By Josh Laxton
We live in a world filled with self-righteous people, groups, and institutions.
Self-righteousness is more than a trait—it is a state, a condition, or a way of life. It refers to those who are holier-than-thou, pharisaic, or sanctimonious. It’s a prideful reliance on who one is and what one does—in other words, someone full of themselves. While it can be subtle, it is clearly manifested in the antagonistic pious postures that people or groups have towards others.
The reality is, self-righteousness can be found virtually anywhere two or more are gathered. It can be lurking in families, organizations, politics, and yes, even churches.
Although self-righteousness can be easily diagnosed by others, it is hard for those who are self-righteous to receive the diagnosis.
To help make that diagnosis, here are seven identifiers of self-righteousness.
1)The self-righteous see themselves as better than, not better together.
Self-righteous groups or people walk around snubbing their nose in a pious manner as if they are spiritually, morally, physically, and intellectually superior than all other groups or people. The result, they consider themselves “better than” others.
A “better than” others mentality forfeits the joyful and powerful experience of a “better together” mindset. In other words, those who see themselves as “better than” will find themselves living in isolation rather than living in community.
2)The self-righteous blame others for their failures rather than take ownership of them.
God, approaching Adam and Eve in their hiding, asks them, “Who told you that you were naked?” From the readers account, it is a fairly simple and straightforward question; yet, they turned it into a complex answer, one that passed the buck to the next. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and the serpent does not say anything. No one took responsibility, and the fear and embarrassment they were feeling came as a result of someone else’s doing, not their own.
The garden was the birthplace of self-righteousness. But since then, self-righteousness has pervaded the globe. It can be found anywhere people don’t take ownership of their mistakes…their failures…their sin. And just so we are clear, ownership doesn’t include watered-down platitudes like, “Yeah, but it wasn’t that bad,” or “you made me do it.”
The reality is, self-righteous people have a hard time seeing and owning their failures. For many, they believe to achieve their understanding of salvation (based upon works) they cannot fail—at least for optics sake. In other words, they believe they need to keep a good clean public image, devoid of any blemishes. And if they do somehow fall publicly, they become self-protective and resort to lying or distorting the truth or mischaracterizing (and demonizing) someone or something else as to shift the focus off of them.
Eventually, the self-righteous lose credibility with the public because the public sees through their hypocrisy.
3)The self-righteous are selfish, not selfless.
Those with snubbed pointing noses do not live life in order to serve others. Rather everything they do, or want done to them, serves their self-righteous interests. Even in the offering up of prayers and gifts, the self-righteous have as the ultimate recipients, themselves.
For instance, the prayers and gifts of the Pharisees were more for the praise they would receive from man than it was for pleasing the heart of God. That’s why Jesus said, “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matt 23:25).
How can you ultimately tell if the offerings (e.g., prayer, money, service) offered flow from a self-righteous heart? The offerings will never be sacrificial, but superficial. In other words, they will never cost the giver anything, but will be seen as currency to buy food for the insatiable hungers of a selfish heart.
4)The self-righteous are repulsive, not attractive.
No one wants to be around people or groups that are self-righteous.
The self-righteous show no love, no grace, no mercy, no compassion. If they do have grace in their life, it is for themselves and no one else. In addition, their life is constrained by law—making sure they measure up. And since they live their life by trying to measure up, they tear everyone else down. Thus, they are very quick to point out the speck in someone else’s eye while having a massive plank in theirs.
The truth is, there is nothing attractive about being around the self-righteous. They may appear attractive on the outside, but their internal condition releases a hideous odor that drives people away. As Jesus stated about the Pharisees, they are like white-washed tombs.
5)The self-righteous see themselves as exclusive purists, not inclusive persons.
Self-righteous zealots are very protective who they associate with, or who they allow in their group. Only those similar and like-minded are invited inside the gates of the self-righteous.
Unless you side with the self-righteous, agreeing with them in everything, you will be shamed and shunned. You will be viewed as a traitor, a sinner, an evil doer, a non-conformer, a person who has “not seen the light.”
The self-righteous will not let competing ideas, thoughts, sides, or people enter into their faux-perfect world. They must keep it clean from outsiders.
6)The self-righteous are haughty, not humble.
The self-righteous need no help. They can achieve everything—including salvation—on their own. Their faith and hope are in their ability, morality, and works. If they looked in a mirror and said, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the greatest one of all?” They would hear the mirror answer, “You.”
Such a haughty posture leads to a rigid life devoid of grace. They don’t believe they need grace—given their stellar ability to perform—therefore they don’t show any grace. Haughtiness, therefore, hardens one’s heart preventing them from seeing their true need for God and seeing the true needs of others.
7)The self-righteous need more self, not more Jesus.
Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14) where both go up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee, “standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘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 Pharisee basically communicated to God, “Look at who I am and what I have done; you should be proud of me!” Such a prayer praises the self and feeds the heart of the self-righteous.
But, the tax collector, “standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” The tax collector expressed his need of God. He needed God’s grace to cover his mess. More of God’s grace is something the self-righteous never need or even think they need. They just need to do more or try harder.
The Blinding Sin and the Gracious Savior
Self-righteousness is blinding. For one to say they don’t deal with self-righteousness is in and of itself a self-righteous statement. Realistically, self-righteousness permeates the hearts of human beings and the groups and institutions of which we inhabit. It basically espouses that we don’t need God, and that we are, in some sense, a god unto ourselves. Even those who have been awakened by the gospel of Christ can find themselves relapsing into the dormant disease of self-righteousness.
Although it is a blinding sin, the good news is that there is a gracious Savior to open our eyes of self-righteousness and to save us from our self-righteousness. The gospel teaches us that Jesus:
- Didn’t see himself as “better than” us but clothed himself in human flesh
- Took ownership of our sin although he was sinless
- Selflessly came to serve and give his life as a ransom for our sin
- Demonstrates the love of God for fallen humanity in dying in our place
- Invites the “whosoever wills” to come to God
- Humbly submits himself for the Father’s glory and the world’s good
- Gives us himself and the Spirit to live a life we could never live
In short, Jesus selflessly gives us his righteousness so that we can be new creations that selflessly and sacrificially love God and love others. And thus the gospel is the antidote for the disease of self-righteousness.
In a world filled with self-righteousness, may the church be the fragrant aroma of Christ’s selfless and sacrificial love.
Josh Laxton currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, Lausanne North American Coordinator at Wheaton College. He has a Ph.D. in North American Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.