Backing up the Dump-Truck of Merit

Erik Raymond —  March 31, 2011

There is little doubt that we have all experienced the following circumstance and reaction. Someone comes to let you know about something that you have said or done that is wrong. Whether it was ignorant or blatant, the bottom line is the consequence. The other individual is offended, hurt, or aware of something that you did that needs to be addressed.

Sadly, it our reaction that really gets us in hot water. It is our sinful reaction that shows our betrayal of the gospel just as much as the first sin itself.

These sinful reactions show themselves in a variety of ways. One of the chief methods of my own sinful heart is to back up the dump-truck of personal merit.

Here’s an example:

Wife: “I don’t feel like we have been spending enough quality time together recently. I feel like you are distant and distracted.”

Husband: “What do you mean? I’ve been spending a lot of time with you. I don’t see how you can say that.”

Wife: “Well, it’s how I feel. It seems like we are not connecting.”

Husband: (now becoming irratated) “I don’t know how you could say that. What did we do on Monday? I didn’t watch the game but I drove the kids to their appointment. Tuesday night? I was here the whole time. How about Wednesday? We went out to eat and then to church. Now it’s Thursday and you have already given me a list of things to do. I don’t think you are being reasonable.”

The husband has done the classic move. His wife’s observations and feelings are dismissed with a quick disagreement. Then when she persists, he calls for the merit.

Do you see this? Before even beginning to understand what his wife is talking about he starts whistling for the dump-truck of personal merit to be backed up and dumped into the middle of the conversation.

It is as if he is saying, “Ok, you have an issue with me? Well, let me remind you who and what you are dealing with. Before I can get to me and any potential issues, I have something for you.”

He then begins to dump the merit in between them. “Hear my excuses. Look at what I’ve done. Do you realize how I’ve sacrificed? I should be coming to you with the issues!”

Before the husband will even attempt to latch on the issues and the feelings behind the issues (ie understand his wife) he is forcing her to rifle through the garbage pile of his own merit. You can just hear him saying, “There, deal with this if you can. This is me. The impeccable husband. Take a look at the evidence. Perhaps you have forgotten who you are dealing with here.”

What a pile of self-righteous, self-centered, gospel-betraying junk.

But this is what we do.

This is obviously not restricted to only a husband and wife. It happens in personal friendships as well. It is one of the favorite plays to call for the self-righteous heart. We think we can out-last, out-will, and out-merit our accusers. Therefore, we back up the dump-truck of merit into the conversations and bid them to deal with it.

Don’t you see how this betrays the gospel?

First and foremost, the cross of Christ is the ultimate critique upon us. It says that we are deserving of eternal hell, not just a temporarily uncomfortable chaffing of our pride. To fight this battle so earnestly shows that we are not thinking deeply about the truth of the gospel.

Second, it is so self-focused. Christians in general are supposed to be concerned about the interests of others (Phil. 2.3-5) above themselves. Husbands in particular are supposed to excel in understanding (1 Pet. 3.7). This would be the opposite of that.

Third, it shows an unbiblical value upon personal righteousness (Phil. 3.1-10). The very fact that we would cling to self-merit shows that we have not repented of it! Good job husband for taking your kids to baseball practice and cleaning up the basement. That is what you are supposed to do. Are you boasting in your good deeds? Then you need to repent of your good deeds just as much as the porn-addict needs to repent of his bad deeds.

Fourth, it shows an ungratefulness for Christ. This goes with #3. You cannot possible esteem the grace of God in Christ while you value the merit in self. You can’t even go half-and-half. It is all in or all out. The incarnation and obedience of Christ just much repudiates our works of righteousness as it does provides in our want of righteousness. To back up the dump-truck of merit is to show supreme ungratefulness for Christ’s merit.

Fifth, it shows a lack of love for others. Even as I write these words I think of how many times I have stomped on my own wife’s feelings with the urgency of a brushfire at my feet. How unloving. How unChristian. This is a betrayal of the gospel.

All of these things drive us back again to where we need to be, at the truth of the gospel. It reminds us of our sin and our great need for Christ. But not only that, it drives us to the Scriptures to be reminded of the truth of the infinite worth of Christ. He is in fact our righteousness from God! Therefore, the response is faith, repentance and love. In other words, slashing the tires of that dump-truck.

Erik Raymond

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Erik has been writing at Ordinary Pastor since 2006. He lives in Omaha with his wife and kids while pastoring at Emmaus Bible Church. Follow regular updates on Twitter at www.twitter.com/erikraymond

12 responses to Backing up the Dump-Truck of Merit

  1. Were you writing this to me? Convicting. Great insights into an area we don’t like to see.

    • We’d probably get along pretty well Brandon. I’m looking in the mirror here.

      • Must be a 3 way mirror then as I see myself.

        One thing milady amusing with timing though: Today is “world back up” day, so remember not only do we need to avoid backing up the dump truck, we should also start our computers backing up then go spend some time with loved ones. After all you can;t just stare at a progress bar for hours. Turn the things off and spend it with the wife/ family! (after it has backed up)

  2. You can’t say that about everyone… you don’t know me! I’m a great husband and father and just the other day I… ouch… never mind.

  3. This post was super convicting to me. Thank you for writing it.

    I do have one question — is it possible that sometimes the one who is offended or hurt is acting out of idolatry?

    And if so, how do you work through that?

  4. Alright, I’ll bite…

    Isn’t there a useful, edifying, line of questioning that goes something like:

    “What do you mean we’re not close? Didn’t we have a great & fun weekend. Haven’t I been attentive to your needs & feelings? Didn’t we talk for two hour in bed before falling asleep last night?”

    and it truly not be about merit (I have accomplished so much) but about bewilderment (What in the world can make you happy, and bring satisfaction to you? What is it that you need, because obviously I’m missing it)?

    Maybe you’re not saying that any line of questioning is wrong, and you’re only pointing out the possibility that our line of questioning might be a merit dump in disguise.

    In any case, your article was good food for thought.

    • @Tim: Good questions. I’d like to see this addressed, too.

      As I was reading this and thinking: OK, so if her accusation is unfounded, how could the husband ever respond without breaking these litany of sinful pitfalls. It seems he can’t; he’s simply at the mercy of his accuser.

      Simply pointing out “Hey, I’m doing the best I can” is NOT “whistling for the dump-truck of personal merit” in any way that denies or betrays the Gospel. Also conspicuously absent is any hint of critique for the wife; an all too common imbalance I see in much evangelical literature.

  5. @Tim and @Phil.

    Have you found out what she means yet when she says these things? How perhaps she would like to change things so that she feels more connected? I’m sure in this case, there is some wrong on your side and some on hers as well. We never do the best we can (Read Romans 7 sometime…really read it).

    This post was very convicting to me, as I see myself doing it all the time. Thanks for it!

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    […] The dump-truck of merit – Has this ever happened to you: someone offers even a mild critique (or the possibility of one), and you launch into a defense of your personal righteousness before they even know what hit them? No listening to the other person. No learning. Just the dump-truck of personal merit dropping all your supposed good deeds into the middle of the conversation in the hopes that it will end it. If this has happened to you, read this. […]