OK, all of us have been guilty of self-righteousness at one time or another – and it is a poison that we need to avoid at all costs. It is an attitude that I am better than you, my sin is less egregious than your sin, my way is better than your way, accompanied by a smugness of personal righteousness because of it.
Why is it so dangerous? First because it is based on a subjective standard (ours) which allows us to categorize our righteousness as higher than another’s and our sin as less egregious than another’s sin. Because it is a self determined subjective standard, it is also hypocrisy at its shining best. We, not God have declared ourselves to be more righteous than someone else and we can always find someone who makes us look good by their lifestyle or behavior.
Second, it is nothing less than pure pride and self exaltation as I am able in my self-righteousness to elevate myself, my spirituality, my conduct above that of others. This attitude is 180 degrees different than the attitude of humility that Jesus teaches. It is candidly the attitude of the Pharisees, smug in their righteousness, rather than that of the tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes who knew their need for God. Jesus condemned the former and embraced the latter.
Third, it is dangerous because it blinds us to our own sin. When I focus on the sin of another, I don’t pay attention to my own sin. Not one of us is holy because of our lifestyle but only through the grace God has bestowed. Not one of us is more worthy of God than another. My sin may be different from your sin and it may be less or more obvious than your sin but we are all sinners to the core, all needing the amazing grace of Jesus and all coming to the same place of equality of sin and grace at the foot of the cross. Anything that takes my eyes off of my own sin and need of God’s grace is dangerous and self deceiving.
Fourth, it keeps me from growing. When I have focused on the faults of others rather than on the faults of my own life, I stunt my own growth. In my attitude of self-righteousness I am far less likely to push into the evil resident in my own lower nature and pay attention to my own issues.
Finally it builds walls either directly or indirectly. It builds walls directly, when I put down others for their faults when I should be focused on my own rather than theirs. It builds walls indirectly even if I say nothing because the attitude of my heart will be conveyed by my treatment of others, my body language, the subtleties of my communication or the lack of engagement because of my own self-righteous arrogance.
There is nothing pleasing to God about self-righteousness. In fact, this is how Jesus saw the self righteous. “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up at heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner. I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:9-14).”
We need to guard against self-righteousness. We also need to remember that whole groups, congregations, theological movements, seminaries and denominations can bear the marks of self righteousness in their attitudes toward others. None of it smells good to God and all of it is arrogant, prideful, sinful, and self-delusional.