he concludes that the Bible does not support same-sex marriage or homosexual behavior. Nevertheless, because the Bible is less straightforward on the matter than he previously was led to believe, he ends up treating the issue as one that faithful Christians may agree to disagree about. He writes,

The Bible’s treatment of homosexuality was complicated. More complicated than the well-meaning conservative preachers and ex-gay ministers were ready to admit. But the fact that it was complicated didn’t make every interpretation equally valid. There was still a best way of reading the text, still a truth that deserved to be pursued.

And when I pursued it, I got the answer I feared, not the answer I wanted. More and more, I found myself believing the Bible’s call to me was a call to self-denial through celibacy (pp. 36-37).

Coles goes on to explain that even though he embraced a conservative stance on the issue, the Bible’s lack of clarity continued to affect his views.

I was still sympathetic to the revisionist argument that affirmed the possibility of same-sex marriage. Part of me still wanted to believe it, and I understood at the most visceral level why some sincere Christians might choose to adopt this view (p. 37).

Even though Coles disagrees with those living in homosexual relationships, he nevertheless identifies some who do as “sincere Christians.” Near the end of the book, he elaborates even further:

And yet if I’m honest, there are issues I consider more theologically straightforward than gay marriage that sincere Christians have disagreed on for centuries. Limited atonement? “Once saved always saved”? Infant baptism?… If we can’t share pews with people whose understanding of God differs from ours, we’ll spend our whole lives worshiping alone (pp. 108-109).

Coles says that he does not wish to be the judge on such matters and says that judging other people’s hearts is “none of my business” (p. 110). He adds that the issue falls under the warning of Romans 14:4: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall” (p. 110).

Coles seems to equate differences about homosexual immorality with differences that Christians have about second order doctrines. But how can homosexual immorality be treated in this way when the Bible says that those who commit such deeds do not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-11)? In scripture, sexual immorality is not compatible with following Christ (Eph. 5:5-6). How then can “sincere Christians” engage in such activity and still be considered followers of Christ? Coles does not seriously engage this question. He simply says that “sincere Christians” may come to different conclusions.

So much of the evangelical conversation on these issues has been colonized by secular identity theories. Those theories are premised on an unbiblical anthropology which defines human identity as “what I feel myself to be” rather than “what God designed me to be.” If there is to be a recovery and renewal of Christian conscience on sexuality issues, secular identity theories must give way to God’s design as revealed in nature and scripture. Gay identity proposals, in my view, are not bringing us any closer to that renewal.

I really enjoyed getting to know Coles’s story. I can’t help but admire his continuing commitment to celibacy and traditional marriage. I want to cheer him on in that and say “amen.” Still, I am concerned that the celibate gay identity perspective he represents is not biblically faithful or pastorally helpful. And the issue is important enough to flag in a review like this one. Evangelicals need to think their way through to biblical clarity on sexuality and gender issues, but the celibate gay identity view is muddying the waters.

Archbishop of Canterbury on Homosexuality: “I can’t give a straight answer”

GQ published a short interview with Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby last week. In it, Alastair Campbell asks Welby a series of pointed questions about the morality of gay sexual activity. Welby’s response is astonishing.

I am not surprised that Welby fails to defend what the Bible teaches about sexuality. I am surprised that he is so honest as to why he won’t give a straight answer. Welby admits that his obfuscation is essentially political. Here’s an excerpt:

Alastair Campbell: Is gay sex sinful?

Justin Welby: Do you know, we have done religion, we have done politics, why am I surprised we are on to gay sex?

Because I feel sorry for Tim Farron, who kept being asked this question, so I am asking you.

You know very well that is a question I can’t give a straight answer to. Sorry, badly phrased there. I should have thought that one through. [Pause, mildly embarrassed.]

Why can’t you?

Because I don’t do blanket condemnation and I haven’t got a good answer to the question. I’ll be really honest about that. I know I haven’t got a good answer to the question. Inherently, within myself, the things that seem to me to be absolutely central are around faithfulness, stability of relationships and loving relationships.

But that could be a man and a man or a woman and a woman?

I know it could be. I am also aware – a view deeply held by tradition since long before Christianity, within the Jewish tradition – that marriage is understood invariably as being between a man and a woman. Or, in various times, a man and several women, if you go back to the Old Testament. I know that the Church around the world is deeply divided on this in some places, including the Anglicans and other Churches, not just us, and we are – the vast majority of the Church is – deeply against gay sex.

So this is where you are having to be a politician.

Yes. I am having to struggle to be faithful to the tradition, faithful to the scripture, to understand what the call and will of God is in the 21st century and to respond appropriately with an answer for all people – not condemning them, whether I agree with them or not – that covers both sides of the argument. And I haven’t got a good answer, and I am not doing that bit of work as well as I would like.

But is that because the politics are so hard, you have these Ugandan bishops and the liberals who believe something very different and you have to try to reconcile them?

It is irreconcilable.

So is homophobic hatred sinful?

Yes. Because you are hating individuals. I don’t think it is sinful to say that you disagree with gay sex. But to express that by way of hatred for people is absolutely wrong in the same way as misogyny or racism is wrong.

Is that not morally a cop out?

Yes. I am copping out because I am struggling with the issue.

These statements from Welby are so morally confused. One thing, however, is very clear. Welby is unwilling to defend the teaching of scripture and of the 2,000-year consensus of the Christian church. Instead, he feels it his duty as the archbishop to cover “both sides of the argument” and offend no one—to tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim. 2:3).

How far this is from the New Testament’s vision of pastoral leadership. That vision involves integrity of conviction and the willingness to contend for the truth in the face of opposition.

Titus 1:9 “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”

2 Timothy 2:24-26 “And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”

These are basic pastoral duties, but they are altogether missing in Welby’s response. Any pastor unwilling to take up these duties is not qualified for the office they hold, and it is great tragedy when they do hold it.

Getting downwind of ourselves

A wise preacher once said that it is good to get downwind of yourself whenever you can. Sometimes we don’t smell our own B.O. when everyone around us wishes that we would.

It’s an odiferous metaphor for the way our lives sometimes unfold. Sometimes our self-perceptions do not match the perceptions that others have of us. And even if other people’s perceptions are wrong, we do well to understand what their perceptions are. Sometimes they are right.

I thought about that as I read the Texas Monthly profile of Jen Hatmaker. If anything, the article helps evangelicals to get downwind of themselves—to see where self-perception may not match the perception of the world around us. Those differing perceptions offer insight into what the definition of “evangelical” even might be.

The article has some sage observations from Ray Ortlund to that end. Here is an excerpt:

But after the 2016 presidential election, evangelicalism is once again facing a crisis of faith. Similar to the fundamentalist movement, evangelicalism has taken on a political tone, sometimes being used in the same sentence as “alt-right.” But are people who identify as evangelicals truly guilty of being what mainstream culture deems as racist, sexist, homophobic—or has the term been hijacked?

“The word evangelical can be stolen and taken unfair advantage of,” said Ray C. Ortlund Jr. in a speech on the history of the movement at a conference hosted by The Gospel Coalition. Partly, the label is easy to misconstrue because of the relative freedom of the word. Descriptively, its definition can point to its history, its stereotypes, its perception in this culture. The prescriptive piece is what is often missed. Because to be evangelical is not to be white, or a Republican, or conservative, or to even wear the label of Christian. The label cuts to the very core of a person’s beliefs, the heart of their personal theology.

There are so many of us who wish evangelical could remain a description of the theological convictions of conservative Protestants. But that is not how the term is perceived by the watching world. And those of us who wish to retrieve the theological heritage of the term would do well to remember that.

Should intersex infants be subject to “corrective” surgeries?

The Washington Post has published a long-form piece featuring a number of heart-rending stories about intersex persons. For those unfamiliar with intersex, it is term used to describe a variety of conditions which involve some physical disorder of sex development.

The Post article focuses on the debate about “corrective” surgeries for intersex infants. An older protocol pioneered by John Money favors such surgeries. Intersex activists are against them.

The thing that comes out so very clearly in the article is the emotional turmoil and uncertainty often suffered by intersex persons—especially those who underwent surgeries as infants that permanently impaired them in some way.

Our thinking about the intersex experience is ultimately a theological question. What the Bible teaches about our special creation as male and female, about the Fall, and about the new creation all figure into how Christians think about these things. Articles 5 and 6 in The Nashville Statement offer some guidance:

Article 5
WE AFFIRM that the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female.
WE DENY that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.

Article 6
WE AFFIRM that those born with a physical disorder of sex development are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers. They are acknowledged by our Lord Jesus in his words about “eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.” With all others they are welcome as faithful followers of Jesus Christ and should embrace their biological sex insofar as it may be known.
WE DENY that ambiguities related to a person’s biological sex render one incapable of living a fruitful life in joyful obedience to Christ.

LGBT activists will often point to intersex conditions as evidence to disprove the male/female norm of scripture (Gen. 1:26-27; Matt. 19:4), and Article 5 rebuts that argument. Article 6, however, focuses on the fact that no disorder of sex development diminishes the dignity and worth of any person. All are special creations of God and are his image-bearers. Jesus knows them, loves them, and invites them to follow him.

But what about the surgeries that are the focus of The Washington Post piece? Although the issue is complicated, I agree with those who lean against such surgical interventions. I have a long section in my sexual ethics book about intersex. Here is an excerpt of my conclusions:

The phenomenon of intersex should call forth our compassion and our love for our neighbors who carry in their persons a painful reminder of the groaning creation. It should not call forth from us a revision of the binary ideal of Scripture…

How should parents deal with a child born with an intersex condition? There is no once-size-fits-all strategy, given the complexity of the possible conditions. Nevertheless, here are some guiding principles I would suggest for parents caring for a child with this condition. The first set of principles I would recommend are more theologically oriented. First, everyone needs know what the creation ideal of Scripture is. According to Genesis 1-2, man’s unfallen state is a clearly gendered state, and this is the norm. Second, the entrance of sin into the world and God’s subsequent curse means that all kinds of physical difficulties afflict the human condition. Disorders of sex development would be included in that. Third, the gospel of Jesus Christ not only frees from the penalty and power of sin in the present, it also promises eternal life in the future. That life involves the resurrection of our physical bodies. It means a renewal and restoration of what was lost in the Garden of Eden. In the resurrection, all disorders of sex development will be swept away, and intersex people will be healed and made whole. That hope of restoration should be held out to the child throughout his life even if some ambiguities about his condition remain unresolved.

Here are some principles I would suggest with respect to medical treatments. First, parents should be extremely reluctant about—if not altogether against—corrective surgery when the child is an infant. This is especially the case when the surgery would involve the modification of the child’s genitals or reproductive organs. Perhaps surgical procedures would be in order at some point during the child’s life, but do not rush a child into surgery simply out of a desire to make the child “normal.” Second, try to determine as soon as possible the chromosomal make-up of the child. If there is a Y chromosome present, that would strongly militate against raising the child as a female, regardless of the appearance of the genitals and other secondary sex characteristics. It would also suggest that medical treatments designed to make the child into a female are out of line. Third, understand that not all doctors and medical professionals share your biblical convictions. Worldviews affect the treatment of intersex conditions. Some doctors may view gender as a social construct and therefore would not let biological markers (such as a Y chromosome) determine the child’s gender. Fourth, parents need to take an active role in understanding the condition and pursuing treatment options in keeping with their biblical convictions.

What Is the Meaning of Sex?, pp. 180-82

If you are an intersex person and feel estranged from your own body, you need not feel estranged from Jesus. Jesus loves intersex persons. He knows what it is like for a person to suffer for no fault of his own. And he offers you hope and life. His powerful death and resurrection address not only your condition but the human condition and provides forgiveness and reconciliation to every sinner who receives Christ by faith. This message brings with it a promise of the renewal of all things in the age to come, which means that all of our broken bodies will one day be what God intended them to be. He knows every one of your tears and offers to wipe away every last one of them (Rev. 21:4). If you have felt your body to be a barrier to life and joy, it is no barrier to Jesus and to real life and real joy. They can be yours because of him.

Alastair Roberts: “Hugh Hefner, the Logic of Porn, and the Homosexualization of Sex”

Alastair Roberts has written long form piece about an article that Christianity Today reprinted some years ago. The original article included some countercultural salvos against pornography. Roberts says that the CT version seems to have downplayed those details:

The striking thing about the CT version is the way in which it reworks the original article in a way that removes much of the bite of Prof. Schuchardt’s thesis on two fronts: carefully downplaying his masculinization of women and feminization of men claims and also his claims about the homosexual character of the culture of porn. Both claims make some appearance in the CT article, but in a form that are radically weakened from their form in the original piece.

Yet Schuchardt’s original thesis, though overstated at points, is an important one. Our society, in whose construction Hefner has played no small part, depends upon the feminization of men, the masculinization of women, and the homosexualization of their approach to sex. Such assertions violate all of our culture’s sensitivities, but they are important.

The rest of Roberts’ article is a must-read because he defends the thesis that our culture’s fixation on pornography relies upon the “feminization of men, the masculinization of women, and the homosexualization of their approach to sex.” In the conclusion, Roberts writes:

Speaking forthrightly about these issues jeopardizes the respectability that Christians so covet. It will even provoke outrage from a great many modern Christians, who have a great deal invested in the neutralization of sexual difference and pretending that men and women are largely interchangeable in the family, in the church, in society, in politics, and in the economy. It will deeply offend those whose extreme concern not to say anything remotely insensitive about homosexual persons prevents them from speaking forthrightly about the intrinsically disordered and destructive character of the acts they are drawn to. It will anger people who have made their peace with the extremely elevated levels of porn’s background radiation within our society and within their own lives and will rationalize or excuse the effects that it is having upon us.

However, our desire for respectability and the approval of men shouldn’t lead us to defang the teeth of truths that will pierce our thin skins. The issues Prof. Schuchardt’s original article highlight are very real and are effecting us all. We must speak candidly about them and address them unflinchingly both in our own lives and within the society at large.

Read the rest of this very insightful article here.

Kenwood Music: “Hope of Every Promise”

Kenwood Music is a ministry of the church where I serve as associate pastor. Under the direction of Matt Damico, they have just released a new album titled Hope of Every Promise. Matt Damico wrote the words and music for most of the songs on the album with one credit going to singer Bethany Breland.

This really is an outstanding set of worship songs Matt has put together, and I highly recommend it to you. You can watch and listen to the lyric video for the song “Good to Know the Father” above. But even better than that, you can buy and download the entire album from iTunes, Amazon, or Bandcamp.

Jimmy Scroggins: “Jesus Is the Multiplier”

Yesterday was unusual for me in Southern Seminary’s chapel. I sat in my seat on the verge of tears for nearly the entire sermon. The preached word is always powerful and transforming in ways that we do not always detect. But sometimes the Lord lands in special power in ways that we can quite clearly detect. That is how Jimmy Scroggins’s message landed on me yesterday.

The message is titled “Jesus Is the Multiplier,” and the text is the feeding of the five thousand in Mark 6:30-44. There are four simple points: (1) Start where you are, (2) Use what you have, (3) Do what you can, and (3) Trust Jesus as the multiplier.

I think it is worth your time to give a listen. You can watch it above, listen below, or download here.

Steve Scalise returns to the House of Representatives for the first time since being gunned down

On June 14, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana was gunned downed during a practice for a charity baseball game. Scalise’s security detail was able to take down the shooter and thereby to save the lives of many other congressmen.

Scalise nearly died as a result of his wounds, and his life hung in the balance through many subsequent surgeries. Today he returned to the House of Representatives for the first time since the shooting. He delivered an emotional speech that is worth your time to watch from start to finish. See above.

Is it okay for a Christian to affirm polyamory?

Earlier this week, a Patheos blogger ran an interview titled “Southern Baptist Preacher Affirms Polyamory.” The title actually turns out to be a misnomer. The “preacher” in question is not in fact a Southern Baptist, although his bio says that he was ordained in a Southern Baptist Church ten years ago. Whatever his background, he has fallen a long way from anything Southern Baptist and is not now the pastor of a Southern Baptist Church. Indeed, the article reveals that he has fallen away from the faith altogether and is in no sense even recognizably Christian. For the article to call him a Southern Baptist, therefore, is at best misleading.

But Hood does illustrate what is happening right now among many “Christians” in our culture. There is an attempt by false teachers to revise and repress what scripture teaches about male, female, sex, and marriage. And in doing so, they are attempting to revise and repress the nature of Christianity itself. This is not a renewal of the faith but a declaration of war upon it.

Advocating for polyamory may seem outlandish now, but Christians have to ask themselves why? Bible-believing Christians have an answer to that question ready at hand. The Bible’s clear teaching and the entire 2,000-year tradition of the church has spoken with one voice against such immoral relationships.

But on what basis would so-called “affirming Christians” preclude such immorality? Because they have already rejected God’s revelation about homosexual immorality, they really have no basis for opposition to polyamorous immorality. Indeed, they have no basis for raising moral objections to any sexual relationship between consenting adults. The logical endpoint of their revisions is not Christian integrity but sexual anarchy.

That is why it is so astonishing that some self-identified evangelicals are beginning to give a hearing to such subversive revisions to the Christian faith. In the name of tolerance and of acceptance, they are redefining love as unconditional affirmation of whatever someone wants to do with their bodies sexually. Such revisionists may call themselves Christian, but they are Christian in name only (Titus 1:16).

One of the most important features of The Nashville Statement is the clarity it provides concerning the definition of marriage and sexual purity. And that clarity begins in the first two articles:

Article 1
WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church.
WE DENY that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.

Article 2
WE AFFIRM that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.
WE DENY that any affections, desires, or commitments ever justify sexual intercourse before or outside marriage; nor do they justify any form of sexual immorality.

These articles reflect the biblical truth that marriage is not a choose-your-own-adventure story. God designed marriage as a part of his original good creation, and he explicitly designed it to be covenantal (Mal. 2:14), sexual (Gen. 2:24), procreative (Gen. 1:28), lifelong (Matt. 19:6) union of a man and a woman. And God has designed this relationship to be an icon of the gospel itself (Eph. 5:32). No sexual relationship outside of that covenant—homosexual, heterosexual, or otherwise—can ever be pleasing or honoring to God. Such relationships are in fact “an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness” (The Nashville Statement, Article X).

Since the release of The Nashville Statement, I have heard reports about how pastors and church leaders are using the statement to teach their people. One of the ways is simply to read through the articles with the congregation, explain them, and show how the articles reflect the truth of scripture (there are now scripture references posted on The Nashville Statement website). This is the kind of basic discipleship that is so sorely needed today when it comes to the Bible’s teaching about sexuality and gender. And it is exactly the need that the statement was designed to meet.

Our day calls for clarity on these matters because there is so much confusion around us—even among those who claim the name “Christian.” That only makes the task more urgent for authentic disciples of Jesus to bear witness to the truth:

We believe that God’s design for his creation and his way of salvation serve to bring him the greatest glory and bring us the greatest good. God’s good plan provides us with the greatest freedom. Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it in overflowing measure. He is for us and not against us (The Nashville Statement, Preamble).

To deny this truth is to deny Christianity altogether. To deny these truths is to lead people away from Jesus and not to him. There is so much at stake—more than the polyamory-affirming false teachers would have you believe.

What if you’re not as awesome as you think you are?

Proverbs 16:2 is simple and uncomplicated, yet it says something profound about the human condition.

All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight,
But the LORD weighs the motives.

The “ways of a man” refers to the way that a person leads his life. The “man” in the proverb shows very little concern about the moral character of his life. When it comes to decisions or relationships or work, this kind of person tends to hold himself in high esteem. He views himself as “clean” in his own sight—which means that he thinks he is doing just fine.

Perhaps a man is angry and harsh to his wife, yet he doesn’t see it that way. He thinks he’s justified in the way he treats his wife. He’s “clean” in his own sight. Perhaps a woman regularly cuts corners at work and undermines her fellow workers, yet she doesn’t see it that way. Her own self-estimation is that she is popular and loved among her co-workers. She doesn’t know how people really feel about her because she is “clean” in her own sight. Perhaps a man is emotionally absent from his children, yet he doesn’t see it that way. He’s unaware that they are slipping away from him because he’s “clean” in his own sight.

This proverb indicates that we are by nature prone to excuse our own shortcomings, to overlook them, or even to justify them. The result is that we walk around with a self-regard that often exceeds reality. This is a special danger in our current cultural context where self-esteem is presented as the end-all-be-all of human virtue. The therapeutic worldview encourages us to think of ourselves more highly than we ought. And yet here is a proverb that is telling us the opposite.

Why does this proverb tell us to be so skeptical about ourselves? Because God is the One who “weighs the motives.” Literally, the text says that God is the one who “examines” our “spirits.” God knows me better than I know myself. I may have an inflated view of my own achievement and success at life, but God can see what I either cannot or will not see about myself. There is often a gap between the reality that God sees and the illusions that I sustain in thinking about myself.

All of this teaches us at least three things:

(1) An untroubled conscience might say less about our real character than it does about our lack of self-awareness. Paul said it this way: “I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord” (1 Cor. 4:4). Paul understands that his clean conscience doesn’t make him innocent of evil doing. It’s possible to feel innocent while not actually being innocent. This is the point that we must press upon our own hearts. God is our judge. We don’t judge ourselves.

(2) We need to be suspicious of ourselves. That is why the proverb warns, “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool” (Proverbs 28:26). We need to realize that we have a tendency to view our foibles through rose-colored goggles. We tend to view things that way because we are sinners by nature, and self-regard comes rather natural to us. That is why we need to be attuned to our hearts enough to know when pride is swelling. “A man’s pride will bring him low, But a humble spirit will obtain honor” (Proverbs 29:23).

(3) We need to see ourselves as God sees us. God knows that we are but dust and that sometimes our self-knowledge falters. Nevertheless, God gives us Proverbs like this one to encourage us to view ourselves in the full light of God’s revelation. The more grand our vision of God is the more humble our estimation of ourselves will be. There is a joy and a humility that only comes from the self-forgetfulness of worship. Self-loathing is not the antidote to pride, but God-exaltation is.

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