Could you be guilty of this deadly, insidious sin? How can you be sure?
I hate bugs. Always have. I guess the reason I hate bugs is that we didn't have bugs in our house when I was a kid. Well, maybe an occasional ant wandered into our house, but a quick spray of ant killer put an end to that nonsense in a hurry. What I mean is that we never had any bad bugs — like roaches. The fact that we had no bugs, while others did, made me feel superior — that I was even in a separate class above those who did have bugs. After all, I reasoned, our house was bug-free because it was clean. Other houses must be a mess or they wouldn't have bugs. So you can imagine my concern (no, make that my horror) when, having grown up, married and just bought a new house, I arose late one night to get a glass of milk, only to turn on the light and discover bugs! In my house! Mine! Thousands of them. And they were the much-despised roaches! I learned a lesson from this experience. I learned that everyone has bugs from time to time and may not even know it. Even me. Even you. But the bugs I want to write of here aren't the kind we get in our kitchens. Rather, they are spiritual pests; they are the sins we commit. Of course, everyone has sins, but the problem is that sometimes we don't think we have them (at least not the bad ones).
How about you? Do you have spiritual bugs and not know it? If so, you may be engaged in a self-deception that could rob you of your eternal life. Consider Paul's warning on the subject in Galatians 6:3: "For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself." Deceiving ourselves is the worst type of deception possible. Yet the capacity for self-deception lurks in everyone of us. And consider for a moment the consequences of this self-deception. Read the account Jesus gave of the publican and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. Here Jesus gives us a parable about "some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others" (verse 9). Despising others is a common attitude of the person who is self-righteous. The Pharisee thought he was righteous — full of virtues. He prayed and thanked God for all those supposed virtues. The publican, who knew he was a sinner, humbly prayed and confessed his sins before God. And the results? God heard the prayer of the sinning publican, but not that of the "righteous" Pharisee. The Pharisee was not justified (his sins were not forgiven) because he would admit to no sin in the first place (verse 14). Could this be happening to you? Think about it! You could be like this Pharisee and not even know it. Your prayers could be hindered, and your sins could remain unforgiven. This is serious! Jesus tells us, "Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20). Do you want to enter God's Kingdom? Then you need to be sure that your righteousness is real and not self-righteousness. Here's how.
All have sinned
To begin with, you must first see any possible self-righteousness. And to see self-righteousness, you must first know exactly what it is. Self-righteousness is the attitude of believing you are not a "big" sinner. (Even a self-righteous person will occasionally admit in public or to himself that he might possibly be sinning in some area.) The Pharisee of Jesus' parable is a classic example of self-righteousness. He clearly shows the attitude of "I'm not a sinner" (i.e., " I don't have any bugs — at least not any bad ones!"). Self-righteousness is insidious because it blinds itself to the facts. Jesus Christ pointed out the deceptiveness of self-righteousness when He chastised the Pharisees (Matt. 23). He repeatedly pointed to the fact that they were blinded spiritually.
How you can know
If self-righteousness can blind you to itself, how can you know if you have it? Start by admitting at least the possibility that you may have some self-righteousness, and then look at some of the telltale signs to see if they could apply to you. Among the signs are the verbal expressions that the self-righteous person will find himself saying (or thinking, which is just as bad). These include expressions like "I would never do that" or "How can she be like that?" or "I can't believe that I've done anything wrong." These are all expressions reminiscent of my "I would never have bugs" attitude and, although merely outward expressions, they show self-righteousness inside. Jesus plainly taught that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). It may be that those who say these things are deceived, and sincerely believe that they are telling the truth. Perhaps we don't see ourselves as capable of committing a particular sin. If this is the case, it would pay us to examine ourselves carefully, for we may be committing the same sin we condemn in others (Rom. 2:1-3)! There are also some telltale attitudes that indicate self-righteousness. One is a condescending attitude. Such an attitude is the opposite of Jesus' attitude and comes from self-righteousness. Judging — the act of passing an opinion (even to ourselves mentally) about the spiritual motives of a person when you don't have the facts or it's not your place to do so — is also wrong and shows self-righteousness. It is this very attitude that Jesus attempted to combat in the story of the mote and the beam (Matt. 7:1-6). Harshness in dealing with others is also an attitude indicating self-righteousness. Recall that Jesus told the parable of the publican and the Pharisee to combat the self-righteousness of some who "despised others" (Luke 18:9). Despising others and treating them harshly because "they're not as good as you are" is a self-righteous attitude. Related to harshness but slightly different is being overly strict. Sometimes we automatically require others to adhere to our strict interpretations so that they (like us, we think) will be righteous. Paul showed the error in this type of reasoning when he stated: "For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness [i.e., self-righteousness], have not submitted to the righteousness of God [instead, they go by their own standards and rules]" (Rom. 10:3). Recall that Jesus said it was not wrong for His disciples to pick a few handfuls of grain on the Sabbath to eat right then, whereas the self-righteous and overly strict Pharisees would have forbidden the disciples from doing so (Matt. 12:1-7). Not only are thoughts and attitudes telltale signs of self-righteousness, but certain actions also indicate the problem. The action of avoiding or refusing to visit or be seen with certain people even at church services may display self-righteousness (Gal. 2:11-13). Likewise, not speaking to some people can stem from a wrong attitude ("I don't want to get too close to them — they have bugs"). Refusing to help or be friends with some types of people can betray feelings that we are superior to or more righteous than they. Proof that this frame of mind is wrong is found in Christ's much-cited and little-understood parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Read it and ask yourself whether you would have stopped to help the injured man or passed by. Of course, this is not to say that we are required to have fellowship with people who always influence us wrongly, or those recognized as harming or causing divisions in God's Church (Rom. 16:17). Paul wrote that we should receive those weak in the faith, but not to "doubtful disputations" (Rom. 14:1, Authorized Version). This means we are not forced to be with those who are constantly in a negative attitude and prone to making us depressed, doubtful or skeptical of our Christian convictions. By now, you may realize that all of us display a few of these telltale signs at least once in a while. If you don't see any of these things in yourself, that could indicate a problem, too.
How good can become bad
Where do these wrong feelings of self-righteousness and superiority come from? Paradoxically, an attitude of self-righteousness can spring from qualities that, of themselves, are good and even necessary in the Christian life. For example, II Peter 3:18 commands us to grow in knowledge. But we can allow ourselves to have a wrong attitude of superiority because of our knowledge: "Knowledge puffs up" (I Cor. 8:1). Likewise, a person can believe that he is righteous because he performs certain "works" — Christian actions of love and obedience to God's law. Hand in hand with this delusion over works goes the false supposition that obedience "qualifies" one for God's Kingdom, and this belief can make one self-righteous (Gal. 5:4). Likewise, physical prosperity can make a person feel he is superior, if he supposes that how much he has is a measure of his godliness (I Tim. 6:5, AV).
Of course, none of these attributes — knowledge, works, obedience, prosperity — is wrong in itself. The first three are important for salvation. But considering oneself righteous because one has these things or does these things is erroneous. Righteousness comes by faith as a gift from God, who gives us His own righteousness by dwelling in us through His Spirit (Eph. 2:8). Righteousness is not something we can acquire or exhibit by what we do. Therefore, to compare our works or knowledge or other qualities with someone else's attributes is wrong (II Cor. 10:12), and a root cause of self-righteousness. Such comparisons ignore God's admonitions concerning righteous judgment: "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged" (Matt. 7:1-2). "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment" (John 7:24). Now what if, after you have read this article, you feel that you may have some self-righteousness, but wish to see it even more clearly in order to conquer it? What then? What should you do? In my case, when I bought my home with the bugs, I was not skilled enough to see the bugs before I bought. I should have brought in an expert. You, too, should bring in an expert. And in this case you should get the best expert around — one who can clearly see inside your heart — God. You should pray, as did David: "Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults" (Ps. 19:12). Pray this prayer, and ask God to exterminate any bug of self-righteousness. I speak from experience when I say that there is only one thing worse than knowing you have bugs — not knowing. I have found that I do indeed have bugs — lots of them. And so do you. But now you know how to exterminate the bad bug of self-righteousness.