As I drove north on the 101 highway I knew I was headed home to the traditional Oregon of 1949, where many of the people I knew would count themselves among the virtuous. I looked forward to being with them. They were my people, and I knew them well. They tried to live by a moral code that was based on such good stuff as belief and honesty, kindness, and keeping your word—and the duty to work hard and pay your bills.
Some of these folks were church members, but more of them were secular, in the sense that they were individuals who did not go to church or have a formal religious commitment. But they had a moral order that originally had derived from the teachings of the Bible.
On the way north I camped after dark beside the Eel River within a redwood grove in a deep valley. After a snack … as I prepared to sleep I looked up at the stars massed overhead. The view was overwhelming. For months I had lived in San Francisco, where the stars hardly seemed to come out at night because of the lights. But here in this valley among the redwoods all was dark—dark and not a hint of light—and the majesty of the night sky was absolutely commanding. Looking at that concentration of glory, I worshiped the God of all creation who made those perfect heavens and the magnificent redwood forest.
At that moment I felt my finitude and His splendid infinity, and was comforted and exalted in praise. I was happy to be His creature and His child. The God who made all this was with me. He had sent His Son to die for me, and His Spirit to change me. He was with me. I was now falling in love with a young woman in San Francisco, but I had already fallen in love with God my Father. This awareness prepared me for the days that were to come. Any pain that I might have to bear in following Him seemed like nothing compared to the pleasure I had in knowing God.
During those first days home I talked with my mother and told her about what happened to me the previous fall. Almost immediately after my conversion I had talked to her about Christianity in a new way. I had baffled her by saying that to know God was joy and peace.
I now renewed the conversation.
I think she understood the words I was saying but she really came from a different world. Here I was once again talking about the “joy” while she looked puzzled because for her being a Christian meant going to church and believing in the Bible. Most of all it meant being moral, kind, and generous.
But joy? Peace with God? Wanting to tell everybody about Jesus? Well, maybe. But somehow it did not seem to connect. And I became painfully aware how hard it is for virtuous people to connect with God in a vital way.
My mother really was a virtuous person. In growing up, I cannot recall her complaining, a really extraordinary thing to say about any human being. Unwilling to gossip, she was kind to her friends and neighbors and prepared to make every sacrifice for her family. She did not push people around and loved animals, especially dogs and horses …
In the words of an English friend, “she played the game,” that is, she functioned with a moral code that made her dependable and easy to get along with, and she had a self-discipline that was pretty awesome …
Through reflecting on these [conversations with the virtuous] … I gradually came to have a better understanding of those folks who are indubitably convinced of their almost perfect innocence.
—First, they are usually private people, self-contained, and lonely on the inside.
—Secondly, their confiding openness with me was actually a compliment. I was being trusted.
—Third, their virtues have hidden vices that they themselves cannot see, at least not with any daylight clarity. The vices include perfectionistic attitudes, impatience, irritability, judging harshly and hastily, and accusing others. All these evil things being rooted in deep pride and unbelief.
—Fourth—and my point of breakthrough—I eventually discovered that I was one of these “perfect people.“
It came about almost twenty years later when I had become a teacher in a theological seminary in Philadelphia, PA, and a pastor of a nearby church. At that time I had an experience that seemed first to be inexpressibly dreadful.
I became totally frustrated with myself, saw myself as a failure in both seminary and church—and blamed other people for my problems. I resigned from both seminary and church, convinced of my own virtue. For two weeks I wept almost without let up. But then in a wonderful way, God showed me that my deepest problem was self-centered pride and fear of what people think.
Convicted by the Holy Spirit, I humbled myself and at the urging of others took back my resignation and entered into a fruitfulness of life and ministry that was unprecedented. More people became Christians under my leadership in the next two years than in the previous twenty. Many of those being changed were perfectionists like me.
After this change in my life I returned to Oregon to talk with my mother, and I now had a heart attitude she could understand. God himself, I believe, had timed the visit. A few months before my coming, she had experienced a terrible conflict with another family member who had severely wronged her at a time she was recovering from a major heart attack.
I took her to lunch and over coffee talked to her about my self-pride and feeling superior to others, and told her how God exposed me to myself. I wanted her to see me as a sinner saved by grace alone.
I then asked her if she had ever considered the possibility that our family had a deep sin of pride, manifesting itself in our feeling superior to other people. In other words, am I the only sinner in the crowd?
I then told her what I had really been like on the inside when Jesus changed me. “I was proud, self-righteous, and judgmental, hateful and hating. And without Christ, I am still going to act this way. Only His atoning death can cleanse me and keep cleansing me. I’m in desperate need daily of His grace.“
She did not answer, but waited for me to continue, looking thoughtful.
So I told her how this sin had expressed itself in my life and had affected my family through me in destructive ways.
Finally she agreed that “we are a proud family.” We talked about what that meant, and she made it clear that she really understood what was being said. I tried to ask with all tenderness, “Do you remember your deep disappointment with the close relative that treated you with such selfishness recently?“
Her sorrow was now seen in her face.
Then for time we were silent, so that she could have time to digest what I was saying.
I said, “Look, Mom, I didn’t exploit you that way, but I have the same kind of heart by nature. We all do. Without Christ’s constant help, I am naturally just like that. We all have evil in ourselves deep down and it reveals itself in selfish behavior and self-righteous attitudes and that’s why we also desperately need the cross of Christ.“
I believe that for the first time I was able to help her see why the cross is necessary for us “good people.” Underneath it all, I was saying, “Our sins may be worse than those of some of the lawless types that we feel superior to.” There was a oneness between us that meant a great deal to me and, I believe, to her.
This conversation did not end here; we continued to talk about it over the years that followed, and brought other family members into the discussion.
Inspiration: Sometimes it is only when we camp in the dark valley that we see the massed stars of God‘s grace. The humbling of my pride opened my eyes to see the splendor of His heavenly grace. This was the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit and all the glory goes to the Father.
Perspective: “Virtuous people“ do not need to be attacked by us as though we were more virtuous than they, but to hear about our sins and weaknesses first of all. Then we tell them how God has broken us and is cleansing us from our vices and virtues. In my sane moments God has enabled me to use this grace approach to bring scores of “good people“ to see their sins and need of our Lord and Savior.
Jack Miller, A Reasonable Faith for Unreasonable Times (Unpublished), Ch. 4, 1996.
A later published version of this excerpt on “Witnessing to the Virtuous” can be found in “A Faith Worth Sharing” published by P & R Publishing.