We are continuing our blog series, “It’s All about Me.” In the series, we are looking at many commonly held belief systems and terms used by our culture. Our aim is to see if our preoccupation with self is helpful for living a happy and successful life. Today, we are looking at self-righteousness.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who acted holier-than-thou?
Did the individual act as though he or she was right and everyone else was wrong?
I’m guessing the answer is yes. We’ve all encountered these people.
How did these encounters make you feel?
Did they make you want to change your ways, or did they make you want to do just the opposite?
Seldom do conversations with self-righteous people make us want to be like them.
But, here’s the burn. You may be self-righteous without even realizing it because self-righteousness is something no one sees in the mirror.
Many people act self-righteous, but they don’t see it that way. Why? Because they see it as being right.
For example, if you catch yourself putting down others’ behaviors and justifying your own, you might be self-righteous.
By the time you finish reading today’s blog, I hope you will recognize your own self-righteousness, if it exists in you, and more importantly, find the cure.
What Does It Mean to Be Self-Righteous?
Here are a few definitions of self-righteous:
Merriam-Webster – “Convinced of one's own righteousness especially in contrast with the actions and beliefs of others: narrow-mindedly moralistic.”
Urban Dictionary – “A self-righteous person acts superior to his peers because he believes his moral standards are perfect. This ‘moral smugness’ is condescending by nature and is usually found offensive by others.”
Cambridge Dictionary – “Believing you are better and more moral than other people, often expressed in an annoying or offensive way.”
In short, a self-righteous person is someone who believes he or she is better than, and morally superior to someone else..
I’m sorry to say this, and please keep it between us, but I think that sounds like a lot of “Christians.” If you call yourself a “Christian,” you really need to examine your heart on the subject. Christian self-righteousness is the worst kind and so repulsive. The exact opposite of what Christ really meant for us to be.
A true Christian never boasts of his own righteousness because a true Christian knows he doesn’t have any through his own initiative. A true Christian knows from where his righteousness really comes.
Self-Righteous Does Not Belong at all to the “Righteous”
Often, people only associate “self-righteousness” with people who are Christians.
This is understandable because the word “righteous” is used throughout the Bible to describe those who conform their heart and lives to godly living.
However, the term “self-righteous” does not belong solely to those who follow God.
In fact, anyone can be self-righteous if they believe their ways are the right ways, and everyone else’s ways are wrong. Sound familiar?
Self-righteousness attitudes are rampant as people become intent on proving their moral superiority.
In the Los Angeles Times article Has Millennials' Self-Esteem Become Self-Righteousness? the author argues, “The indignation and dripping sanctimony we see from so many young activists isn't narcissism, or even the storied self-esteem this generation has been ostensibly mainlining since birth. Maybe it has undergone some sort of chemical conversion into something even more dangerous: self-righteousness.”
Whether you are or aren’t a Christian, you can easily fall into the trap of self-righteousness and the sin of justifying yourself.
The Sin of Justifying Yourself
The “self” tacked on to “righteousness” is the problem. When you start justifying self, you get into trouble.
For example, those who are self-righteous are quick to point out the sins in others to justify their own shortcomings, insecurities, and sinful behavior.
- Hypocrisy: Self-righteousness reeks of hypocrisy.
The Message describes self-righteous hypocrisy this way in Romans 2:1-2: “Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. But God isn’t so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you’ve done.”
- Pride: Those who are self-righteous are often full of pride.
Self-righteousness focuses on the outward behavior of others rather than one’s own heart.
These want attention for their imagined “righteousness,” such as the Pharisees in the Bible. Jesus says, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them (Matthew 6:1 NIV).”
The Pharisees’ self-righteousness and pride prevented them from recognizing and seeing their need of the Savior.
- Judgment: Self-righteousness is fed by judging others.
Over the last 20+ years of pastoral work, the people who often tout “judge not” are often the people who judge the most.
Not only do they judge others, but they make up their own rules for judging others.
They think they are better than others based on actions. They blame others for their own sins, and they justify themselves by judging others.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
– Matthew 7:3-5
The Problem with Self-Righteousness is You are Not God
The problem with self-righteousness is that it makes the person believe he or she is righteous.
They arrogantly put themselves in the position of God bestowing judgment on whomever they see fit. That’s a big problem.
As you read this, if you’re thinking of other people, stop. Consider yourself. Think through your own actions. Apply this to you. The self-righteous will have a difficult time examining their heart. That might be a clue that it’s you.
“Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?”
– Romans 4:11-12
Self-righteous people not only judges others’ sins, but they begin to believe their “self” is “better than” others. The result is they think they don’t need a Savior.
As Steven J. Cole explains, “But it’s a serious, damnable sin because it keeps people from seeing their need for the gospel. It believes the lie that we can be good enough in ourselves to qualify for heaven. Thus we don’t need a Savior who died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins.”
You Cannot Save Yourself. You Need the Savior.
Here’s the truth: no matter how good you are according to the world’s moral standards, you will never be good enough.
You are a sinner. We all are (Romans 3:23).
No matter if we follow most of the rules and keep most of the commandments, it’s impossible to “qualify for heaven” on our own.
Paul David Tripp writes, “Since sin is deeper than bad behavior, trying to do better isn’t a solution. Only grace that changes the heart can rescue us. There is a difference between a person in whom disappointment leads to self-reformation and someone in whom grief leads to heartfelt confession. […] The first person believes in personal strength and the possibility of self-rescue, while the second has given up on his own righteousness and cries out for the help of another.”
That’s why God sent His son, Jesus.
God knew we couldn’t do it on our own.
The penalty for our sin is death. Thankfully, Jesus, who never sinned, came to earth to die for our sin on the cross.
It’s only because of His blood shed for our sins that we are forgiven (Hebrews 9:22).
Acknowledge and confess your sin to any party you injured and to the Lord. Begin with any self-righteousness in your heart. Believe Jesus died on the cross for your sin and place your faith in him as your Savior and Lord.
For those who already are Christians, confess and repent of any self-righteousness in your life, and don’t just confess that to God. Confess it to anyone you’ve been self-righteous toward.
To the Christians, 2 Corinthians 13:5 tells us to “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you -- unless, of course, you fail the test?”