Going Beyond Self-Justification

By Mark D. Roberts

May 30, 2021

Scripture – Luke 10:25-29 (NRSV)

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”


When Jesus puts a legal expert on the spot by telling him to love God and his neighbor, the expert seeks to justify himself by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” If Jesus will answer this question, then the expert can show how he loves his neighbors . . . self-justification at its finest. Some of us can relate to the desire to justify ourselves. We want to be good people. We don’t want to confront our shortcomings. But if we want to grow, if we want to be people who truly love others, then we need God to help us see where we fall short. God’s kindness leads us to turn away from sin and to turn toward a life of loving God and our neighbors.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.


In last Thursday’s devotion, we listened in on a conversation between an expert in the Jewish law (in the NRSV, a “lawyer”) and Jesus. Luke tells us that the expert’s intention was to test Jesus. Was his teaching consistent with the expert’s version of Judaism? But Jesus turned the tables on this man, answering his question – What must I do to inherit eternal life? – with another question: What is written in the law? The legal expert answered by quoting the law’s commands to love God and neighbor. Jesus affirmed his answer, adding, “Do this, and you will live.”

But this didn’t sit well with the legal expert. According to Luke, he sought “to justify himself,” so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). It’s likely that the legal expert expected Jesus to give an answer that would be typical in that time and place. Neighbors, for many first-century Jews, were not equivalent to the people whom you encountered regularly. They were not the same as those who lived in your neighborhood. Rather, neighbors were people with whom you had a culturally valued relationship: family members, synagogue members, fellow Pharisees, fellow Jews, and so forth. Others could be discounted, folks like immigrants, Roman soldiers, and others who were not Jewish. If Jesus answered the legal expert’s question as expected, giving him a list of neighbors, then this man could say, “I do love my neighbors,” thus justifying himself. Case closed! (Of course, the case wasn’t closed because, as we’ll see, Jesus didn’t give the expected answer. Instead he told a story.)

Now, I have a true confession to make. I am a lot like the legal expert. If I had been standing in his sandals and Jesus said to me, “Do this, and you will live,” I’m pretty sure I would have wanted Jesus to know that I was doing it quite well, thank you. I knew who my neighbors were – the people closely related to me – and I was mostly good at loving them. I would want Jesus and those listening to our conversation to understand that I really was okay. I was doing just fine in the crucial matter of keeping the Jewish law.

Second confession: I can respond like the legal expert today when God points out my shortcomings. Perhaps I’m listening to a sermon and some admonishment strikes home. My first inclination is not to say, “O Lord, that was for me. Forgive me! Help me! Teach me!” Rather, my intuitive starting point is to rationalize, to use my brain to justify myself. “The preacher made a good point. But, really, it wasn’t for me. I’m off the hook.”

Why do I do this sort of thing? And, if you’re like me, why do you do it? Partly, I want to think that I’m okay, and I want others to agree. Furthermore, I don’t want to live in a way that fails to love God and others. I don’t want to be that sort of person. So, if something or someone suggests that I am unloving – that I am selfish or racist or insensitive or greedy – I don’t want to believe it. But then, if I begin to believe it, I feel ashamed. And shame is terribly unpleasant. So I am wired to avoid shame by being good at self-justification.

Yet I have enough life experience to know that true growth requires dealing with reality, including the reality about myself that I’d rather avoid. And I do want to grow. Moreover, I really do want to love others well. If there are things about me that are unloving, as much as I hate them, I do want to deal with them.

Finally, and most importantly, I know that God is gracious. When God points out our sin, it’s not to leave us stewing in a stagnant pot of shame. Rather, conviction of sin is actually an expression of God’s kindness, and his kindness “is meant to lead [us] to repentance” (Romans 2:4). Thus, by God’s grace and by the nudging of the Spirit, we are able to put aside self-justification, to confront what is real in our lives, including the bad stuff, so that we might confess, be forgiven, and be renewed. As God works within us, we are enabled to live more completely as people who love both God and our neighbors.


Do you have any tendency towards self-justification? If so, where does this come from? What underlying needs, desires, or fears lead you to justify yourself?

What helps you to be open to hearing from the Lord when you fall short?

Have you experienced God’s kindness leading you to repentance? If so, what happened? How was that for you?


Take some time to reflect on whether you have allowed self-justification to get in the way of your hearing from God about something in your life that needs forgiveness and renewing.


Lord Jesus, as I read this story in Luke, I can so relate to the legal expert. Like him, I seek to justify myself. I want to feel okay about myself. I want to believe I’m a good person. I want to love God and my neighbors. So it’s hard to be confronted by my shortcomings—indeed, my failures.

Yet, Lord, I do believe that your kindness leads to repentance. You show me things in my life that need fixing, not so that I wallow in shame, but so that I might be forgiven and renewed by your grace.

Help me, dear Lord, to be open to you in all things. Help me to see and deal with the things in my life that aren’t right. Especially, help me to grow in love for God and for my neighbors. Amen.

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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The Good Samaritan at Work—Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself (Luke 10:25-37)

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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