The Psychology of Self-Justification

by Larry Barber


In Genesis 3, the serpent’s distortion of God’s command against eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil set in motion humanity’s rebellion against God. In choosing to eat the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve sought to establish their own moral boundaries and abrogate the authority of God. Instead of winning the false freedom and autonomy they desired, Adam and Eve suffered death, and were confronted with the reality of their own moral failure.

In experiencing their own sin, Adam and Eve had a choice. They could have openly faced the horror of their evil unbelief, sought out God, confessed their sin and pleaded for mercy. In their guilt, however, they hid from God as they heard Him approaching. Using fig leaves, they hid from their nakedness. In responding to God’s inquiry, they hid from the truth of their moral failure. Adam justified his actions by blaming Eve. Eve followed suit by blaming the serpent.

In seeking justification from God, Adam and Eve were asking God to give them something evil. They wanted God to acquit them of any responsibility for their actions and agree with them that their behavior was someone else’s responsibility, not theirs. They were asking God to look at reality differently and join them in their self-deception. Adam and Eve did not want justification that comes from having been forgiven. They wanted justification from God because they were evil and hoped to hide from the truth about themselves. They deflected responsibility for their actions onto another in order to hide from the psychological discomfort of being exposed to the reality of their moral failure. They hoped that God would play along with their charade, see things their way, acquit them of any wrongdoing, and make their moral failure–and their discomfort–go away.

In seeking a justification that hid from the truth of their moral failure, Adam and Eve failed to express any genuine humility. They did not want to deal with the real consequences of their own choices. In doing so, they demonstrated a subtle but undeniable attitude of arrogance, a rebellious clenched fist directed at God.

The term “justify” in the scriptures can be defined as “justify, vindicate, treat as just, acquit, pronounce or treat as righteous, make or set free from”. Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown. In plain terms to be justified by God is to be declared having moral right standing. It is not a position of innocence. It is a position of having righteousness attributed to me in spite of my guilt. In contrast, self-justification is the presumption of moral right standing on terms other than Gods as a way of hiding from ones own moral failure. It is the belief that whatever offenses may have been committed ought not to stand in the way of God’s granting approval. The psychology of self-justification is the internal process operating to accomplish that end.

A parable Jesus tells in Luke 14 exposes a striking resemblance between Adam and Eve’s attempt to justify their rebelliousness and the motivation behind the behavior exhibited by certain guests at a Sabbath brunch.

The gospel narratives portray an uncommon degree of hostility shown towards Jesus by the lawyers and Pharisees. Hoping to find fault, every possible opportunity was taken to test and trap Him. Jesus was a problem to the lawyers and Pharisees on two levels. First, He undermined their respect and authority with the people. Before Jesus came along, the common people had respected them, looking to the lawyers and Pharisees as the theologically correct ones who could interpret God’s Law to them. But Jesus claimed to be from God; He performed miracles; He fed the multitudes; He healed people on the Sabbath; He associated with sinners; and He became more popular with the people. Jesus was not impressed or intimidated by the lawyers and Pharisees, and He did not give them the respect they were used to. Secondly, on a deeper, personal level, Jesus challenged the lawyers and Pharisees’ false perspective about God, themselves, and others.

It is in this context that Jesus accepted an invitation to dine on the Sabbath at the house of “one of the leaders of the Pharisees,” a member of the Sanhedrin whose members were the most important and influential religious leaders in Jerusalem. The guest list included a number of Pharisees, some lawyers (experts in Mosaic Law), a man with dropsy, and Jesus.

So the lawyers and Pharisees prepared a trap for Jesus at the Pharisee’s house. They placed the man with dropsy in front of Him to test whether or not He would heal on the Sabbath, which in their minds would constitute work and thus violate the Mosaic Law. (The man with dropsy would not otherwise have been among the guests, because they would have considered him to be under God’s judgment for having committed some grievous sin. In their distorted view, the man’s malady was evidence of their own justification before God; they had not suffered God’s judgment because they had diligently kept the Mosaic Law.) If Jesus healed the man, he would be exposed as an unbelieving renegade who was leading people astray. The lawyers and Pharisees’ own reputation with the people would remain intact. And with proof that Jesus was not from God, the lawyers and Pharisees need not consider the option that their attitude toward God, and not Jesus’, was distorted. They could feel safe by continuing to hide behind their veil of moral superiority from the truth of their moral failure; they could preserve their distorted self-image. If Jesus did not heal the man, then He would substantiate their position that healing on the Sabbath violated the Law. However Jesus responded to their trap, the lawyers and Pharisees thought they would win. Being wrong was not an option.

Jesus’ response, however, was not what the lawyers and Pharisees expected. Using a part of the Law that they would know well, He confronted the inconsistency of their interpretation of the Law. He healed the man of dropsy and sent him on his way. Then, observing their behavior at the meal, he told them a parable.

The Parable in Luke 14

And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out places of honor at the table; saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both shall come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man’, and then in disgrace you proceed to recline at the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. (Luke 14:7-10)

On the surface, it appears as though Jesus is asking the invited guests to play some kind of game that will result in the validation they want. A closer look, however, reveals that Jesus is not suggesting that these guests pretend to be humble. Rather, He is exposing their attitude as they go through the mental process of deciding where to sit. They are presuming that they deserve a higher seat and arrogantly assume that the host will share their perspective. According to Jesus, this is a dangerous attitude to take.

Implicit in Jesus’ parable is the correlation between the invited guests’ attitude toward the host in the story and the lawyers and Pharisees’ attitude toward God. Just like the guests’ thought they deserved the higher seat with the host, the lawyers and Pharisees believed they deserved the higher seat with God as well. They saw themselves as honorable, faithful men who deserved justification. They all agreed, so it must be so.

Jesus is giving the lawyers and Pharisees an opportunity to take an honest look at themselves and their attitudes as they pick out places of honor in the Pharisee’s house. If they had eyes to see, they would know that they are not the men they would like to think they are. They are arrogant at heart, interested in seeing themselves as “right” and in gaining the recognition and validation they believe they deserve from others. Choosing seats of honor visibly expressed their perverse attitudes.

Sitting in the high seats allowed the lawyers and Pharisees to maintain their distorted, yet cherished, self-image by making their illusion of importance visible. They could hide from the reality that they, like Adam and Eve, were rebellious people who did not deserve justification from God–just as they did not “deserve” the high seats they took for themselves. With all this at stake, where they sat at a banquet table became immensely important.

Adam and Eve had a choice. So did the guests at the Pharisee’s house. They could have thoughtfully considered what Jesus had been communicating to them, acknowledged the truth of it, fallen on their knees, and humbly asked God for forgiveness. Despite the truth being found guilty of moral failure was not an option. The light of the truth was too bright and painful to consider. Hiding behind a religious veil of moral superiority they hid from their unbelief. Focused on finding fault with Jesus, they temporarily made the problem of looking at the truth in themselves go away.

In doing so, these men did the very same thing Adam and Eve did. God had provided the reality of consequences so that Adam and Eve could humble themselves and receive the justification that comes from faith. Jesus exposed the lawyers and Pharisees’ behavior of choosing seats of honor as a fa├žade for gaining personal self-justification. Although its truth was uncomfortable, the parable gave those men an opportunity to face reality. Through Jesus, God presented them with the incarnate expression of Himself, giving them the opportunity to humble themselves and receive the gift of justification rather than grab the false, empty, distorted justification that comes from rebellious self-protection from the truth.

It would be a grievous mistake to look at these men or their religion and conclude that the problem was simply bad theology or wrong priorities. Their attitude was no less than a clenched fist directed at God, demanding approval on their terms. Their self-justification was an empty, perverted delusion. With it they got the shallow glory they thought they deserved because they fantasized that they had earned it. According to Jesus, there is no place for this kind of attitude in the Kingdom of God.

C. S. Lewis describes this in the preface to The Great Divorce: “Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, ‘with backward mutters of dissevering power’–or else not. It is still ‘either-or’. If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”

Jesus concludes the parable in Luke 14:11 by saying, “For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.” He succinctly drives home the point of the parable and presents a crucial theme found throughout the Scriptures: One can not exalt himself and expect to be exalted by God. Justification from God comes through humbly facing the truth of one’s moral failure, not by hiding from it.

Copyright February 1999 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Larry Barber