“I don’t want to be your friend anymore. You’re too judgmental.” Those words and the events that followed them during my senior year of high school changed a lot about how I relate to people. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I’ve learned a lot in the process.

Part of growing up is realizing you’re not always right. Any sensible adult will admit as much. It’s ironic how the wiser you get, the more you realize how unwise you truly are.

In high school, I still hadn’t fully grasped that concept. I’m not sure many teenagers do.

Because of this know-it-all complex, the ethos of my church youth group, the fact that I was semi-sheltered, and my own personality, I was a self-righteous adolescent creature. I had always been the nice kid, the good girl– and though I never strayed far from those roots (I was once told I was too nice), in high school I added an edge: nice, but judgmental. In other words, I could be a prude sometimes.

Somehow, I thought the best way to be a “witness” in my public high school was to be moralistic. Turns out, it wasn’t the best way, but the lazy way. I didn’t speak up too often, because I was still kind of shy and always wanted to fit in. However, when I felt my integrity was at stake or a serious moral misstep was taking place or being advocated among my friends, I called it like I saw it. I thought I was courageous. Maybe sometimes I was. But most of the time, I think I was just protecting my own sense of rightness.

And that’s where the danger is. When we start standing up for ourselves instead of standing up for Christ. Like the Pharisees, we end up fighting for the rules and reputation of our club (and thus ourselves) in such a way that we end up putting the people we should be fighting for in the crosshairs.

The responses to my high school dogmatism were sometimes ridicule, sometimes people telling me to get over it, and often pretend indifference. While I didn’t mean the things I said to have these effects, I know that there were times I isolated people, put them down, and showed them stubbornness instead of love. I even lost a few friends. There were many fights I didn’t need to pick. And there were other, more important ones, I definitely should have. Like standing up for the people my friends made fun of, instead of joining in. Like being as adamant about showing love as I was about protecting truth.

It’s not wrong to stand up for what you believe in. In fact, it’s a vital expression of sincere faith. It can be sacrificial, courageous, even beautiful. But there are so many things that can trip us up in the process, which is one of the many reasons we need the Holy Spirit so desperately.

I think the main culprits that transform having integrity into being a jerk are: the details, our priorities, and our attitudes. The problem with the details is like the old cliche that says you can’t see the forest for the trees. When we lose sight of the big picture– following Jesus and getting others to follow him– we can unwittingly turn against it. Instead, we start following rules and getting others to follow them. What does it matter if someone follows our rules if they don’t know Jesus? Holiness is extremely good, but it’s just one detail of the big idea: a relationship with a Holy God. God has to change a person’s heart before He changes their behavior.

The reason we turn to this legalistic “evangelism” is that our priorities get rearranged. Like I said before, we put ourselves and our group in front of God; our traditions and comfort zones in front of how He’s told us (and showed us) to draw people to Him. In the midst of defending why we’re right, we forget that we don’t want to hurt anyone or increase their disdain for Christians. We want to show them who Jesus is. And while Jesus is offensive, he isn’t a jerk. He meets people in their brokenness, not expecting them to fix themselves, but offering to heal them if they’ll accept His help. When we lose sight of that, we honor ourselves instead of God.

Our attitudes tell us what our priorities and perspectives really are. While occasionally the initiator of a moment of jerkiness is merely flawed delivery, most of the time the delivery is an accurate display of the source. Standing up for what you believe in can easily turn into standing up for your pride and self-righteousness.

There are some things I’m glad I stood up for in high school; I really am. I’m glad my peers knew I wasn’t going to cheat, lie, or cuss them out. Some people even told me they respected me for holding fast to my convictions. What I regret are the moments I didn’t consider the details of the situation, whether my priorities were in check, or what my attitude was at the time. The moments I was a jerk.

There are things we need to check when we feel ourselves getting passionate about something, and we can do so by asking ourselves questions like these:

Is something the Bible says or something about who Jesus is being compromised? Or is it just a man-made tradition at stake?

Is it worth it?

How can I defend my belief in a way that is still loving?

Who is listening? How will this affect their view of Jesus?

Am I calm enough to answer now, or do I need to wait to cool off?

Do I fully understand this issue? If not, do I need to wait and study it more before I voice my thoughts?

Why do I feel so strongly about this right now?

I believe that when we let the answers to these questions guide us, instead of our gut responses, we’ll be a lot better off and a lot less likely to launch into jerk mode.

Please don’t take any of this to mean that I don’t have a passion for truth, justice, and righteousness. That passion is actually what causes me to need to check myself so carefully about these things. Otherwise, I’ll go overboard with being judgmental and abrasive. I believe true faith in Christ is offensive. The Bible says as much. But we shouldn’t let people be offended by the messengers before they’re ever offended by the gospel. We love them to the offense of the cross. And from there, they decide.

-LC