Years ago I lived in a small condo with about twenty other tenants. They were mostly an older crowd, educated, dignified and retired.
During my first few months in the condo, I was watched like a new pet. I remember one evening when I took my trash out, turning around and seeing more than one person leaning over the balcony to see if I was recycling.
Legalism isn’t just a problem for Christians, it seems. And neither is self righteousness.
But it’s a deceptive term. When people are self-righteous, they aren’t getting their sense of righteousness from themselves. They’re getting it from you. That’s right. What happens when somebody is self righteous is they are actively comparing themselves to others and measuring themselves as a better keeper of the rules. Christian communities are loaded with these people because, well, we’ve got lots of rules. And not only do we have lots of rules, they’re rules established by God. That’s like crack for a person who is given to comparing themselves to others. The God-given rules translates into “God thinks I’m going it more right than you.”
But here’s the catch. Self righteousness is a sin. It’s a dark sin. It’s up there with all the other dark sins like gluttony and fornication.
The problem is, very few get called on it.
In the economy of Jesus, those who are winning in an earthly religious system will finish last. Jesus says they have their reward in full. What Jesus means by this is all the attention and praise self righteous people are getting on earth is all they’re going to get. That feeling of earthly fulfillment is their reward.
Why is self righteousness so annoying? Because when we are around it it makes us feel like “less than.” But not “less than” God, which is accurate, just less than the guy lording his good works over us.
So how do we deal with self righteous people?
We should be carefully honest. When you sense somebody is self-righteous, we must tell them. We must say I feel your sin is self-righteousness. Please join the ranks of us sinners. Humble yourself before God.
To be sure, a self-righteous person will become irate. Their identity is wrapped up in the false idea they are not as much a sinner as so and so. But that is not our issue. Our issue is to call them to repentance, and secondly, to not think ourselves as better than they.
Who among us has not also been self-righteous?