Happy Moralist or Sad Moralist and why they’re both wrong

I finished reading a book called “Counsel from the Cross – Connecting Broken People to the love of Christ” by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Dennis E. Johnson several months ago and wanted to repost some comments from a post I made months ago.  If you haven’t read the book you should – it’s remarkably insightful and gospel-saturated.  I have been thoroughly challenged and encouraged in their explanation of the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ and how it applies to everyday life.  In fact, they make it a point to ask several people, “how does the resurrection influence you in how you live?”  Most of the time people are dumbfounded and can’t give any reason at all as to why the resurrection matters, but I’m getting a little off-subject.

I’d like just for a moment to summarize their explanation and critique of two types of individuals:  the happy moralist and the sad moralist.  The happy moralist says, “I know God loves me; why wouldn’t he?” (pp. 73).  This individual recognizes that there is a God who does have expectations (rules and regulations) and they wrongly assume that their life “measures up”…(for the most part).  This type of mentality is what characterized the religious people of Jesus’ day and to whom He had his most severe rebukes for.  The happy moralist is an individual who finds sufficiency and reliance in his own morality; they fail to see the depravity of their sin and so it causes them to exemplify a judgmental, condemning, and unmerciful perspective.  These individuals won’t embrace God’s love or salvation in their life because that would mean acknowledging  that their own goodness isn’t enough, which is more present in my life and your’s than we’d like to admit.  Fitzpatrick and Johnson give several examples in the Scriptures that speak to the happy moralist:

“When the happy moralist Nicodemus surreptitiously sought out Jesus, the Lord annihilated him with five simple words: you must be born again (John 3:7).  When another happy moralist asked him, Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? (Luke 18:18), Jesus purposely crushed his proud heart with the words, Sell all that you have (Luke 18:22).  Jesus deliberately told them both to do something beyond their ability because be wanted them to recognize the full extent of their helplessness” (pp. 74).

You may ask the question, what does this explanation of the happy moralist have to do with me?  Glad you asked.  If someone asked you the question, why would a perfectly holy God love you and you say “because I’m not such a bad sort, or because I tithe, or because I try to serve him the best I can” (pp. 76) you are exemplifying the happy moralism that speaks to a sufficiency and reliance independent of the cross of Christ.  “If you think God should love you because you obeyed enough, you have misunderstood the depth of God’s law.  Even more seriously, you have missed the gospel” (pp. 76).

“In contrast to the happy moralist, the sad moralist really does see the law and says in response, ‘I can’t believe that God loves me like that; why would be'” (pp. 79).  This individual has a healthy understanding of the transcendence of God and exemplifies a seriousness in his pursuit of God’s holiness and righteous demands.  However, similar to the happy moralist, the sad moralist too has a pride problem.  “He believes that he ought to be able to do better, so he is harsh with himself, and he thrashes himself with condemnation, hoping that by so doing he will be able to obey and finally find rest” (pp. 79).  Too many times, I’ve exemplified this type of behavior; I’ve used my repentance as a means to show God I really am serious about repenting and getting “serious” with Him and subsequently, I think that if I could just see my sin as it really is and be sorry enough for it, God would pleased with me (pp. 79).  “When he reads about God’s love for us in Christ, he isn’t comforted or enthralled.  He is terrified and condemned.  He doesn’t know the peace that Christ promises of the joy that should infect his heart” (pp. 79).  Again we ask the question…

“Why would a perfectly holy God love me?  If you answer, I suppose he might love me because he promises to, but then those promises are for people who love him with all their heart and prove their love by their actions.  So I guess I don’t know why he would love me or, actually, even if he does, can you see how you are hoping to earn his love by being worthy of his love and thereby negating the grace that is the essence of the gospel?” (pp. 79).

“Do I find it difficult to receive criticism?  For the sad moralist who is always so self-critical, criticism from others can feel devastating.  But criticism has the power to devastate only because the sad moralist is hanging onto shards of self-respect.  He is still hoping to be good.  Embrace your helplessness; it’s the only qualification you have that enables you to be saved” (pp. 82).

As I type, and as you read I pray that the Spirit of God is illuminating your mind to aspects of your heart and mind that exemplify the happy or sad moralist – He did with me.  That being said, how are we to approach God’s commands and expectations, particularly when we fail to meet them (which happens everyday for all of us).  Again Fitzpatrick and Johnson give us three-fold scriptural response.

    1. Confess your sins to God (openly and freely), while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit to strive against them.
    2. Thank God for our ongoing struggle with sin because, when rightly viewed, it makes us love and appreciate Jesus Christ more.
    3. Strive to put off our sin and obey all the moral law in the light of God’s ongoing forgiveness, love, and grace.

I’ll attempt at sharing more insights from this book, but it would be well-worth your time to read it for yourself.

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