Shaking the habit of self-righteousness for true happiness

If you’re happy and you know it…but nobody else can tell!

Despite being married to a man who laughs every day, I’m a pretty serious somebody. Side-splitting laughter seldom shakes my frame (unless my sister’s at hand). Nor does the face brightening kind for that matter. If you’ve been reading my ‘columns’ here for long, this comes as no surprise to you. Reserve, caution, and persistent introspection seem to keep a lid on hilarity for me. Smiling is something of a discipline, not because there’s nothing to smile about, but because I’m pre-occupied with other (serious!) things.

So today I’m thinking on things that are happy!

In Hebrew, that’s ‘esher’, related to ‘ashar’ to ‘go straight, set right, be made happy or blessed’. It’s where the unusual name, Asher, which is incidentally my father’s middle name, comes from. Leah was happy at Asher’s birth and he was tagged! There’s not a lot said about laughter in the Bible but there’s a lot of happiness. It’s a cousin to truth and righeousness in a way. Just look at all the conditions pronounced ‘happy’…

—Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD, The shield of your help And the sword of your majesty! Your enemies shall submit to you, And you shall tread down their high places.” Deut.33:29

ESHER is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. Ps.1:1

ESHER is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Ps.32:1

ESHER is the nation whose God is the LORD; and the people whom he has chosen for his own inheritance. Ps.33:12

—Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! ESHER is the man who takes refuge in him! Ps.34:8

ESHER are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of your face, who exult in your name all the day and in your righteousness are exalted. Ps.89:15,16

Now, stop there. Happy are the people who walk in the light of God’s face—is God smiling? Who exult in His name and are exalted in His righteousness. Now there’s a condition quite the opposite of working out one’s own code of acceptable conduct, which takes unrelenting diligence and yes, self-preoccupation. But as His children part of our birthright is to be clothed in His robes of righteousness. We are set free from the pre-occupation of how we’re looking…

Hmm… this is something I know a little about, this urge to get sewing my own robes and forget that I’m already decked out in the finest apparel. It’s called ‘rule-keeping’. I saw an apt description of such a lifestyle this week. Pretty much the anti-thesis to happiness!

“…at the core of “rule-based living” there is a defining of who you are and your worth as a person and the level of “safety” you feel about life by how well you’ve followed the system of rules you’ve adopted from your upbringing and culture. In this way of life, the rules become measuring sticks for your personhood and in many ways your identity is defined by rules—not only the rules you keep, but also the rules about the way you keep the rules.

So the rules become a double handicap—you’re limited and handicapped when you keep them and you’re emotionally tormented whether you keep them or not, since the very presence of the rules means you aren’t good enough or loveable enough just as you are.

The rules also are used as measuring sticks for other people and create either a continual judgement of those who have violated our rules (“You’re bad because you don’t live up to my expectations for you!”) or a continual “comparison mentality” that fosters competition with others (“I’m better than you because I follow the rules better than you do!”) “*

Whew! not much room for side-splitting laughter there, or even a smile!

Paul describes such self-righteous rule-keepers this way: “being ignorant of the Righteousness of God and seeking to establish their own, they did no submit to God’s Righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law of Righteousness to everyone who believes.” Rom.10:3,4

It’s one thing to welcome Jesus into my life to help me sort through my baggage and make my load a little lighter, and yes, to help me be good… better… best. (??!) It’s another to invite Him to be my righteousness. This entails the ‘offense of the Cross’ (Gal.5:11) acknowledging that all my attempts at righteousness apart from the activity of His Spirit are ‘filthy rags’ Is.64:6. But it’s only in living in the self-forgetful freedom of this kind of righteousness that I can be truly happy. An author I sampled this week brings out this distinction:

Nobody will raise a fuss if you find Jesus helpful for your personal well-being and relationships, or even if you think he was the greatest person in history—a model worthy of devotion and emulation. But start talking about the real crisis—where our best efforts are filthy rags and Jesus came to bear the condemnation of helpless sinners who place their confidence in him rather than in themselves—and people begin shifting in their seats, even in churches.

He continues elsewhere to point out that a Christianity focused on my efforts is a recipe for burnout:

Discipleship, spiritual disciplines, life transformation,culture-transformation, relationships, marriage and family, stress, the spiritual gifts, financial gifts, radical experiences of conversion, end-times curiosities that seem to have less to do with Christ’s bodily return than with matching verses to newspaper headlines, and accounts of overcoming significant obstacles through the power of faith. This is the steady diet we’re getting today, and it is bound to burn us out because it’s all about us and our work rather than about Christ and his work.**

But here I am back at churning up the negative…. The happiest reading I’ve done this week has been in the Word. I woke one morning from a dream with a recurring theme—about failure. Feeling lost and confused and unable to get my bearings or keep to my schedule or find my classes… (This dream harks back to highschool days as a shy kid far from home at boarding school.) Failing and not knowing how to fix it. Failing and noone else seeming to notice (or care). I hate this dream. It reminds me of my longing for a ‘life coach’ to steer me through all the ‘must do’s of life. So I get it right and don’t miss any ‘classes’. I woke thinking these things. Enter, the Word.

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye. Do not be like the horse or like the mule, Which have no understanding, Which must be harnessed with bit and bridle…” Ps.32:8

What am I thinking?! I do have a Life Coach. (Incidentally, I had a Life Coach then as well. I wasn’t in fact failing, only fearing that I might.) The disciples likely felt the same. Jesus reassured them: “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.” Jn.14:16-18

And here’s the solution for rule-keepers too, those ones living under the pressure of never failing. The Spirit. It’s not about keeping the law but walking by the Spirit. The Galatians slipped back into attempts at their own righteousness too and Paul soundly warned them: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” Gal.5:4

In Christ Jesus neither [keeping the rules] or not [keeping the rules] counts for ANYTHING, but only faith working through love. (my paraphrase of Gal.5:6) This is so because Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law—that body of rules we couldn’t keep no matter how hard we tried. He became a curse for us ‘so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, SO THAT WE MIGHT RECEIVE THE PROMISED SPIRIT THROUGH FAITH.’ Gal.3:14 There it is again, the Spirit, our source of life and our guide through life. Nightmare be gone. If I fail to attend a class or do an assignment or ace a test, all is not lost. I am not lost. I am not unnoticed. He will guide me with His eye upon me. I am His. His Spirit is in me. This is happy news for a rule-keeper!

And it keeps coming:

“But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” Rom.7:6

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we don’t know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us…” Rom.8:26

Christ Jesus died, more than that, was raised for my justification Rom.4:25. Who can accuse me? It is God who justifies. Who can condemn? Rom.8:33,34

And this is the choicest tidbit of all this week:

For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. Heb.10:14

I love this passage in Hebrews. You really need to look at the whole context, but here is a clear-cut case for the work Jesus has already done being enough for me. Some snatches:

“I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,…I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more. Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh,  and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”

It’s ultimately His faithfulness that matters.  His sacrifice.  His work. He pours in the grace. He grants the faith. I believe and live by His Spirit’s empowering. This is HAPPY news!

Paul encapsulated this so well in his own testimony: “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” Gal.2:20 This was in sharp contrast to what he observed in the Galatian church:

“Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”! Gal.3:3

Rule-keeping for righteousness was on the rise and with it the attendant conceit and envy. Their corrective prescription: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Don’t use it as an opportunity for the flesh…If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” Gal.5:13,25

These are the makings of ‘ashar’ to ‘go straight, set right, be made happy or blessed’, and they begin with counting on His righteousness, luxuriating in His robes of righteousness, as I walk not by some concocted code of “do’s” and “don’ts”, but by His Spirit.

So I’m thinking on these things this week, things that are true of me as God’s dearly loved child. And maybe this truth will yet set me free from bondage to self-consciousness to smile and laugh a little more often, a little more freely… “for My Redeemer is strong. The Lord of Hosts is His Name!”

When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion,
we were like them that dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing:
then said they among the heathen,
The LORD hath done great things for them.

The LORD hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad.



*Ellyn Davis of Homeschool

**Excerpts from Chapter One —Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, Baker Books© 2008 available online at:

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