There is a spiritual disease as common as the common cold — but seldom recognized for what it really is. What are its symptoms? How can you tell if you are afflicted with it?
ALL diseases have symptoms. Red eyes, runny nose and a hacking cough are all symptoms of the common cold. Self-righteousness is a spiritual disease, and has its own peculiar symptoms which can be recognized, isolated and worked upon. Of and by themselves the symptoms do not explain what self-righteousness is. They only point out the presence of the malady. But isolating the symptoms will nevertheless be of help in defeating and wiping out the disease. Here then are seven symptoms of self-righteousness, and what can be done to curb and stamp it out.
First and foremost, a self-righteous person is not teachable. The patriarch Job, before his total conversion, was a classic example of self-righteousness. He was not teachable. We read his statement in Job 27:6, "My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go...." Job was sure in his own mind that he was righteous and was not about to be taught to the contrary! Another example of this symptom of unteachableness can be found in Jeremiah 2:35. Jeremiah wrote what God said to the ancient nation of Judah: "Yet thou sayest, Because I am innocent, surely his anger shall turn from me. Behold, I will plead with you, because thou sayest, I have not sinned." Ancient Judah was self-righteous. The people felt they were innocent; they felt they had not sinned. This made God's job of teaching them very difficult. It is virtually impossible to teach a person who thinks and is convinced he is right. However, whenever that person is willing to admit he may be wrong, he has begun to open his mind to instruction. And so a clear sign of self-righteousness is resistance to being teachable. Are you teachable? Are you easy to be intreated? Or are you stubborn — difficult to instruct?
Pride in Obedience
In Luke 18:11-12, we read about the Pharisee who fasted twice in the week. He was proud of his obedience. Today most of us are more sophisticated in the expression of our pride. Rather than telling people outright when we are fasting, or that we give tithes of all our increase and generous offerings besides, we go around dropping hints. But being more sophisticated about it does not make us any less self-righteous. Do you glory in telling your friends you won't be able to accept a dinner invitation because you are fasting? Are you happy to share with your brethren the fact that you don't have finer things because you have "given most of your money to God"? Such hints are symptoms of self-righteousness. They show that in one form or another we are proud of our obedience to God. The opposite of this attitude is humility. True humility leaves no place for self-righteousness. When we strive to do our best in fasting, giving or whatever, but without bragging, recognizing our own shortcomings at the same time, we won't be expressing self-righteousness.
The Self-Oriented Mind
To a self-righteous person, the main theme of conversation revolves around the self. "I," "me" and "my" become the center of conversation, since it is the focal point of one's thoughts. In Job 29, we have an excellent example of the self-oriented mind. In just 25 short verses Job uses the personal pronouns, "I," "me" and "my" 52 times! Job was clearly self-oriented. This is epitomized in verse 14: "I put on righteousness, and it clothed me...." A truly converted spirit-led mind is interested in other people. In Philippians 2:4 we read: "Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others." This Godly focus of attention is clearly away from self. Have you ever listened to a candid tape recording of your own conversation? It is a very interesting exercise. You might be highly embarrassed if you did. It could show how oriented toward self you may really be. Think about the topics of your daily conversations. Do you detect too much self-orientation? The Bible teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. We need to do this more every day, for only then will we truly have other people in our hearts and minds, instead of only the self.
"Doing God a Favor"
The fourth symptom of the disease of self-righteousness is that of feeling we are doing God a service. In Job 35:7 we read that Elihu pointed out to Job: "If you be righteous, what give you him [God]? Or what receives he of your hand?" Job somehow felt that God was highly honored and helped by his service. But in reality God does not need us. We desperately need HIM! The self-righteous person remembers what he has "given up" to serve God. Rather than thinking about what he has gained by serving God, he feels he is a tremendous asset to God, and that God is tremendously benefitted by his servitude. If your child were to come to you and tell you he really adds to the family and that you, the parent, just could not do without him (or her), you would tend to think that child was rather vain in his thinking. Wouldn't you much rather see your child come to you with the attitude, "Thanks, mom and dad, for allowing me to be a part of this family. Thanks for sharing all that you have with me." In this analogy, we should be able to see the difference between the person who thinks he's doing God a service and the person who is grateful that God has allowed him to be part of His Church and His Family.
Lack of Compassion
The self-righteous person lacks compassion — an empathy and feeling for other people. (The word "compassion" comes from the Latin meaning "with feeling.") He is almost invariably critical of others when they sin and judges them harshly. "Why, I wouldn't do that," he tells himself. Thus he can't understand one who does. He is so "righteous" in his own sight it is difficult for him to make allowances for another's weaknesses! He is quick to condemn and point out where he could have done better — but slow to empathize and admit he might have done the same thing under the same circumstances. In Isaiah 65:1-5, we read of ancient Judah's attitude toward people who were sinners. God condemns the people who, while they themselves were sinners, said to other sinners, "Stand by your self, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou." This "holier than thou" attitude is typical of a self-righteous person. Not being able to see his own faults and sins, he is critical of others' mistakes and shortcomings. The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) gives us a good example of a self-righteous person. Three characters are mentioned in this parable, though we often overlook the elder brother of the prodigal son. The elder brother was angry when the prodigal son received forgiveness. He lacked compassion for his licentious, wastrel brother, and was not happy to see him rescued from destitution and at home once again. He was proud of his own obedience while his brother sinned. Thus he was very self-oriented. And lacking compassion, the elder brother was unable to understand that his brother had changed and repented. He thought his brother's return merely meant he — the "faithful" one — was about to lose even more of his patrimony. He was angry at his father for giving more of it to the spendthrift son. In his self-righteousness, he felt that he had been overlooked by his father. Have you ever been prevented from having and expressing true Christian love and doing good deeds for others by similar feelings? Examine yourself to see if you have compassion for your fellow man especially for your brothers and sisters in Christ.
The sixth sign or symptom of self-righteousness is self-pity. We read in Genesis 4:13 that Cain said to God "My punishment is greater than I can bear." In this sense, Cain was self-righteous. He did not want to change his attitude; he didn't ask forgiveness for his sin; he just wanted to wallow in self-pity. Was God so harsh that Cain could not have found forgiveness? The point is that Cain didn't feel truly sorry for his sin. He didn't want to repent. When he was punished, he only felt sorry for himself! Self-pity is a cancer of the spiritual life. It eats away at a person's morale and well-being and destroys the desire to fight back at one's sins and hurdle one's difficulties. Self-pity is a self-defeating attitude. You may recognize wrong in your life, you may see your mistakes, but self-pity will cause you to act as if the situation is hopeless. Self-pity is expressed in the attitude, "Que sera, sera — whatever will be, will be." Rather than change, fighting to pull yourself out of the rut, you just accept the way things are. But self-pity will never make you happy because it is a symptom of self-righteousness!
Justification of Sins
The seventh and last symptom of self-righteousness to be discussed in this article is justification of sin. The truly self-righteous, self-oriented person will justify his own sins. Being righteous in his own eyes, it is easy for him to think he does not have any real sins. So when a fault or a problem is pointed out to him, he justifies and excuses it. This justification makes wrong seem right in his eyes. Long before he comes to the point of calling out and out sin right and good, however, the self-righteous person hides his eyes from his own sins. In Revelation 3:17 we see how this self-righteous attitude works. A great deal of self-righteousness is imputed to the Laodiceans. They have an "answer for everything," including their spiritual slothfulness. In the eyes of God, they are "lukewarm and neither cold nor hot...." But not so in their own eyes. They say, "I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing ...." They justify their lukewarm attitude. In their own minds they make it right. In Job 32:1-2, we find that Job "justified himself rather than God." Job was experiencing a physical trial. He was seemingly being punished by God. So he searched his own heart but could not find a reason for his plight. Therefore, Job concluded that since he was not wrong, God had to be at fault. He felt all of his trials were totally undeserved — that God was unfair and unjust for treating him in such a manner. He wanted to argue the point with God. In one translation we read that Job wanted an umpire or an unbiased judge to sit in judgment between him and God (Job 23). This is the height of self-righteousness! God finally answered Job's self-justifying argument in Job 40:8, "Will you also disannul my judgment? Will you condemn me, that you may be righteous?" This, in fact, is what had happened. Then God was able to convince Job that his attitude was wrong and Job finally saw his own folly. We read his repentant words in Job 42:3, "Therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not." He had come to REAL REPENTANCE, loathed himself, surrendered to God and now repented in dust and ashes Job 42:6).
SELF-Righteousness — or GOD'S Righteousness?
Job had earlier said, as we read in Job 29:14, "I put on righteousness and it clothed me...." And he continued to boast of himself. But that righteousness clearly was not God's righteousness. In Philippians 3:4-9 the Apostle Paul plainly defined the difference between human self-righteousness and God's righteousness. Paul began by listing the various things he could be "proud" of. He then went on to show in verse 8 that he counted all of these past glories as nothing — as so much DUNG! In verse 9 we read why he had given it up, "[To] be found in him [Christ], not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is [comes] through the faith OF Christ, the righteousness which is OF GOD by faith." Paul recognized the difference between self-righteousness and God's righteousness. Before his conversion, Paul had been self-righteous. But after his conversion he became filled with God's righteousness as a result of the faith of Christ in him. In Romans 10:1-3, Paul showed the difference between the Israelites' righteousness and God's righteousness. Lacking the Holy Spirit, the Israelites tried to establish their own righteousness, which became self-righteousness. In verse 3 we read, "For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God." Brethren, are any of us still trying to do the same thing?
Seek God's Righteousness
Jesus said that of Himself He could do nothing John 5:19). He knew it. He admitted it. As a result His righteousness was not self-righteousness; it was God's righteousness. He did not trust in His own power to be righteous. He prayed without ceasing and asked God to impart His righteousness to Him. And just as Jesus looked to His Father for that strength, so we are admonished to "seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness..." (Matt. 6:33). The fight against self-righteousness is a constant battle. It involves daily contact with God through prayer and Bible study — having God and Christ through the Holy Spirit living in you. As God continues to live in you, His righteousness will replace self-righteousness. Galatians 2:20 shows Paul lived with the power of Christ in him. It was his contact with God that gave him the righteousness that he manifested daily. Zechariah 4:6 also explains it: "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts." It is total trust in God for the righteousness that can make you truly righteous. We must do our part, certainly, but the real strength and the help to do it comes from God. And we must seek His help in prayer every day. So during this Passover season, let's each examine himself or herself, searching our hearts and examining our motives, and begin to root out every trace and vestige of self-righteousness!