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The Self-Righteous Mind

• Greg Boyd

This past weekend, Greg opened up our new series with 1 Corinthians 16:14 – “Let all that you do be done in love.” We discuss how to be Kingdom people in dealing with difficult conversations on controversial topics, all while keeping Jesus at the center.

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Today we’re beginning a new series called, “The Crux of The Matter” where we’ll be exploring how to be Kingdom people when talking about difficult topics, especially those such as theology and politics.

It’s helpful to know the backstory on how this particular sermon series came about, because it resonates with so many things we’re hearing from Woodland Hills attendees as we navigate Kingdom living in this very tense cultural moment. A couple different podrishoners emailed in and shared how much they are loving the teachings from Woodland. They are coming out of an Evangelical background, and as their picture of God has grown to look like Jesus and they have adopted a mission to live out the ethics of the Kingdom, they realize they have a problem. In their lives, they still interact with friends, family members, fellow church members, pastors, etc. who fear that they are becoming “liberal” because they are talking about Kingdom values: loving the poor, loving enemies, focusing on the Kingdom of God over national. 

So in this series we’re asking the question: How do we dialogue lovingly with folks when we see someone so fundamentally different?

There are three pieces of Scripture that Greg asks us to consider when we’re approaching people we know we’re going to disagree with:

1 Corinthians 16:13-14

Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.

1 Corinthians 13:1

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal. 

1 John 3:16

Here is how we know what love is. Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. So also we should lay down our lives for one another.


The reality is when we have hard conversations, we can win the debate, but lose the relationships if we’re not vigilant and loving.

 Greg gives this phrase to hold onto through the series:

Love is the all or nothing of the Kingdom.


To know how to engage lovingly and as Kingdom people, we need to understand how the brain works in moments of conflict.  Evolution has affected the brain in that hundreds of thousands of years ago, the brain had one function: to protect the person/rider. Our brains and societies have evolved, so we need to evolve with them, meaning we cannot rely on the rush of adrenaline and chemicals that come into our brain to physically protect us, because we’re in less danger than cave people — yet, whenever we’re in conflict, our brain thinks we’re in the same peril.

To help us understand this, Greg gave us a picture (and if you watch the video, you can see it for yourself.)

The picture shows of an elephant with a rider. Imagine now that the elephant is your brain, and the rider is your higher reasoning function.

The brain is like an elephant­– it has been evolving for several hundred years. The most fundamental job of the brain is to protect the person with the brain. So, you look for the threat or advantages of your environment that will create fight, flight, or accept.  The brain helps the elephant get what it wants/needs to survive.

The “riders” are your reasoning functions and are relatively new to the evolution of the brain.

 The job of reason is to justify what the brain wants to explain why we did something. Also, we want to work with others because that’s crucial to survival.  So the reasoning functions of our brain come in and justify why the elephants should get what they want.

This is what makes talking about certain topics difficult. We’re feeling triggered/in danger so our reasoning function steps in when we can’t physically run from our conflict and justifies us saying or doing hurtful things to the person who posed a “danger” to us.  This cycles creates “self-righteousness”. We get locked into that self-righteousness and it makes it hard for us to have civil, kind conversations with people we disagree with. Vilifying the other is a result of our brains wiring in this way.

But here’s the good news: You can nudge your elephant… it takes great intentionality.

Reason has three jobs:

1.  It helps the elephant get what it wants

2. It justifies why the elephants should get what it wants

 As Kingdom person, we need to assign another job to the Rider:

 3. Examine, should the elephant get what it wants?

 Self-awareness can only influence the elephant if there is something more valuable than the elephant.

Greg points us to 2 Corinthians 5 as a foundation for this ethos:

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

The revelation of God in Christ compelled Paul to do something that his natural elephant wouldn’t want to do. And this can be the case for us too, when we engage with people we disagree with, because Scripture reminds us, “If you want to find your life, you have to lose it.”

It’s an intentional practice every single day to choose Christ-likeness over self-righteousness/self-justification.

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Topics: Kingdom of God, Politics

Sermon Series: Crux of the Matter

Downloads & Resources

Audio File
Study guide

Focus Scripture:

  • 1 Corinthians 16:13-14

    Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.

  • 1 John 3:16

    Here is how we know what love is. Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. So also we should lay down our lives for one another.

  • 2 Corinthians 5:14-15

    For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

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8 thoughts on “The Self-Righteous Mind

  1. Simon Oliver says:

    the elephant = the ego = the flesh?

    1. Paige Slighter says:

      Hey Simon,
      I’m on the communication team and I was able to pass along your question to Greg Boyd. In response he wrote:

      “I think the RIDER would be the ‘ego,’ the Elephant would be your ‘ID’ – everything about your brain that is
      Pre-conscious. And I wouldn’t IDENTIFY the Elephant with the flesh, for the elephant is simply everything that is
      Instinctive about you, and much of that is good. The ‘flesh’ that Paul talks is a false way of looking at the world –
      Living in the world AS THOUGH physical existence was the totality of existence. But I would say that your elephant
      Is at home in a purely physical world, since that’s the only world it has been aware of. So it does what it wants to do
      Without any consideration of God, right, or wrong. Unless the rider steers it otherwise – which takes intentionality and
      Persistence – the elephant will always strongly incline toward the ‘flesh.’

      Hopefully that helps! Thanks!

      1. Simon Oliver says:

        Awesome! Thanks for the answer, it really helped a whole lot. Absolutely enjoying this series.

  2. Jerry says:

    Wow once again Greg blew my mind. I hardly know where to start.

    I agree with Greg 100%. True science and true bible alien exactly.

    However there is one small problem. Science has no room for an angry God. That’s the whole problem with the liberal conservative thing going on in this country. Aside from the political arena a conservative by definition in someone who is very fearful of the future so they live in the past (survival mode). A liberal finds the past problematic and looks towards the future.

    That has a lot to do with which side of your brain you use. Let me try to do a dance with science and the bible.

    Equate the reptilian brain (fear flight), nervous system to the body and Jesus who says 365 times in the Bible, one for each day, Fear not. If the body signals defeat it collapses and disengages. We and others cease to matter.

    Equate your mammalian brain to the soul and the Holy Spirit. Our subconscious mind and emotions uses current sensory input plus past perceptions of reality, a library in our hippocampus referencing all the stored scripts via the interconnections of our neurons, to accumulate and combine millions of partial truths and volumes of incomplete data sometimes aided by voices from the dark kingdom and, for Jesus followers, promptings from the Holy Spirit so as to manage to put together a somewhat cohesive pattern of reality.

    Romans 7:15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. I consider this is a right/left hemisphere battle. I believe that the prosecuting attorney Satan, the accuser in us, is at war with the Holy Spirit, our defense attorney, inside our soul. Think of one of the functions of the Holy Spirit as a malware alert for stinking thinking. The brain left to its’ self has a (s)elf (i)ndulgent (n)ature directing you through the left hemisphere than forward resulting in Platonic dualism (either/or) survival frontal lobe thinking.

    Jeremiah 17:9 “The Heart (outer heart) is deceitful beyond imagination. Who can tame it?” (JESUS!!!)

    Equate the neocortical brain and the (inner heart afferent pathway) to the spirit and the Father.

    If we 2 Corinthians 10:5 we demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ are mindfully present in the Now moment, refraining from fearful and judgmental thinking, we will hear the whisper from our inner heart brain afferent pathway and will operate via our right, others oriented, hemisphere and then to the left side for sequencing but adding, coherent from right passed, others oriented plans and then forward to the frontal lobe resulting in creative tri-nary (and) thinking.

    From, Process theology God takes ALL the say-so’s of a plethora of spirits, principalities and powers, that includes us, and creates ex nihilo out of nothing the unseen, from atoms, the next now moment using the history of say-so’s from the past and then whispers, if we are listening, our best choices forward, not about details he loves creativity, in the area of others orientated thinking not self.

    This is just my take and like science, with more information, subject to change.

    Greg nailed this but I want to add some insights.

    Rivalries among apes are held in check and kept from violent escalation by the establishment of dominance patterns. A male chimp will make a periodic display of strength and courage that discourages competitors and keeps them subordinate, and a hierarchy fairly stabilizes relations.

    Early hominids did not have such a built-in instinctual braking mechanism on reciprocal violence, or more accurately instinctual mechanisms were outstripped by the blessing of a superabundance of (mirror neurons), giving a hugely expanded capacity for imitation far beyond that possessed by the apes.

    The abundance of mirror neurons, and the corresponding hyper-mimetic capacity was also a curse because it made it impossible to restrain acquisitive desires, even in the face of threats and dominance displays by alpha-males. The mimetic capacity of Homo sapiens is at once an attractive and a repulsive force. Imitating the other’s feelings and desires leads to empathy and closeness but when the imitated desire is an acquisitive one, seeking to possess a particular object, imitation easily results in violent confrontations of the others perceived violent intentions. Consider two children in a nursery and do we really grow out of this?

    So unlike the animal kingdom with its built in braking mechanism, (dominance/submission), humans, left to ourselves, having mirror neurons, unconscious imitation/copy devices of each other’s desires, tend to escalate things out of proportion leading to hostilities as we so often see in politics. Not only can we imitate one other but we can also discern their intentionality, but we don’t always get it right.

    So Consciously 2 Corn 10:5 take captive every thought. Ultimately, imitate follow Jesus will be the best antidote.

    I have been following Greg very closely and putting some stuff together for the last five years and will end with a link to it.

    On the link page given: Neuro Transformation is some stuff on a course Greg and Al Larson taught a few years back.

    Mindfulness, The Identity Gap and (Three Brains – page #84) are some good science stuff. All three end with some really good stuff from a series Greg did a few years back.

    Please forgive me Greg for grabbing your stuff but it was soooo good!

    If you are interested in Mimetic Theory and mirror neurons – page #36

    You can get some brain left right hemisphere insights on page #175

    Also: If you’re interested in a little more detail on my dance above see The Triune Brain from Bottom to Top. Page #30


  3. Jerry says:

    The book Greg’s sermon is on, ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion’, I was all jazzed about and about to order when I remembered I created a PDF with over 10,000 book summaries and a found this book.

    My list: https://www.scribd.com/document/401350422/10-000-Plus-Book-Summaries-Search-by-Title.pdf#page=255
    It’s a short summary but you can click read more….

    There is a group of people doing a really good job on compressing books. In the nonfiction/management/self-improvement genre they read, it seems there’s a magical page number that books target for marketing purposes 250 pages. Fewer than this and the book can’t command a reasonable price ($20 for a 50-page pamphlet seems rich, no matter how dense and insightful it is). More than 250 pages and the book seems inaccessible. Greg! So nonfiction books often get puffed up beyond what’s sufficient for comprehension. Their summaries usually have between a 10:1 to 20:1 page ratio – a 300-page book will be condensed to 15-30 pages.

    Check these summaries out for a start. Good stuff! Thinking, Fast and Slow (a Nobel laureate), Principles, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Mindfulness in Plain English, Why We Get Sick, An American Sickness, Essentials of the US Healthcare System, How Not to Die, The Power of the Habit, Principles: Life and Work, 12 Rules for Life, Give and Take and How to Win Friends. If you like any of them buy em!

    A side note: I stumbled on a Bible Gateway key word search option.
    I’m attempted to create a keyword/phrase assist for the above search or, by default, a general call to Bible Gateway.

    I researched some assist options and came up with three, two of which I interface with.
    • picture based (interface) – great public domain imagery
    • brief summary (interface)
    • one sentence chapter summary with imagery (this is sum what weak) – I could use some better data if you have any!

    A sent it to Woodland Hills and got this back.

    Very cool! Thanks for sharing!
    Paige K Slighter
    Communication Arts Director Woodland Hills

    So I’m sharing the link: The Scribd search may not work for your device so then just download it.

    Here is the link: https://www.scribd.com/document/401515512/The-Bible-Gateway-Chapter-Summary-Index

    Simon’s post: the elephant = the ego = the flesh?

    That’s an interesting thought. In a prior post: I agreed with Greg 100%. True science and true bible alien exactly.
    About the ego. That kind of a Jungian Freudian thing.

    I shared with the pastor at the nursing home, where my mom is, Greg’s statement: True science and true bible thinking alien exactly. She said my people have known this for thousands of years. She is a Sioux Indian. She led me to this book Mitakuye Oyasin We are all related. Dr Ross states the Sioux thinking correlates well with Jungian Psychology interlaced with Freudian Parapsychology correlating with information being stored in the collective unconscious operating from the right side of the brain as instinctive holism. We westerners operate from the left, the rugged individualists, while the Indians acted as a community. We thought they were savages, not human, because they appeared to us as an animal pack with its built in braking mechanism, (dominance/submission) however they were actually acting in the fashion of peace joy and love one another. The gospel of the kingdom. Animal pack versus mirror neurons relates to my prior post.

    “I simply believe that some part of the human self or soul is not subject to the laws of space and time.” Carl Jung

    Philemon and other figures of my fantasies brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche that I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life. Philemon represented a force that was not myself. In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said
    things which I had not consciously thought. For I observed clearly that it was he who spoke, not I. He said I treated thoughts as if I generated them myself, but in his view thoughts were like animals in the forest, or people in a room, or birds in the air, and added, ‘If you should see people in a room, you would not think that you had made those people, or that you were responsible for them’. It was he who taught me psychic objectivity, the reality of the psyche. Through him the distinction was clarified between myself and the object of my thought. He confronted me in an objective manner, and I understood that there is something in me which can say things that I do not know and do not intend, things which may even be directed against me. Carl Jung.

    Jung’s account of ‘Philemon’ presents us with a distinct psychic entity. Are such entities to be understood as a manifestation to us of disincarnate spiritual entities or, reflecting Jung’s language of ‘archetypes residing in the unconscious’, as a manifestation of the depth of our own psyches? This is the Greg Boyd Walter Wink debate.

    Now we are getting into Walter Wink thoughts however Jung’s friend Philemon is more of Shamanic thinking.

    Which takes a us back to Greg’s sermon about a month ago. I believe this is what was on the board.

    Edith Turner: My research was developing into the study of a twice-repeated healing ritual. To my surprise, the healing of the second patient culminated in my sighting a spirit form. In a book entitled Experiencing Ritual, I describe exactly how this curative ritual reached its climax, including how I myself was involved in it; how the traditional doctor, Shaman, bent down amid the singing and drumming to extract the harmful spirit; and how I saw with my own eyes a large, gray blob of something like plasma emerge from the sick woman’s back.

    Then I knew the Africans were right. There is spirit stuff. There is spirit affliction. It is not a matter of metaphor and symbol or even psychology. I began to see how anthropologists have perpetuated an endless series of put-downs about the many spirit events in which they participated in a kindly pretense. They might have obtained valuable material, but they have been operating with the wrong paradigm, that of the positivists’ denial.

    This has really been toying with my mind. What is this Shamanism? The scariest thing is when I look at it, it aliens exactly with True science and true bible. So what’s up with that?

    If this interreges you here’s a link: https://www.scribd.com/document/399524340/#page=317

    You can skip over a lot of stuff by just doing a search on Jung or shaman

    If you are interested in the (Boydian Winkian) debate state on page 311

  4. Ruth says:

    I listen to my Elephant, unless he has that stuff running down the sides of his temples. Then he is in rut. When you in rut, you act like a nut.

  5. Jerry says:

    Greg’s’ sermon, Bad Elephant, was every insightful.

    As I listened closely I was referencing back to a comment, http://whchurch.org/sermon/the-self-righteous-mind/#comment-210041 I had made and was surprised to see how closely they connected. In reference to link below see – page #30

    For a living I wrote computer template prototypes, artificial intelligence loosely if you will, and my missing out of place thinking mandated me to make a couple small changes, in my thinking, in light of the brilliance of his sermon.

    I say loosely in sense that science has proven that a cell, somewhat perfected a long, long, long time ago, is at least a million times more complex than a quantum computer.

    As Greg so well stated: We do have a fixed set of genes in our chromosomes, DNA genetic predisposition not destiny, but which of those genes are active and how they are expressed, epigenetics, has a great deal to do with how we think and process our lifestyles, our environment and effects our next four generations Exodus 20:5 or Ezek 18:19-20. For more on this:


    In Eric Kandels’ 2000 Nobel Prize discoveries concerning signal transduction in the nervous system he stated the cosmos is wired for love and optimism. He said there are tinkerers in a quest for the best chooses. The question Greg puts forth is to what degree might some of the tinkerers, agents in charge of spiritual realms of power, gone amuck.

    From Henry Clouds’ book The Power of the Other, page 5-6, is a good example of the entanglement of Spiritual realms of power:

    “The Seal Team hell week has a swim. Mark has already made it, passed the test but Bryce hit the wall”.

    Incoherent low energy, flashlight, thinking of failure “as he begins to sink in the cold water”. The spirit of failure is a domain of power. The spirit of his team in another domain of power. The spirit of failure entangles with the spiritual domain of his team.

    “As he was about to call for help his eyes fell upon Mark standing on the shore who seeing him gives him a huge fist pump and a yell. Their eye lock and something happened.”

    Mark sent a high energy coherent, laser beam, energy to a different spiritual realm that entangled and overtook the failure energy prior sown to the team spirit.

    “His body jumped into another gear, into another dimension of performance that he had not access to before and he finished and became a Seal too.”

    According to science, Rupert Sheldrake example, and from theology, Walter Wink, there are a plethora of spiritual realms. Examples: the Seal unit, the Division, the Navy, the Department of Defense, the USA and they are all entangled and everything affects everything. If Mark would have thought Bryce is a jerk would that act as a hand pushing him under the water? Is there a spirit, a tinker, in charge of this realm? Can it act independently or is the net effect of this realm the combined energies of all the members involved.

    Do all realms work this way or just most in that some tinkerers do go amuck? This is the Wink Boyd debate.

    If interested prior link: The Scapegoat mechanism see – page #335

    Dealing with the elephant has a lot to do with hemisphere thinking.

    The left hemisphere is integrally involved in the production of positive affect and carrying out practiced activities or familiar modes of apprehension. The left seems at its best when what is and what should be done are no longer questions, when tradition governs behavior and the nature and meaning of things has been fixed. The danger, as Greg stated, is the tendency to always run in the realm.

    The right hemisphere inversely is in direct contact with, appears specialized for encounter, the unknown and its terrors which are apperceived in the domain of instinct, motivation and affect long before they can be classified or comprehended intellectually.

    Getting the Two Brains Together for Creativity – page #177

    Jordan Peterson has done a great job of explaining ancient culture in Maps of Meaning – page #453

    Rene Girard – mimetic theory is a slightly different angle – page #36

    In dealing with your elephant, Greg and Al Larson, in their course work cooperating with God for a change, Personal Transformation Training and Escaping the Matrix might be of some help:


  6. Tyler says:

    My wife, Naomi, and I recently started watching Greg’s sermons as our Saturday morning routine (with freshly brewed coffee of course). Absolutely one of the best decisions we’ve made. As part time pastors in our local church with full time jobs during the week, we always look forward to kicking back and hearing Greg’s message before our week begins. I could write and write about how much Greg’s teachings/books have helped to transform our lives, but for now I will just say that this message in particular helped spark a wonderful conversation with our friends about taming our elephants and seeing others’ narrative with understanding and grace. Thanks again for the life giving message, Greg. God bless!

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