Forgiveness for the Self-Righteous

Is the desire for righteousness a bad thing? 

Shouldn’t our actions be so good and above reproach that people will notice and wonder what makes us different? 

While James 2 states that that “faith without works is dead”, in Isaiah 64 we are told that all our righteous acts are like “filthy rags”. Of course, we can’t just grab Bible verses for our own purposes without understanding context, the writer, the audience etc., but this type of contradictory language is pervasive in the Bible. Jesus curses the tree that doesn’t bear fruit, but tears apart the Pharisees for parading their prayers and actions to make themselves look good. 

This has always been a difficult balancing act for me. I can quickly fall into the trap of feeling good about my own “works”, but it shouldn’t be an issue. Sure, my feeble attempts at “righteousness” are not a bad thing, in and of themselves. We are taught to use whatever gifts we have for the kingdom. What I need, though, is to go back to the same things I have taught over and over to high school kids in catechism class: Salvation comes before service and grace comes before gratitude. Remembering that both salvation and grace are gifts that are not contingent on anything I do gives the proper motivation for doing my best to serve in any way I can. 

The gift of righteousness is just one of many layers of the ultimate gift in the form of Jesus Christ that we celebrate at Christmas. It is not a reward, a bonus, a prize or a participation award for what we do–or for even trying!  It is a gift that has been bought and paid for only through His life, death and resurrection.  He stands in our place. That is the only way we become truly righteous before the Father, and it is all we need. 

More often than not, the aspect of this gift that I need the most is forgiveness for when I start feeling that I am doing a pretty good job on my own. We all need to be reminded that this gift is constantly offered to all of us not only during this Christmas season but all year long, regardless of how we are doing in our own quest for righteousness. We need only to accept it through faith in the One who gives it. Then we can begin to serve with gratitude.

From Failure to Success

When I graduated from college, I applied to a teaching program in the inner city, and I was accepted. I knew almost immediately that teaching in the inner city wasn’t for me. But I was stubborn. I was convinced that if I just pushed myself hard enough and worked really hard and prayed a lot, I could succeed. I was wrong. No matter how hard I worked, no matter what techniques I tried, no matter what shiny new classroom supplies I armed myself with, I could not succeed. 

I quit.

And I had no idea what to do. I had never before failed at something I had truly wanted to succeed at.

Several months after I quit, one of my friends suggested I apply for a teaching job at a school I had attended in middle school. I ignored his suggestion, dismissing it as ridiculous. Didn’t he know I couldn’t teach? The past year had definitely proven that.

A few days later, the school’s principal called me, told me my friend had informed him that I needed a job, and asked me to come in for an interview. I was shocked. I knew, I knew, I was a terrible teacher. Why would they want me? I went in for the interview anyway. And miracles of miracles they hired me.

The strangest thing happened that year: I fell in love with teaching. It brought me such great joy, a joy made all the stronger by the experience of my previous failure.

I had done nothing. In fact I had often done the opposite of what I should have done. And yet, God gave me this incredible gift; He gave teaching back to me. And He did it entirely separately from my own efforts.

Such is the gift of Christ’s righteousness to us. Nothing done in our own power can make us right with God. The strongest, the wisest, the most passionate cannot bridge the gap between their sin and God. But Christ’s strength, goodness, and uprightness is more than enough, and He has given us this righteousness as a gift.

There comes with this gift a sweet, a blessed relief—relief that inevitable failure has become guaranteed success. But alongside that relief also comes a delight. We know that we won’t just succeed, but our success—Christ’s success—will be spectacular.

The Thrill of Sega Genesis, The Agony of Gift Card Exchanges, and Why We Prefer Gifts to Paychecks

For American kids, many times gifts = Christmas. When I was 12 years old, if you had asked me what Christmas is all about the honest answer would have been "Sega Genesis... oh and also it's Jesus' birthday too." In fairness to my prepubescent self, those 16 bit graphics on Sonic the Hedgehog really were groundbreaking. I challenge you to play that game this very day and not be blown away by the inventiveness of the Labyrinth Zone gameplay. But I digress... 

For American adults, many times gifts = chores. My favorite example of this is the gift card exchange. I hate gift card exchanges. Hate. Gift Card. Exchanges. To me, the idea essentially boils down to, "Hey, let's all put absolutely no thought or effort into this activity. We'll all put the same amount of money into the pot, and we'll all receive the same level of gifts out of the pot." It's like some sort of bizarre expected gift giving/receiving socialist manifesto: "To each according to his $20 Best Buy card to each according to his willingness to receive a $20 target gift card." And we're all scrambling for the Best Buy card- let's be honest. There are several times in gift card exchanges that I've walked away... HAPPY!... having claimed my own gift card. "At least I got my card back." What type of giving is this activity really?! We could all save time and headaches by sitting in a circle, taking $20 out of our pockets, passing it to the person on our right, and sitting back down.

For the Bible (and the dictionary), gifts = grace. Gifts are expressions of love given without the need or ability to pay back or return the favor.

What does it mean when we say that "Righteousness is a gift from God?" It means that righteousness- being right before God- can only come from God. We can't do it ourselves because we're sinful to our cores. Many of us are familiar with the Total-Depravity-trumpeting verse, "For all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God," Romans 3:23. I always remember the "partner verse" to that one found just 3 chapters later: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23- emphasis mine). 

Wages are things we earn. We actively work towards that goal. When we work at our jobs, we expect the compensation that we're working towards. We deserve it. We've earned it. According to the Bible, we're actively working away from God and towards death. 

Gifts, on the other hand, are, by definition, things we can't earn and don't deserve. And what is this gift that God has given us? Righteousness- we are right with God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf. Completely unmerited favor. A perfect Gift. Perfect Grace.

So when we have these arranged giving scenarios in modern day American Christmas, the habits of Christmas can rob the idea of gifts that is so central to the holiday. I knew I was getting the Sega Genesis, but I didn't earn it. How many people would be upset if, at a $20 gift card pool, I brought a $5 card (or for that matter, what type of fights would break out if I brought a $200 card?!?!). Both of these scenarios have "gift expectations," which robs the "unmerited grace" concept behind giving a gift.

This Christmas season, my prayer for us is that we will remember anew that gifts aren't mindless, habitual, chores. In fact, the greatest Gift ever was given this season and changed the world. And just like truly undeserved, amazing gifts that we've ever physically received in our lives, the best authentic response to receiving something so amazing that we don't deserve is joy, thanksgiving, and sharing. May we all treat our true Gift that way this Christmas season! Be joyful. Be thankful. And don't keep it to yourself. Tell the story behind that amazing Gift you received that you didn't deserve!


Everyone I know, including myself, has hit a brick wall at some time in their life. Whether it be a career, personal relationship, or health issue, we have all come to a point where we realize we are not in control. We cannot do it on our own.

My brick wall professionally came in 1993. I have the privilege of serving as the Director of Bethany Christian Services. Bethany is an adoption and family service agency which started in New Jersey some 55 years ago. In 1993, however, we only did a few adoptions. My secretary and I were the only two employees in New Jersey. I did not know how the ministry would continue. There was a moment when I held out my hands to God and said “God, please take away my anxiety. Please take this agency, as it was never mine. It is yours. Please do with it what you will”. 

Putting this in God’s hands was so liberating! My anxiety was miraculously gone, and God has done some amazing things. Since 1993, He has seen fit to have us establish offices in Manhattan, Rochester, and Albany, NY, and one in Danbury, CT. We have completed hundreds and hundreds of adoptions, placing children in loving Christian homes. I have been privileged to work with birth-moms and dads who have voluntarily surrendered their children for a better life then they were able to provide at that time. I have witnessed sacrificial love beyond my wildest imagination. 

How does this relate to righteousness, you ask? God is completely righteous, and I can do nothing without Him. All that I am and have is a gift. My salvation, my very being, right down to my breathing belongs to Him. In that moment in 1993 I surrendered my “professional” will to God, and He gave me treasures I could never imagine. He does the same thing with my righteousness every day as I surrender my claim to my own righteousness, and embrace what he Has already done on my behalf.

Righteousness is a free gift, given when we are completely empty, unable to do anything but lift our hands up to God. We earn nothing, but in Christ, we receive everything. That is the good news of Christmas!

The Cancer of Self-Righteousness

Just over ten years ago, my wife, Ruth, had a crisis of health. You may have already read Ruth’s story in the previous devotion–now as Paul Harvey would say–Here’s “the rest of the story”...or at least another part of it.

When Ruth was diagnosed with cancer, it was one of the most devastating days of my life.

“Mr. Kuder” – “Paging Mr. Richard Kuder”

The voice of the intercom echoed throughout the cavernous, oversized waiting room at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital. I walked slowly to the receptionist and she handed me the phone. It was the doctor in the operating room. 

“Mr. Kuder- I have not so good news and not so bad news. Which do you want to hear first?"

The not so good news is that it is cancer, the not so bad news is that it is not aggressive. It is a tumor type that is slow growing and the cure most often is surgery. Considering your wife’s age, and the fact that you have children, I suggest that we take a radical approach to her surgery. My heart and life fell through the floor. There I was, standing alone in the waiting room having to decide Ruth’s future and a “scenario” that we did not discuss in all of our pre-surgery meetings. I prayed for wisdom and had about two minutes for that wisdom to arrive. I decided that giving Ruth the best chance at living a longer life was better than risking a less radical surgery and a greater chance that the cancer would return.

The next time I would see Ruth, was something that I will never be able to remove from my memory. She was in such pain and I felt so helpless. As Ruth lay in the recovery room, every few minutes a tortuous grimace came to her face. Why would God let this happen? Who deserved this? I thought about Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, but it didn’t matter.   

In the weeks ahead, as Ruth’s condition improved, mine got worse. Instead of being grateful that God had spared her life and had begun to restore her, I became increasingly angry with God. I resented that God had chosen her and me for a Job-like experience. My spiral continued until a few weeks into Ruth’s recovery when we had a scare that required us to go to the emergency room at Sloan Kettering. Wasn’t it enough that God had put us through this in the first place, but now there were going to be complications?  

As I sat in the emergency room at Sloan, I came face to face with pain and suffering like I had never witnessed. I also came to grips with my own self-righteousness. I broke down. For the first time throughout this experience I felt God’s presence and his peace. I recalled Deuteronomy 31:6 “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”

This is where my healing began. Who was I that I could be mad at God? My self-righteous notions of earning or deserving God’s grace or of being inoculated from the physical effects of sin were misplaced. Were the other patients: young fathers, mothers and children in the Sloan emergency room that night less deserving of God’s grace? The brokenness of our world illuminates how sin impacts every area of our life.

Romans 3:10 says, “There is none righteous. No, not even one." Our righteousness cannot be earned or deserved. It has already been obtained through the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

There is always a temptation to think that we are good enough, but Immanuel has come in order that we could receive the gift of righteousness through faith.   

The Prince of Righteousness

Jesus’ followers were confused.

Part of the reason that they joined Jesus’ little group was because no one else wanted them. They didn’t have the same credentials, background, or education as the religious elite, the “Scribes” or the “Pharisees”. In day school, they were passed over by all of the rabbi’s who were looking for pupils. They weren’t qualified for the most honored positions of the day.

But now each of them had a story. Jesus had come by where they were working, looked directly at them, pointed them out of the crowd, and said, “follow me”. And they did. This new rabbi–rebellious, different, loving, humble, powerful–he *wanted* them. It didn’t matter what anyone thought of them in the past, what mattered was what Jesus thought of them in the moment, and he had called them his followers.

That’s why they were confused by what Jesus had just said:  “If you want to enter into the kingdom of heaven, your righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees.”

It felt like another rejection.

Their deep fear that they weren’t really good enough, that the other rabbi’s were right, that the Pharisees who looked down their smug noses at them were seeing things as they actually are, had been confirmed. We don’t measure up. If we have to *more righteous* than the *most righteous* people we know, what hope do we actually have?

Perfection is the standard. You must be perfect. Jesus said again.

It was hopeless, they thought. I’m hopeless.

Yet Jesus would turn their sorrow to joy, as he always did. The bad news would quickly become good news. The bad news was that perfect righteousness was the standard; the good news was that Jesus was going to give them what he earned. Jesus would provide the credentials necessary to enter into the kingdom of Heaven.

Perhaps you’ve felt like you don’t measure up to God’s love. Perhaps you’ve been living under the burden of religion that says, “do more, be better, try harder” for God to love you. Maybe you’ve been trying to muster up enough courage to come to God, just so you can make an excuse about all of your perceived failure. 

The message of Jesus is that none of that matters anymore. The righteousness and perfection that God demands is given to us by Jesus, precisely because it is something we could never earn. And that is really good news.

Tomorrow we will explore more about what it means for us that Righteousness is a free gift because of Jesus. Services are at 10:30 and you can watch live online at http://live.restoreworship.org. All of the sermons from the "Christmas Gifts" series can be found online here.