Recently I watched a public discussion between one particular pastor and CJ Mahaney. CJ has written a short book called Humility: True Greatness. I have not read the book (yet) but apparently in there he talked about how a Christian should view themselves as compared to how they view others. Now again, I haven’t read the book, but I have heard him give messages where he discusses this, so I had some background as to the discussion these two pastors were having.
If there is one word that could describe CJ it would be humble. He is a sought after conference speaker and well known and respected among several different Christian circles and denominations. Nearly every time he gets up to speak he sincerely expresses how he is humbled to be there, not knowing why they would ask him to speak when there are many more gifted speakers, etc. These are not trite statements but clearly sincere expressions of humility. He also has expressed his view that he is the worst sinner he knows. That view is a major contributor to his humility. (As a side note, he doesn’t claim to have arrived at humility, and he nearly regrets writing to book because it makes people think he thinks of himself as having arrived, though he knows he has not).
Back to this public discussion (which occurred on stage at the end of a conference). The pastor hosting the conference wanted to pry into CJ’s belief that he is the worst sinner he knows. The pastor admitted what most, if not all, of us would admit, namely, that we are not the worst sinner we know. The pastor stated that if given the chance he could probably point out people attending the conference whom he thought would be worse sinners than himself in terms of scale and magnitude. Now before you judge him for saying that, he was just saying out loud what most of us think on a daily basis.
CJ’s response as to why he disagrees is that (and this is hard to say in the third person), CJ doesn’t really know anyone else as much as he knows himself. He really knows how sinful he is, but he doesn’t really know how sinful other people are. There may be external sins which could be compared, but external sins pale in comparison to sins of the heart. CJ knows his own sins of the heart; he doesn’t know anyone else’s sins of the heart, so as far as he is concerned, he is the worst sinner he knows.
That reminds me of something John MacArthur has said. In response to the question of “do you sin less as you get older,” John says (paraphrasing), “perhaps if you were to count every sin, you probably do sin less… that is the effect of true sanctification. But it doesn’t end there. The problem is the more sanctified you get, the more you understand the gravity of sin. The result is that you sin less, but you feel worse.” In other words, when an immature Christian overtly sins, there is some measure of impact on his conscience, but when a mature Christian sins the impact is significant.
There is a third aspect which I would offer for consideration. As a Christian grows in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, they become accountable for what they know. Practical example: a couple years ago I read an excellent book on parenting. One particular chapter came back to my life yesterday and I realized that I was not actively applying the truths of that chapter to my parenting. When I read that book, and specifically that chapter two years ago, I immediately became accountable for whatever biblical truth it contained. I could no longer claim ignorance. The same thing happens when we hear sermons or read books that teach us God’s standard of living. We become accountable for the rest of our lives. When we don’t live accordingly, we sin. As Christians we are continually becoming more and more accountable every week. Is your life conforming more and more as a result? Mine isn’t. It’s worse for me, James 3:1 should scare every person out of the ministry. It is only God’s calling on my life that compels me to sit under than warning.
I say all that to say this: I’m a sinner. I don’t care who you are or what you’ve done, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m much more of a sinner than you are. To the degree that I understand God’s expectations on my life, I know I fall infinitely short of that standard, and so I cry out with Paul: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Answer: “Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25).