Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Sweet Smell of Righteousness

"The thing that really separates us from God is not so much our sin, but our damnable good works." - John Gerstner

In my line of work, twice a month I come into contact with a vast gathering of many different type of people - a collection of people I jokingly refer to as "the Great Unwashed". From all walks of life, these people with relatively small problems filter into my life, some with the swagger of bravado, but most with a bit of fear. Dressed in jeans, shorts, flip flops, beer shirts, golf shirts, button downs, "urban" attire, and thrift store clothes. Some are climbing the social ladder, some already have climbed it, some are still in school, and many come clearly beaten down by life, by drugs, by alcohol, or by spouses. It is literally a room full of ordinary people, each believing their problem is more important than everyone else in the room, and for them that is true. Of all the ways I could describe those two days a month, like long, busy, tiring, interesting, they are never dull.

Before you think me some kind of saint for working here, understand it is not only a part of my job, but I view it as a distraction from the other rather mundane parts of my job. I view a part of my job there as helping the Great Unwashed in some small way leave changed people, having either assuaged their fear, or removed their bravado. I'm pretty good at both, I think, and usually gentle about it. And the people provide a relatively endless supply of interesting stories and humorous anecdotes. (Not much saintly in that last statement, now is there?)

But yesterday something interesting happened. An older man (by older, I mean say mid 60s, which is really much younger now than it used to be) walked in, dressed in his coat and tie, nice pants and shoes, carrying his briefcase, carrying himself with his own sense of style and debonair. He sat there all day, surrounded by the rest of the Great Unwashed, looking relatively out of place by his style of dress. To look at him in the room you knew he was a bit different, if not by the way he dressed, then by the casual way he sat in the room. I knew who he was, having been at least partially prepared for his visit in the weeks since his problem began, and his emails started. So I had advanced notice this gentlemen thought himself better than most, and more clever than me, seeking to justify his actions that led to his problem by casting blame on others, and combat was going to be inevitable.

Late in the day it came his turn for me to deal with him. As he approached and we began to discuss his situation I noticed an odor. That might be a bit weak a statement. I noticed a stench. A disgusting stench. The kind that makes you gag just at the memory of it. Like a bad mixture of dog feces and weeks of body odor rolled into one overpowering smell. So strong was the odor that the person helping me had to leave her position, not trying to be rude, but understandably trying to avoid the odor. (Besides, there was little she could do to help me anyway.) I could not hear his story for his smell. Not that I would believe it anyway, but I could not get past the smell. The more I sat there, forcibly locked into conversation with his combative personality, the more I just wanted to get rid of him, or at least find some way for him to get away from me. I was successful. One more story for the water cooler, and another inside joke with the other people I work with.

On the drive home, though, it hit me. This gentleman was obviously oblivious to this odor. He didn't smell it, or surely he would have washed. Am I just as oblivious to the stench of my well dressed and presented righteousness to God?

John Gerstner once said, "The thing that really separates us from God is not so much our sin, but our damnable good works." What a truth. How can God ever get past the stench of my righteousness? What have I done, or can do, to make God stand up and take notice of me and be impressed? God allowed me to see that man was like me presenting myself to Him.

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
- Isaiah 64:6

What hope is there for any, much less for me? I am by no means Mother Theresa. If you were to know me, you would know that is true. But every once in a while, in my callous world, God reminds me that even if I were, it wouldn't be good enough for Him to get past the stench of this righteousness I call mine to hear an argument about myself that is useless and untrue.

What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Phil. 3:8-11.

Thank you, Paul, for speaking the obvious. Ditto, God.



Burt said...

that's good stuff!

JohnDoz said...


Do you happen to knwo the source of the Gerstner "damnable good works" quote?


4theluv said...

I don't. Tim Keller has used it as a quote attributing it to Gerstner. I first heard it from my pastor, and it stuck with me.

If I had to bet, though, Gerstner, being a church historian, garnered the quote from some of Martin Luther's writings on works righteousness (he was against it).

Laura Leigh said...

Love, love, love your writing. Love your thoughts and insights on that anointed service at CPC last Sunday. Linked to your blog from a comment on Burt's, but have no idea who you are! Read your profile -- Auburn fan with a wife and kids, love philosophy. Still can't figure it out (have a few guesses, but won't venture to share them), but look forward to finding out and reading more of your posts in the future.

4theluv said...

Thank you. For many reasons, I prefer to be anonymous, so if you were to figure it out, please just keep it on the down low. It really is not about me.