The Deceitfulness of Self-Righteousness. A Brief Look into David Brainerd's Early Life and Testimony.
David Brainerd was an 18th century colonial American missionary to the Native Americans. He was an orphan at fourteen years of age, suffered from deep depression, and died by the age of twenty-nine from tuberculosis. Jonathan Edwards posthumously edited and published his diary, which has inspired many.
The diary starts off with a brief childhood leading up to when had gone out to live with Mr. Fiske, a pastor of a church, where he described his “manner of life… exceeding regular, and full of religion… for I read my Bible more than twice through in less than a year, spent much time every day in prayer and other secret duties, gave great attention to the word preached, and endeavoured to my utmost to retain it.” (pg 14)
He goes on.
“So much concerned was I about religion, that I agreed with some young persons to meet privately on Sabbath evenings for religious exercises, and thought myself sincere in these duties; and after our meeting was ended, I used to repeat the discourses of the day to myself; recollecting what I could, though sometimes vert late at night. I used sometimes on Monday mornings to recollect the same sermons; had considerable movings of pleasurable affection in duties, and had many thoughts of joining the church. In short, I had a very good outside, and rested entirely on my duties, though not sensible of it.” (pg 14)
Naturally, we would assume that David is saved, not only that, he loves God. He would most likely be serving in some leadership position in the church. All the signs are there. But, as David phrased it himself, he rested entirely on his duties, and it has “a very good outside”. This is the great danger of self-righteousness.
“And though, hundreds of times, I renounced all pretences of any worth in my duties, as I thought, even while performing them, and often confessed to God that I deserved nothing, for the very best of them, but eternal condemnation; yet still I had a secret hope of recommending myself to God by my religious duties. When I prayed affectionately, and my heart seemed in some measure to melt, I hoped God would be thereby moved to pity me, my prayers then looked with some appearance of goodness in them, and I seemed to mourn for my sin. And then I could in some measure venture on the mercy of God in Christ, as I thought, though the preponderating thought, the foundation of my hope, was some imagination of goodness in my heart-meltings, flowing of affections in duty, extraordinary enlargements, &c.” (pg 14)
It is not the blatant demands but the “secret hope” of recommendation but ensnares the self-righteous. Surely God would look upon me with some affection because I pray.
“I constantly strove after whatever qualifications I imagined others obtained before the reception of Christ, in order to recommend me to his favour. Sometimes I felt the power of a hard heart, and supposed it must be softened before Christ would accept of me; and when I felt any meltings of my heart, I hoped now the work was almost done. Hence, when my distress still remained, I was wont to murmur at God’s dealings with me; and thought, when others felt their hearts softened, God showed them mercy; but my distress remained still.” (pg 15)
Here David touches upon a hair-splitting but critical point. Does God need a softened heart to accept someone? Does repentance precede love? And we will soon discover that this is not the case.
“…But when I found no relief and was still oppressed with guilt, and fears of wrath, my soul was in a tumult, and my heart rose against God, as dealing hardly with me.” (pg 16)
“Yet then my conscience flew in my face, putting me in mind of my late confession to God of his justice in my condemnation, &c. And this giving me a sight of the badness of my heart, threw me again into distress, and I wished I had watched my heart more narrowly, to keep it from breaking out against God’s dealings with me; and I even wished I had not pleaded for mercy on account of my humiliation, because thereby I had lost all my seeming goodness.” (pg 16)
We see the angst of Romans 7 play out here. We know the law is holy, righteous, and good (Romans 7:12) but sin seized an opportunity through the commandment and deceived Mr. Brainerd and all of humanity. The real issue of sin is not in the actions themselves, though they do matter. John Owen points out in “Overcoming Sin and Temptation”, “when a man with his sin… there is a secret liking of the sin prevalent in his heart, and though his will be not wholly set upon it, yet he has an imperfect velleity [inclination or desire] toward it, he would practice it were it not for such and such considerations…” (pg 92). Sin manifests itself through overt, rebellious behavior, and through subtle, secret desires. Both are heinous to God.
The vicious cycle of self-righteousness is that it demands that power of upholding the law to come from within, as we see how he “wished [he] had watched [his] heart more narrowly.” Condemnation quickly follows and, after the efforts heap up, lies in ambush to strike again when the person stumbles.
“But after a considerable time… I at once saw that all my contrivances and projects to effort or procure deliverance and salvation for myself, were utterly in vain; I was brought quite to a stand, as finding myself totally lost. I had thought many times before, that the difficulties in my way were very great; but now I saw, in another and very different light, that it was forever impossible for me to do anything towards helping or delivering myself. I then thought of blaming myself, that I had not done more, an been more engaged, while I had opportunity – for it seemed now as it the season of doing was forever over and gone – but I instantly saw, that let me have done what I would, it would be no more have tended to my helping myself, that what I had done, that I had made all the pleas I ever could have made to all eternity; and that all my pleas were vain.” (pg 18-19)
“Before this, the more I did in duty, the more hard I thought it would be for God to cast me off; though at the same time I confessed, and thought I saw, that there was no goodness or merit in my duties; but now the more I did in prayer or any other duty, the more I saw I was indebted to God for allowing me to ask for mercy; for I saw it was self-interest had led me to pray, and that I had never once prayed from any respect to the glory of God. Now I saw there was no necessary connexion between my prayers and the bestowment of divine mercy; that they laid not the least obligation upon God to bestow his grace upon me; and that there was no more virtue or goodness in them, that there would be in my padding with my hand in the water, (which was the comparison I had then in my mind,) and this because they were not performed from any love or regard to God. I saw that I had been heaping up my devotions before God, fasting, praying, &c. pretending, and indeed really thinking sometimes, that I was aiming at the glory of God; whereas I never once truly intended it, but only my own happiness… But when I saw evidently that I had regard to nothing but self-interest, then they appeared a vile mockery of God, self-worship, and a continual course of lies; so that I now saw that something worse had attended my duties, than barely a few wanderings, &c.; for the whole was nothing but self-worship, and a horrid abuse of God.” (pg 19)
David has come to the place where he saw all his works as bankrupt and vain. In a “mournful melancholy state”, he had no heart to engage in prayer or in any “religious affections”. It will be in this place that God reveals Himself to David.
“Having been thus endeavouring to pray – though, as I thought, very stupid and senseless – for near half an hour, then, as I was walking in a dark thick grove, unspeakable glory seemed to open to the view and apprehension of my soul. I do not mean any external brightness, for I saw no such thing; nor do I intend any imagination of a body of light, somewhere in the third heavens, or anything of that nature; but it was a new inward apprehension or view that I had of God, such as I never had before, nor any thing which had the least resemblance of it.” (pg 19)
“I stood still, wondered, and admired! I knew that I never had seen before anything comparable to it for excellency and beauty; it was widely different from all the conceptions that ever I had of God, or things divine. I had no particular apprehension of any one person in the Trinity…but it appeared to be divine glory. My soul rejoiced with joy unspeakable, to see such a God, such a glorious Divine Being; and I was inwardly pleased and satisfied that he should be God over all forever and ever. My soul was so captivated and delighted with the excellency, loveliness, greatness, and other perfections of God, that I was even swallowed up in him; at least to that degree, that I had no thought (as I remember) at first about my own salvation, and scarce reflected there was such a creature as myself.” (pg 19-20)
“At this time, the way of salvation opened to me with such infinite wisdom, suitableness, and excellency, that I wondered I should ever think of any other way of salvation; was amazed that I had not dropped my own contrivances, and complied with this lovely, blessed, and excellent way before. If I could have been saved by my own duties, or any other way that I had formerly contrived, my whole soul would now have refused it. I wondered that all the world did not see and comply with this way of salvation, entirely by the righteousness of Christ.” (pg 20)
The excerpts were from “The Life and Diary of David Brainerd” by Jonathan Edward.