The preacher talked about being “spiritually smug” in the sermon and something went ping in my head. None of us would want to think of ourselves as high on the spiritual smugness scale. I surely wouldn’t. And yet I think it’s an affliction that infects us more than we care to admit.
Any one of us who professes strong convictions is vulnerable to spiritual smuggery. Jesus called persons who purported to know best how God expected others to behave “hypocrites.” How, I wonder, do those hypocrites differ from the rest of us motivated by prophetic fervor, by righteous indignation, by a zealous desire to be faithful to God’s law?
For my part, I think Mennonites in general are afflicted with an oversized case of spiritual smuggery. We’re Jesus’ favorites after all. We get Jesus like few others do. We’re big on discipleship, loving our neighbors, and even loving our enemies. We often separate ourselves off in communities that intentionally stay away from big world problems or mainstream popular culture, thinking that will make it possible to attain a pure life. If we try a little harder or separate a little more decisively from those who’ve compromised, we feel even better about ourselves.
All of us who strive to be good and faithful servants are in danger of registering high on the scale of spiritual smugness. Seminaries are not immune. Academics have been known to demonstrate disdainful arrogance and intellectual snobbishness. Congregations who refuse to associate with other congregations are not immune. Persons who categorically stigmatize others for their race, gender, or sexual orientation are not immune.
Whenever we set ourselves up as better than others—whoever they may be—we stand in stark contrast to Jesus.
Jesus has harsh words for spiritually smug persons:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I’m attracted to humble people—persons who are so in touch with their own need for mercy that they readily extend it to others. Any impulse to disdain or to distance themselves from others is foreign to them. They live in grateful wonder for mercy that is wide and forgiving. They exude kindness and generosity. Their quiet joy is infectious because they know in every cell of their being that nothing can separate them from the love of God. How do they know that? They have been broken open by pain, loss, profound suffering. They have also been broken open to the beauty and mystery of a God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.”