Jesus portrayed self-righteousness as a double-edged sin. One part of it is the pride that it induces: the self-righteous feel proud of themselves. The other part is the way it affects how the self-righteous view others. Not only were the people to whom Jesus addressed the story of the two men at prayer guilty of being complacently pleased with themselves, they were guilty of despising others.
Both sides of this are clear in the Pharisee’s prayer. He was confident in his own righteousness and there was little sign of any affection or tolerance of the people who were guilty of the sins that he had avoided.
The better the self-righteous feel about themselves, the easier it it to look down their noses at other people. And the more they look down their noses at other people, the better they feel about themselves.
A preacher was once asked to conduct the funeral of a notorious scoundrel. The dead man’s brother promised that he would make a significant donation to the preacher’s church as long as, during the service, the preacher referred to the dead scoundrel as a saint. Everyone knew what the man had been; but the preacher agreed to the deal. During the service he spoke about the dead man. He’d been a crook, a liar and a cheat. Looking at the expression on the brother’s face, the preacher added, “however, compared to his brother, he was a saint.
Whether that incident ever took place or not, the point is well made that comparing ourselves with other people can work wonders for our pride and self-esteem. It can, of course, work in the opposite direction if we compare ourselves to the “wrong” kind of people, but our sin appears that bit more excusable when we think about the sins of others. “Thank you, God, that I am not like those other people.”
It is very easy to look down our noses at other people, especially if we have an inflated perception of our own goodness. We look down on people who do things we think we would never do. Sometimes it’s the obvious sinners whose guilt no one disputes: as the Pharisee put it, the extortioners, the dishonest and disloyal, the adulterers.
But sometimes the scope of our lists is wider than the Ten Commandments. We have compiled our own lists to include people who drink alcohol, who smoke the odd cigar, who don’t share our opinion on Global Warming, who have tattoos and piercings, who shop on Sundays, who drive big, fuel-inefficient cars, who put their elderly parents in nursing homes, and so on. Sometimes it is just because they are different. Self-righteousness may even express itself in racism and a sense of cultural superiority.
Every time you find yourself saying (or just thinking) “I would never do something like that”, a warning light should go on because you may be about to begin the slide down the slippery slope of self-righteous judgmentalism.
We become judgmental when we move from the legitimate exercise of discernment to a place where we become fault-finders and nit-pickers. We become hypercritical and condemning. We take on ourselves the role of judge, jury and executioner. If you are more aware of what is wrong with someone else than you are about what is wrong with you you are well on your way to becoming a self-righteous judge.
One of Steve Brown’s observations about self-righteousness is that it is destructive. Self-righteousness destroys relationships because it makes it very difficult to love other people. How can you really love another person who is not the same as you, especially when you take pride in the very thing that sets you apart? How can you fully love someone who is less than perfect?
The late Fred Smith said,
It is impossible to love anybody who has sinned unless you are aware that you are capable of the same sin.
That calls for a humble recognition that we are still clay pots, and that, truly, “there but for the grace of God go I.” That is not the kind of thought that comes easily to the self-righteous.
This is why self-righteousness is so harmful to the life of a church. A church is a community of forgiven sinners. It’s a community of people who have realised their need for mercy. It is an imperfect community whose members are called in the New Testament to forgive one another. The self-righteous spirit that boasts in its own achievements while it gloats over others’ failures will make true community practically impossible.
Self-righteousness will bring a chill to a marriage. How many marriage relationships endure a cold war state because of the self-righteousness of the partners? It’s the husband who keeps count of his wife’s failures while at the same time keeping an impressive list of all the sacrifices he has made for her. It’s the wife who can only see her husband’s contribution to last week’s argument that has silenced communication for the past four days. Marriage is a partnership of two imperfect people. Imperfect people cannot get along without the kind of grace that is the antithesis of self-righteousness.
A Sunday School teacher once taught her class the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. She ended the lesson with a prayer:
God we thank you that we are not like this Pharisee.
Therein lies part of the subtlety of self-righteousness. We become self-righteous judges of the self-righteous. We can spot them a mile off but we cannot see the self-righteousness lurking in our own hearts: self-righteousness that causes us to judge and look down on others.