I have often caught myself thinking ill of another believer’s actions, and then the Holy Spirit makes me aware of my own glaring flaws.  Can you relate? Every seasoned believer has experienced the sin of self-righteousness. Our expectations of others remain high, our condemning attitudes flourish-even to the point of justifying our own merciless treatment of people-but there is a tree growing in our own eye!

Jesus’ View on Self-Righteousness

Jesus taught on this very issue repeatedly.  In Matthew 7:1 he cautioned his disciples not to judge others: “Judge not, that you be not judged.”  This passage is often quoted to the exclusion of the context and used as a carte-blanche ban on calling out another’s sin.  But that is not what the passage is saying. Time and again the Scriptures illustrate believers judging another’s sin-based upon the authority of God’s Word-and even exercising church discipline (1 Cor 5:1; 2 Tim. 4:14; 3 John 1:9).  What does the passage mean? Read on.

2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:2-5).

Clearly, it is a prohibition against judging people for their sin (usually minor) when you have unconfessed sins in your own life (usually major)!

Self-righteous people ignore this and find it unimaginable that their sin is as great as others.  Ignoring their own covetousness, gossip, lack of forgiveness, sexual perversion, lies, or biblical ignorance, etc., self-righteous people are prepared to lock others up and throw away the key, but overlook their own spiritual crimes.  If you want to avoid self-righteousness, you first need to see it in your own life.

How is Self-Righteousness Expressed?

8 Kinds of Self-Righteous People

  • The Know-It-All: Thinking you know more about the Bible than everyone else and looking down on the less-enlightened.
  • The Mind-Reader: Believing that you can read all motives (few of which are as pure as yours).
  • The Predictor: Predicting how a person will respond to every situation and holding out little hope of good behaviour.
  • The Labeller: Assuming that a single error is symptomatic of a person’s entire life and justification for writing them off.
  • The User: Reaping from people’s strengths but damning them for their weaknesses.
  • The Loather: Refusing to forgive an offense, mulling it over often, and failing to seek reconciliation.
  • The Super-Sanctified: Believing you are more sanctified than others.
  • The Best Friend of Jesus: Believing that you’ve got something special going on with Jesus that is superior to all others!

If we do not acknowledge these characteristics in our own lives we risk the same judgement that the Pharisees received from Jesus and potentially even show ourselves to be spiritual frauds.  Are you like the Pharisee that prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” (Luke 18:11-12)?  Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the self-righteous Pharisee, the tax-collector was beating his breast and crying out: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).  Jesus then condemns the self-righteous Pharisee and commends the humble sinner.

The Solution to Self-Righteousness

Not only does this event illustrate the self-deceit and lack of self-awareness that may be present in our lives, but encourages us to humbly assess our own hearts and remain grateful for grace, hungry for humility, and surrendered before the Lord.  In this position God will call us to confront and rebuke where necessary (Gal 6:1, Matt 18); but, in place of self-righteousness, we will do so in defense of the righteousness of God.