Most often self righteousness is equated with being arrogant and judgmental. My dictionary defines it as being “convinced of one’s own righteousness especially in contrast with the actions and beliefs of others.” A Google search produced descriptions that were laced with phrases like “holier than thou”, “smugly moralistic and intolerant”, and “pharisaical”.
But one of the deadliest forms of self-righteousness is when it is cloaked in sincere humility. I’m talking about a person who is concerned about others and puts that concern into action – a person who despises arrogance – a person who is a pleasure to be around. I’m talking about a person like the rich young man that came to Jesus one day. His story is recorded in Matthew 19.
“And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? [there is] none good but one, [that is], God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and [thy] mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go [and] sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come [and] follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.”
This young man was different from many who came with a question for Jesus. As the Bible points out, many came insincerely to Jesus – asking him questions in order to try and trap him in his words. Not this young man. It is obvious that he is sincere. He really wants to know what he must do to have eternal life. And he comes humbly and respectfully. I’m quite sure if we had known him, we would have liked him. He doesn’t come off as being self-righteous as we normally think of it.
But what he says smacks of self-righteousness. He truly and sincerely thinks that he has done a good job of keeping the commandments. His words come off not as bragging but as fact. “All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? “ Even though he can point to a life of obedience he senses that he is still lacking something – that he hasn’t done enough.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t address whether or not he was correct in what he had said. Instead he goes right to the heart of the matter and uncovers his sinful love of money. With this one well-placed directive, Jesus was trying to bring him to his knees. He was trying to show him the impossibility of his “doing” enough to gain eternal life. No one can do enough – in fact, no one can do anything – to have eternal life. Eternal life, that is, life forever in Heavenly Father’s presence, is not something we earn – it is something given to us. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) This, however, is something the young man couldn’t see or accept.
There are many today who are like this young man. People who don’t fit at all the usual definitions of self-righteous. People who are humble and caring for others but who still think that they have a good history of keeping the commandments. Who think that they have to do something to merit eternal life and earn a place in Heavenly Father’s presence. Who are humbly self-righteous. This is a danger we all need to beware of.
Instead of thinking we have a pretty good track record of keeping the commandments, instead of thinking that our righteousness will earn us anything, we all need to see our “goodness” from God’s perspective. One place he gives that perspective is Isaiah 64:6. “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” This becomes all the more sobering when we realize that the Hebrew word translated “rags” is literally used menstrual pads. That is how appealing our own righteousness is to God.
That is why the Bible tells us to look for God-pleasing righteousness outside of ourselves. That is why it points us to Jesus’ righteousness and the wonderful fact that he bestows it on us freely and fully. That is why one of the most comforting titles for God is, “THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS”. (Jeremiah 23:6) Only Jesus’ righteousness is good enough to allow us to enter Heavenly Father’s presence. When we place our trust in it, then there is no doubt where we will spend eternity. We will spend it with Heavenly Father. To God be all praise and glory!