Crusty unbeliever though he was, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell said some interesting things now and then. He once created a game called “Irregular Verbs” or “Conjugations” on the BBC program, Brains Trust.
The idea was to use different words to describe the very same thing, depending on whether a person was: a) talking about himself, b) talking to a person standing in front of him, or c) talking about someone out of earshot. For example:
I am firm; you are obstinate; he is a pig-headed fool.
I am an epicure; you overeat; he has both feet in the trough.
I am sparkling; you are unusually talkative; he is a drunk.
I have reconsidered; you have changed your mind; he has gone back on his word.
I dream; you escape; he needs help.
I am casual; you are informal; he is an unshaven slob.
I am in charge of public relations; you exaggerate; he misleads.
I am righteously indignant; you are annoyed; he is making a fuss about nothing.
Russell was on to something. The sinful nature in each of us delights to make itself feel better and more righteous by comparing ourselves to the next fellow.
Jesus pictures this sort of thing in the familiar parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (KJV – Publican). The Pharisee’s self-righteous prayer is sadly unforgettable: “God, I thank you that I am not like all other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector…”
This, of course, is not a confession. It is a comparison. The Pharisee feels good about himself and his relationship to God by casting a downward glace at his neighbor. None of this changes God’s standard: “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness…” And that forgiveness? Only in Christ, only by grace, only through faith.