The Subtlety of Self-Justification

The Subtlety of Self-Justification

by Leslie Ludy | February 1, 2015

Many years ago, a close friend challenged me about a particular movie that I liked and had recommended to others.  Her words of correction were appropriate and respectful, and she had a position to speak into my life, but I found myself inwardly bristling in self-defense as she spoke.  On the outside, I smiled and nodded along as she talked, and even humbly thanked her for sharing her concerns.  But on the inside, I was anything but gracious.

“Who does she think she is?” I fumed as I walked away from the conversation. “She has no right impose her own personal convictions on me!  She’s just being a self-righteous goodie-goodie!”

Looking back, I’m ashamed to remember the uncharitable thoughts that I harbored against my friend.  Instead of being humble and open to correction, I immediately attempted to justify my position by lashing out at the person who had spoken Truth into my life.  After all, if I could discredit the messenger, I wouldn’t need to heed the message of conviction she brought.  As I drove home, I mentally made a list of all the reasons I shouldn’t bother listening to her.  By the time I finished my inner diatribe, I had labeled my friend an uptight, holier-than-thou legalist whose narrow-minded opinion should be thrown out with yesterday’s garbage.

How convenient!  Now that I had settled the fact that my friend’s concerns were worthless, I could go along my merry way and not have to change a thing.  What a relief.

From that point on, I had no question in my mind that my friend was totally off-track in her thinking, and even in her walk with God.  I actually began to feel sorry for her, truly believing that she was in bondage to legalism and self-righteousness.  Whenever I remembered her gentle correction, I would shake my head sadly and pray for her, asking God to open her eyes to how ridiculous and “extreme” her concerns were.  The more I focused on all the things that were wrong with her, the more I could justify the compromise I was allowing into
my life.

But about a year later, God did a major work in my life, and my entire perspective changed.  As the Spirit of God purified my soul and purged my life of sin and compromise, one of the biggest areas He challenged me in was my participation in ungodly movies. I’d been allowing dark and worldly messages into my heart and mind under the banner of “entertainment.”

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My friend had been right—the movie she’d challenged me about was not pleasing to God, and it wasn’t fitting for a daughter of the King to watch, let alone share with others.  Suddenly I realized that the way I’d painted up my friend was completely wrong.  She wasn’t a holier-than-thou legalist.  She was a loving sister-in-Christ who simply wanted to point me to Jesus.  She was a tool that God had wanted to use to bring gentle correction to my soul.  But sadly, I had taken the bait of self-justification instead.  I was so interested in defending my choices and not having to change that I had been lying to myself in order to avoid conviction.  Thankfully God got my attention and brought me to a place of true repentance—not only in the area of ungodly movies, but in allowing the sin of self-justification to creep into my heart and mind.

Self-justification is one of the sneakiest and most subtle forms of deceit that the enemy uses in the lives of Christians.  When we are not open and eager for the Spirit of God to correct and refine us, we spend a huge amount of time and mental energy trying to convince ourselves that we are just fine the way we are.  When a fellow Christian challenges us with Truth, it either hurts our pride or touches on an area of compromise in our life that we are unwilling to give up.  And the only way to avoid admitting that we are in the wrong is to lash out at that person and try to discredit them.  If the enemy can get us obsessed with the messenger’s faults and flaws (whether real or imagined), he can distract us from responding to the Spirit of God’s gentle tug of correction upon our soul.  When we are blinded by self-justification, we often believe that we are seeing clearly to remove the speck in someone else’s eye, when in reality we have a huge plank in ours the entire time.

I remember once meeting a young lady who had been a huge fan of one of my books on purity.  She promoted the book to all of her friends, and highlighted all of the sections that had personally impacted her.  But then she fell into sexual sin, and suddenly she began to despise the book.  Instead of eagerly sharing it with her friends, she criticized and mocked the book’s message of purity.  She even went through the book and made notes in the margins, listing all the reasons she disagreed with the book’s message.  A few years later, when God convicted her of the sexual compromise in her life, she repented and began living in purity once more.  Ironically, my book became one of her favorites again!  But while she was enslaved to sin, self-justification had caused her to become obsessed with discrediting the message of purity.

The Pharisees were professional self-justifiers.  They were so busy proving to themselves and to everyone else that they were just fine the way they were that they completely missed the message of repentance and freedom Christ came to bring.  It was a message that could have set them free.  But instead, self-justification blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, and they remained dead in their sins.  Self-justification drove them mad with hatred toward Christ, and eventually led to them killing the One who died to save them.  As the Pharisees’ example proves, self-justification is not something to mess with or take lightly!

So can we avoid letting this insidious sin creep into our lives?  The key is remaining open and correctable to God’s Spirit at all times.  How?  By desiring Him above all else.  When we truly love our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, then we will actually welcome correction and conviction, because we know that it will bring us closer to Him.  On the flip side, when we have idolatry in our life, we often spurn correction and conviction, because our sin is more important to us than being right with God.

When you hear a message of that brings conviction to your soul—even if it stings a bit—don’t immediately try to justify yourself or start criticizing the person who is speaking Truth into your life.  Rather, come before God with a humble spirit, and ask Him to gently refine and correct you, and make you more like Him.  Be willing to admit you are wrong, repent, and walk the other direction.  Remember, God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (see James 4:6)!

What About Ungodly Correction?

Of course, there may be times when someone attempts to challenge you in an ungodly, un-Christ-like way—speaking lies or false accusation under the banner of “Truth.”  (Eric and I have experienced this all too many times in our role as Christian leaders.)  Should we receive this kind of correction with an open, humble spirit?  No.  

James 3:17 reminds us that wisdom that is truly from above has specific characteristics.  Namely, it must be, “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.”  

On the other hand, someone who brings a message of “Truth” in a spirit of harsh anger, envy, strife, discord, hatred, or bitterness is not truly bringing a message from the Spirit of God.  As James 3:13-16 points out, “Who is wise and understanding among you?  Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.  But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth.  This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic.”

I’ll never forget the time when a trusted Christian pastor brought a “correction” to Eric.  For ten minutes, this man screamed obscenities and horrible accusations at Eric.  He was nearly wild with rage and anger.  Though he claimed to be speaking Truth that he’d received from God, he was profane and hate-filled with every word he spoke.