The Wrong Way and the Right Way to Steer Clear of Self-Righteousness


No one wants to be labeled “self-righteous.” But it’s pretty easy to fall into that trap, even when you don’t care at all about God. 

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I had just finished offloading my cart of dinner party fixings to the cashier’s conveyor at the market. It was going to be a pretty typical dinner party for us: a low-fat imitation boursin, made from Neufchatel and tofu, to go with veggies and crackers; a couple of chickens that we would bake with lots of garlic and fresh rosemary from our patio garden; a home-baked dessert; and with dinner, a choice of flavored selzer or cran-blueberry cocktail, since none of our guests drank alcohol.

The skinny lady with the perfect blonde ponytail who had checked out ahead of me looked at my order as the cashier began ringing me up. Just before she started rolling her cart away, she volunteered her opinion of my supplies, founded in the righteousness of current dietary fashions:

“I never buy juice drinks” she said. “They have too many calories.”

I was a bit surprised by her chutzpah, but was ready with a smiling return:

“I’ve found that cran-blueberry is a great substitute for wine when I’m serving an alcohol-free dinner.”

Better Self-Righteousness Wins!

Bam! She folded into herself and withered away with her cart and grocery order. I’d trumped HER self-righteousness with even BETTER self-righteousness!

This was fun but not necessarily a good thing.

It is also like what we are very used to doing as Christians.

“I may be overweight (Prov. 23: 1-3, 20-21; 1 Thess. 5:6, 8; 1 Peter 5:8; Titus 2:6-7), but at least I don’t ogle women the way he does.” 

“If I don’t make my own case for promotion, no one will make it for me (Prov. 25: 6-7, Luke 14: 9-11, John 1:6-7), but at least I only say things that are true.”

“I may show my temper from time to time (Lev. 19:17, Deut. 12:17-18, Matt. 5:21, Eph. 4:31, James 1:19), but at least I’m protesting [name your favorite current Christian political cause] instead of wasting my Saturdays with recreation.”

More Rules, Less Righteousness?

Sometimes, I wonder if it would be harder for Christians to be self-righteous if we actually faced more of the direction God has given us instead of paying attention to so little of God’s instruction. God has issued so much guidance for life in Scripture. We ignore almost all of it, then feel proud about the few instructions we obey. Maybe if we were facing the impossibility of accomplishing what God rightly expects of us, we’d be able to see that we haven’t really gotten so far along the path. We might recognize that the difference between us and those others, when compared (correctly) to God, is like the difference between a hilltop and the top of an anthill when viewed from the moon. That is to say: indistinguishable.

The one-time rabbi Saul, who had been one of the greatest students of the great rabbi Gamaliel, realized that nothing he had ever accomplished in his life compared to knowing Jesus. Compared to his life since knowing Jesus, his life before was nothing, he said. Less than nothing. He considered himself the worst of all people, perhaps because, before he became a follower of Jesus, he had ordered followers of Jesus killed.

Good at Rules, Murderously Self-Righteous

But having done such terrible things didn’t stop him from trying to teach Gentiles to live upright lives — lives in obedience to God’s good direction — empowered by the same Spirit he himself had received. He taught them that the rules themselves would get them nowhere, just as the rules had gotten him nowhere but to the murderous self-righteousness that made him complicit in the death of fellow Jews who followed Jesus. However, God’s Spirit would lead them into truth, and that truth would show them what God intended for their lives. They would not have to worry about what not to do. They wouldn’t become victims of self-righteous pride. They would simply be empowered to move forward into the love, joy, peace, patience … you know the rest of the list … that God had for them.

And yet, Saul / Paul still taught what love, joy, peace, and patience looked like. Because he was responsible for people. And anyone who is responsible for others has to help people who struggle with what it means to live in peace with each other, to put up patiently with difficult circumstances, to continue joyfully when life chafes like an incurable rash in an unreachable spot under too-tight clothing.

So Many Rules, So Little Room for Self-Righteousness

Paul and Peter and Titus and all the others who wrote the texts we call the New Testament continued the teaching God began in the very beginning. So when Jesus told us to teach others “to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20), he’s talking about everything these wrote and everything in the “red letters” and everything that came before. [Allowing, of course, for the specific exceptions God makes in the New Testament community to end the practices of circumcision, keeping kosher, rituals for atonement and annual festivals …]

Still, that’s a lot to obey, out of love for God and by the power of the Spirit. And when anyone sees how far he or she falls short, there’s not much room for self-righteousness.

I’m going to try to avoid becoming self-righteous about my (undoubtedly temporary) lack of self-righteousness.

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About Carlene Hill Byron

The former editor of New England Church Life and The New England Christian, Carlene Hill Byron is enjoying being home in Maine after 20 years in North Carolina. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Find her at christianpurposeblog.wordpress.com, churchandmentalillness.wordpress.com and on Facebook at MyHouseHasHistory.
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