In January 2017, a study by Ben Tappin and Ryan McKay, from the University of London, revealed that most people assess themselves to be more virtuous and moral than the average person. “When comparing ourselves versus other people, we tend to rate ourselves more highly on a host of positive measures, including intelligence, ambition, friendliness, and modesty.” They call this the self-enhancement effect. I don't believe this self-enhancement effect is a new phenomenon. I believe Paul knew of this when he wrote his letter to the Romans—now known as the book of Romans, the 6th book of the New Testament.
Paul’s letter, Romans 1, begins with some pleasantries then he transitions to set the tone.
18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.
28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Many people, while reading this, are thinking of people they know—people who sin in the many ways Paul lists. We feel sorry for those people whom God has now turned His back on due to their corrupt mind (v. 28). As we read, we think of the office gossip (v. 29), the friend we keep at a distance because he or she is a “busy-body” (v. 30), we think of that cousin who disobeyed his parents (v. 30) and dated that person who led them to sin, we think of and feel sorry for those we know who go from one relationship to the next (v. 31). We read this shaking our heads and feeling sorry for all of the sinners we know, we think of all the different ways to sin, and how dark the life of a sinner must be, and all because they don’t think living God’s way is worthwhile (v. 28). As we read Romans 1, our Self-Enhancement Effect is in full blossom.
As we read on to Romans 2, however, the tables turn.
1You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
3 So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?
4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
11 For God does not show favoritism.
It is very easy for us to see the sins of others, but often very difficult for us to see our own. Why? The study I referenced in the first paragraph was done recently, but I don’t believe the self-enhancement effect is a new thing—in fact, I believe Paul was aware of it in 57AD when he wrote this letter. He cleverly draws us in as we read about these poor old sinners and their fate, people are coming to mind, and we are shaking our head thinking about them. In chapter 2, Paul reminds us that we too, do the same things, yet think we will escape God’s judgment. He tells us that we have no reason to pass judgment on others because we do the same things. He reminds us of our unwillingness to forgive and forget (v. 4) and reminds us that God forgives and allows us to continue relishing in our sin with the hope that we will soon repent and turn from our wicked ways (v. 4). It is our determination not to change and not to repent that will become our downfall (v. 5).
One of the most well-known verses in Paul’s letter to the Romans, is Romans 3:23. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. In this verse, all means everyone—all humans, man, woman, and child, without exception is a sinner. Whether we enhance ourselves in our mind, whether we think we are generally a good person, whether we give both a tithe and an offering each Sunday, we are still sinners. “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” (Romans 5:8 NLT) This is the good news. We don't have to stop our life of sin in order to be loved by God. He already loves us. He loves us as sinners. As sinners, he gave us His Son, to die, in order that we might live and never have to experience separation from Him. It is through our love, in return for Him, that we begin to sin less frequently as we seek to live a life that pleases Him. In fact, it may be impossible to begin to sin less without an awareness of God’s love. Most of us lack the consciousness that would put our sin on hold just because we think we should do so.
The students who discovered the Self-Enhancement Effect believe that this state of mind can be dangerous because it can erode our ethical behavior. “Evidence from related studies suggests that self-perceptions of morality may ‘license’ future immoral actions. An individual who volunteers to deliver food for Meals on Wheels, for example, may later find it acceptable to take home office supplies from work.” If we learn nothing else from Romans 1 and 2, it should heighten our awareness of our own sin. Even as believers, we sin. Even as believers we need repentance. Even as believers we must go to God to ask for forgiveness, in prayer.
Amen! Happy Mother’s Day!
Have a Blessed Week!
Copyright 2018 Kimberly Griffith Anderson
If you like this style of writing, you will enjoy Turn North: A 30-Day Devotional and Journal written by the author of this blog.