Many years ago, I served as a police officer in a medium-sized city in western Virginia. One evening, while patrolling the streets, I encountered a man urinating on the sidewalk. Upon my approach, I immediately detected the strong odor of alcohol about his person, at which point I placed him under arrest and took him to the city jail. It was a clear case of public drunkenness.
Under such circumstances, the defendant--after spending a night in the drunk tank sobering up--usually paid a nominal fine (at that time $50) to the local court, and that was end of the matter. But this case was different. When my normal court date came around, I noticed this particular gentleman was on the docket, an indication that he was challenging his arrest. Because I knew my arrest was sound and there had been no extraordinary circumstances surrounding my encounter with him, I was somewhat perplexed at his decision to take the case to court. But strange things happen in law enforcement every day!
When I arrived in court, I immediately realized that the accused drunkard had secured the legal defense of a local charlatan--a lawyer whose reputation for fantastical defenses and wild legal arguments preceded him. The hearing started with my testimony about the encounter with the defendant. Everything seemed in order, but when the cross-examination came, things got a little weird. The defense attorney glibly looked at me from across the bar and asked, "Why did you detain my client in the first place?" I replied that I had noticed him urinating on the sidewalk, a clearly illegal act. He followed with a rather odd question: "Officer Tinsley, have you ever used a public restroom?" I responded that I had. The questioning continued to devolve when he countered, "Wouldn't you say, then, that you were urinating in public?" As I recall, I just stood there with a stunned look on my face, probably darting my eyes between the defense attorney and the prosecutor, looking for some assistance. But I didn't have to wait long. The judge--a no-nonsense man with little patience for chicanery--leaned forward, pulled his glasses down on his nose, starred intently at the defender and said, "Mr. Smith (this was not the lawyer's name, but I want to protect the not-so-innocent), you've made some wild arguments in this courtroom over the years, but this one beats all," at which point he rapped his gavel, declared the defendant's guilt, and called for the next case on the docket. Admittedly, I laughed under my breath, as did others in the courtroom.
I share this story, not only because it is humorous, but also because it highlights the human penchant to justify actions. Instead of accepting responsibility for our faults and failures, we often make excuses for them or, like this lawyer, attempt to devise fantastic stories to explain things away. Of course, reasonable people accept neither the excuses nor the stories, but in most cases, this doesn't stop us. We continue to offer justification after justification, even to the point of making fools of ourselves. We do this for many reasons, but it all boils down to pride and what one pastor of mine called "reputation management." I've been as guilty of this at times as anyone else. It can be a debilitating social malady.
So, what do we do to eliminate personal justification from our internal defense mechanism? First, we must accept that we will fail at times. We have to realize that we are not flawless. But more importantly, we must obtain our worth and reputation, not from our own management strategies, but from God. As beings made in the image of God, our worth is innate; it is part of the human-creature condition. And as beings re-made in the image of Christ, our reputation is not ours, but His. We share in Christ's righteousness and perfection through a different kind of justification--one that is by faith, not by management.