Five characteristics of self-righteousness:
It’s subtle. We don’t know it when we’ve got it.
It’s incremental. It never starts out as self-righteousness but as something positive and good.
It’s addictive. We love it when we’re right and want more.
It’s indiscriminate. Once we see it, it’s everywhere and not just in religious folks.
It’s terribly destructive.
Self-righteousness makes genuine love almost impossible. My friend, Fred Smith, said that it is impossible to love anybody who has sinned unless you are aware that you are capable of the same sin. Self-righteousness destroys relationships simply because it makes it almost impossible to love…impossible to love those who aren’t Christians and impossible to love those who are.
Ever wonder why Christians are so ineffective in our evangelistic efforts? It’s because most people who aren’t believers think of us as angry, condemning, uptight and judgmental. (I know, I know, they are too; but that isn’t the issue. We’re talking about us.) Do you know why they think that? God help us, it is a lot truer than we want to admit. It is the reason Christians can’t get along, why there are such divisions among us, and why we can’t forgive.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells a story about self-righteousness. The story has two people: a very religious man and a horrible sinner who was a dishonest tax collector. Jesus said that the religious man came to the temple to pray, looked down at the sinner, and then prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.”
The tax collector’s prayer was considerably shorter. Jesus said that he couldn’t even look up when he prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Jesus said that the tax collector found favor in God’s eyes (i.e. was justified) and the religious man didn’t. Then Jesus made an astounding statement. He said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In its religious form, self-righteousness is a conviction that one is better than others—morally, spiritually and/or theologically. But the connotation of the word has come to mean something more. In its broader form, it is the spurious view that one is not like other people. Self-righteous people always think they speak as outsiders of the human race. The religious man opened his prayer in Jesus’ story with an interesting statement: “God,” he prayed, “I thank you that I am not like other men.”
It’s hard to be a king, to have won so many battles, and to have people singing your praises...without being self-righteous. Ask David. Don’t ask him when he is doing fine and wielding power; ask him after his fall. It’s a hard lesson but an important one and maybe even worth it: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
There is a story I sometimes tell my seminary students about the young, arrogant preacher who climbed into the pulpit with his “peacock feathers flying in the breeze.” The sermon was a colossal failure. It didn’t even make it to the front row and the young man was devastated. As he walked down the steps from the pulpit, there were tears of shame in his eyes. An old saint standing at the foot of the stairs said not unkindly, “Son, if you had entered the pulpit the way you left it, you might have left the pulpit the way you entered it.”
That’s true when we enter the throne room of a holy God too.
That’s what I know about self-righteousness. What I don’t know is how to fix it. In fact, it is difficult (maybe impossible) to write about self-righteousness without being self-righteous.
So I have no idea how to get better.
I suppose we could have no convictions, never be obedient, and fail at everything we do. However, that violates everything I know about what God would have us be. He wants us to have strong convictions, to be obedient, and to reach for excellence.
I guess we could pretend that we don’t have those convictions and those gifts. However, that is even crazier than trying to get rid of them. There is already enough pretending and, besides, we would then become self-righteous about what we pretend: “Hey, everybody, look at me! You know I’m beautiful, gifted and bright…but I’m pretending that I’m not, and you should praise me for it.”
The secret to getting better might be to simply recognize how difficult it is to get better
So what to do? I don’t know. I wish I had a system to give you or a ten-step program to deal with self-righteousness. There is no system. I wish I could give you a word-for-word prayer to fix it. There isn’t such a prayer. I wish I could tell you how to be really humble. I don’t know how.
Maybe that is the solution. Maybe the solution isn’t in anything you do…but in what you know. The solution isn’t in the discipline of making ourselves less self-righteous. It is in the recognition that we aren’t.
The secret to getting better might be to simply recognize how difficult it is to get better, to go to Jesus with it, and to tell everybody you know that you’ve been to him…and why you went there.