Jesus said that his followers are to be a city on a hill; a light that’s not hidden (Matt 5:14). He goes on to define that light as good works that bring glory to God (v. 15). We, however, love to redefine that light as other things. Things that don’t bring all that much glory to God.
The Light of My Self-Righteousness
We pick on the Pharisees a lot. But they aren’t there to point at and shake our heads in arrogant dismay. They’re a picture of what we humans do to the message of Jesus. We make it about us.
Christians, as do all broken humans when presented with an area in which we’re failing, will look at the sins of others as an excuse. Like the holy roller praying in the temple who saw the sinner next to him and thanked God he wasn’t like him (Lk 18:9-14), we are “confident of [our] own righteousness and look down on everyone else” (v. 9).
I don’t want to face the areas in which I fail spectacularly, so I point to those outside the church and talk about the sins they commit. I make a show of how I’m not a drunk, or an addict, or gay. None of that, if you think about it, accomplishes anything except to prove how “righteous” I am compared to another.
And the light goes out.
Talking a heck of a lot about what we’re against isn’t good works. It isn’t anything, in fact, but a smokescreen of pride.
The Light of Our Good Example
The whole point of being light isn’t that non-Christians will see our good works and do likewise. It isn’t to foist our niceness on the ignorant masses of mean. I know lots of people that are nicer than me, and you, too. The light is meant to bring glory to God.
We have this mixed-up idea that our faith is about sharing good morals with an immoral world. While Jesus changes the hearts of his followers, we don’t change anyone’s hearts. No matter how hard we try, we can’t force anyone to love. And—and this is the important part—even if you did, it wouldn’t bring them one step closer to salvation.
Paul is hopping mad at the Galatians in chapter 3 of his letter to the church there because they’ve started making their faith about them instead of God. He says, “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (vv. 2-3).
If I guilt you into acting better or even emotionally manipulate you into saying a prayer, what have I accomplished? Is salvation mental assent to the idea of being a good person or even believing there’s a god? No way! The demons know that much to be true (Jas 2:19). Salvation comes from faith in Jesus alone for our salvation.
The light of our love toward our neighbors doesn’t come from us. It is a side-effect of being a child of God. People do nice things all the time—some because they want to be seen as the kind of person who does nice things, others because they want a pat on the back, and others still because they’re just actually nice people. But the kind of love that Jesus is talking about is supernatural.
Supernatural love that brings glory to God is self-sacrificial, expects nothing in return, and gives simply because God has changed the heart of the giver into one more like Himself.
(Excuse me… I need some sunglasses.)