Paul has been talking about his own people, the Jews, as he discusses the fact that the Jews have been cut off from God’s favor, his mercy and grace, as a result of their disobedience. In Romans 10, he talks about the fact that the Jews are zealous for God, but they didn’t understand who God is, nor what he was saying to them. Their understanding wasn’t based on what God had said about them, but what they had said about God.
Specifically, here is his statement:
For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.Romans 10:2-3
My experience with Muslims
Very frequently, I find this to be the case with the Muslims that we work with. At least in the times that I sit and talk with them, they have little understanding of the history of their own faith. For example, they will frequently speak of Adam, of Abraham, or Moses, but they have never read or understood the actual stories of these people. They will say that they have heard the stories from the Qur’an, which they say is the same as that of the Torah – although it is not at all! – and so they think that they understand.
The Qur’an, meanwhile, points adherents of Islam back to the Torah and the Injeel to “gain wisdom”, but few ever do. So they remain ignorant of the truth of the story, a story that, if they understood, could radically change the course of their lives!
So, I find that this statement from Paul seems to ring true to me in my experience of working with Muslims. They might be zealous for God, but their zealousness is not based on knowledge. For most of the people that I have worked with, if they had knowledge, of what God has said, they should have been led to a different conclusion than what they have come to up to now.
In fact, instead, Paul goes on to say that because they didn’t know the righeousness of God, they go on to invent their own. Many of the Muslims that I have worked with have explained to me how God will judge people. They talk about an angel standing on our shoulders and a demon standing on the other shoulder beckoning each of us to either do something good or to do something bad. Then on the judgment day, they have told me that God will count up the good deeds or the sins (the “mistakes”, as they have said) and this will be the basis for determination upon which God will make his judgment to allow them into paradise or not.
But as Paul says above, they are establishing their own sense of righteousness, their own sense of what it means to be righteous. Instead of listening to what God says about who he is and the definition of righteousness according to him, my Muslim friends are instead inventing their own.
But are we, as a people, any better? Don’t we establish our own sense of righteousness as well? Aren’t we also acting without knowledge? Are we not also acting in ignorance?
Yes, we do this by determining our standing in our society based on our relative goodness as compared to other people. “I am a good person”, we might think. “I haven’t killed anyone or even seriously harmed anyone. I’m not like those other people.”
And that may be true, but we are establishing our own sense of righteousness in that case. We are speaking and acting not based on knowledge of what God has to say but instead based on what we have to say.
And this is, I believe, the core of the problem. We, as people, shape and mold God into our image. Instead of remembering that God has made us in our image, we make him into ours.
Instead of understanding what he has to say about our relationship with him, we instead choose to believe what we have to say about our relationship with him.
And so our understanding becomes flipped, completely 180 degrees off of what is true, and upside-down, because we hold ourselves up as the knowledgable ones. We determine that we know how our relationship with God works. We are prideful and say that we can determine how God will see us, when what we have missed all along is understanding what God has said about us.
So I believe that we need to continue to return back to the Word of God, to understand what God is saying about who we are, who he is, and how he desires to relate to us. If we do this, then we are no longer establishing our own righteousness, but instead we are living according to true righteousness, that which comes from God and not from ourselves. We will now live based on knowledge and any zeal that we have will be based on a true understanding of our relationship with him.