Rationalizing sin as righteousness
We explained earlier Satan’s first device to draw us into sin: deceit. His second device is disguising our transgressions as righteousness. Thomas Brooks writes this deception can cause us to think the evil choices we make are actually God’s will. It is the wickedest sort of rationalization, ascribing the acts of the enemy to the words of our Lord.
Satan knows that if he would present sin in its own nature and dress, the soul would rather fly from it than yield to it; and therefore he presents it unto us, not in its own proper colors— but painted and gilded over with the name and show of virtue, that we may the more easily be overcome by it, and take the more pleasure in committing of it.
Rationalization is a common human skill. Many of us excel at it. True artistic or academic giftedness are rare, but not our ability to explain away our bad decisions.
The minivan we can’t afford because it offers us safety and convenience. The unhealthy romantic relationship we fall into because it boosts our ego. The career choice that makes us miserable because the pay is good and it pleases our parents.
The human mind will never exhaust its ability to rationalize what the human heart knows is not righteous.
The mirage of ‘God’s will’
Some years ago, friends of ours announced they were purchasing a large luxury home. It was, they said, God’s will. They felt the call to use it, somehow, for His glory and kingdom. Our church could use it for meetings and gatherings. The poor and needy could find shelter there. We applauded their decision.
Until we saw the home.
It was absolutely enormous. The giant walk-out basement, as large as the home my family and I owned. A dizzying number of rooms. Impeccable accents and appointments. This couple later spent more to finish the basement into yet more rooms.
I saw the look in their eyes – stress, fear, overwhelming debt. I could have questioned their decision. But it was God’s will for them, they said.
I don’t know who lives in that home now. The family we once knew abandoned their dream home due to bankruptcy. Their marriage ended in divorce.
This huge, beautiful home looked to this family like the pathway to pleasing God. Instead it was the gateway to their ruin.
The mirage of what they convinced themselves was God’s will was nothing but desert when they arrived.
Remedy 1: ‘It’s still a pig’
During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama commented on one of vice-presidential-hopeful Sarah Palin’s policy stances. “You can put lipstick on a pig. But it’s still a pig.” Some claimed Obama aimed that jab at Palin, herself. Regardless, the analogy is clear.
We may try to dress sin in the garb of virtue. But it’s still sin. We can ascribe the loftiest goals to our wrong actions. But they will still separate us from God. We may even benefit ourselves or others through our deception. These benefits will last, at most, for our lifetimes. But what about eternity?
When we believers learn a certain action – or lack of action – is sin, the indwelling Holy Spirit affirms this. He guides us into all truth. But we can suppress this inner voice with our own wills and desires. Part of growing in spiritual maturity is learning to heed the Spirit’s voice, to resist temptation and submit our will to His.
If we find ourselves striving to recast sin in a positive light, we know our enemy has become part of the conversation. It’s at this point we must silence him through our obedience and true assent to God’s word.
Remedy 2: De-escalate
Sadly, adding more virtue to cover our sin is often our response. But as Brooks says, the more we add virtue to it, the more dangerous it becomes.
The workaholic who is just trying to get ahead or climb up the next ladder rung decides, “It’s so I can give my family more of what they deserve.”
The person who withholds giving to those in need says, “I’ll give my time instead.” Then, “I shouldn’t do it if my heart’s not in it.” It becomes more important to protect others from our bad attitudes than it does to help.
Even the church that borrows to start a major building campaign can fall into this trap. “We need to grow so more people can hear the gospel, don’t we? A little debt is worth it to help build God’s kingdom.” Until the building never materializes. And people are left disillusioned, with unanswered questions, and less faith in God and trust in the church.
More rationalization isn’t the answer. We must unmask sin and see it for what it is, turn our backs on the temporal gains we expect, and welcome possible loss as the price for true righteousness.
Remedy 3: Read the ending first
Sometimes knowing ahead of time how things will end is a good idea. It isn’t if you’re trying to get home to watch that football game you recorded. It is if you want to know what the long-term effects of sinful choices might be.
There’s a common trope in films and television shows: the person who has lost her memory, but then comes to her senses and says, “Where am I? What happened?” There’s a similar effect when we’ve been removed from an indulgent situation for some time.
Blatant sin is never a sudden choice, but a progression, step by step. It’s hard to see our movement away from God’s will until we’ve had time to step away and look back. It’s then that we come to our senses and see the horrors of what might have been.
If you’ve spent some time rationalizing your way toward something you know is wrong, I urge you to step back. Walk away. Take a long look. See things as they are, not as you wish they were. This time of “sobering up” will give you fresh spiritual eyes. It could save your marriage, your job, your reputation, and maybe even your life.
Remedy 4: Seek righteousness in Christ
John Wesley preached these words during a sermon at Oxford in July 1734.
At this time, more especially, will we speak, that ‘by grace are ye saved through faith’: because, never was the maintaining this doctrine more seasonable than it is at this day …
“Can you empty the great deep, drop by drop? Then you may reform us by dissuasives from particular vices. But let the ‘righteousness which is of God by faith be brought in, and so shall its proud waves be stayed.’
“Nothing but this can stop the mouths of those who ‘glory in their shame, and openly deny the Lord that bought them.’ They can talk as sublimely of the law, as he that hath it written by God in his heart. To hear them speak on this head might incline one to think they were not far from the kingdom of God: but take them out of the law into the gospel; begin with the righteousness of faith; with Christ, ‘the end of the law to everyone that believeth;’ and those who but now appeared almost, if not altogether, Christians, stand confessed the sons of perdition; as far from life and salvation (God be merciful unto them!) as the depth of hell from the height of heaven.”
Thomas Brooks and John Wesley knew the same truth: You can try to avoid sin by reciting the law to yourself. “Be good. Stop sinning. Turn away. Try harder.” But preaching only the law tends to make you think only of the law!
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order 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 comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.
It’s the law that shows us what sin is. But it is the gospel that frees us from it! Lean on the strength of your actions and you will fail. Lean on the strength of Christ and his work on the cross to atone for your sins, and you will succeed.