I have coined this phrase in order to describe the fragility of human righteousness. We are all capable of amazing spiritual feats. We read stories about the amazing miracles performed by Moses in the Bible, or the powerful words spoken by the prophets. But we also hear about healings, spiritual and physical, that happen today. We see Pastors and high school leaders and small group leaders and friends who are just on fire for the Lord and changing lives. All around us, and even in our own lives, we see people achieving things for the Kingdom of God that truly leave us astonished.
I am myself a small group leader, and at times the temptation is to call myself a ‘very good small group leader’. Over the last three or four summers I have watched the people I lead in that group grow exponentially in their faith and devotion to the Lord. Praise God for that. The temptation, however, is to think that my ministry in that small group is what makes me righteous. I feel so powerful when I’m leading a small group, or doing a talk for a group of high school students, or writing a blog post about Jesus. I begin to feel like I could conquer the world. These are mountaintop moments in my life.
But, there are many late nights, even after small group sometimes, when I discover how weak I really am. You know what I mean. These are the times when your shadow life, the part of yourself that you’re trying to leave behind, creeps back in with a vengeance. And the warrior feeling begins to wear off as you are confronted with the weakness of your own righteousness.
It’s in moments like these where I feel like one of those old cardboard cutouts of professional athletes. I used to have one of Michael Jordan palming a basketball. He stood 6’6”, muscular, and stern in my room for years. From the right angle, he looked like the fiercest basketball player in the world, like he could take on anyone. But when pushed or pressured even in the slightest, it would become all to clear that he was only made of cardboard.
This is a cardboard warrior, this is what happens when we are confronted with the fragility of our righteousness. This is who I am.
This realization can happen often, can happen quickly, and can happen to anyone. It happens all throughout the Bible. It happened to David. He was a man after God’s own heart, a writer of Psalms, and yet in the course of one chapter, we see him fall to the sins of lust, adultery, deceit, and murder. (2 Samuel 11) Simon Peter is the same way, within the matter of a few verses in Matthew 16 we see Peter go from being the rock that Jesus’ church will be built on, to Jesus calling him Satan. And then later on in the Gospel, we see Peter stand up for Jesus so intensely that he is willing to cut someone’s ear off, but only a few chapters later, when a young girl asks him about Jesus, he denies even knowing the man. This is the plight of the cardboard warrior, this is human powered righteousness.
When we try and depend on our own ability to be righteous, we discover that we are nothing but cardboard warriors, trying to fight in this world, but push over by even the slightest temptation. We do not have the power to remain righteous, and good, and loving, and joyful, and peaceful, and gracious. Only God can make a cardboard warrior into a king, or an apostle, or a missionary and only God can you up after you’ve been pushed over to make you into a warrior again. Because even when you get blown over, you know that it is God’s righteousness and grace that gives you the strength to keep fighting.