Words are pretty interesting. They can be used as weapons. They can be used as healing balms. They can also be used wrongly. I always tend to wonder whether this is the case when we throw around the word “self-righteous.” I do not think it means what we think it means, to borrow the words from Inigo Montoya.
Maybe you have heard someone say, “They are just so self-righteous.” Maybe you have said that of someone else. Perhaps it has been said of you. Often, when the term self-righteous is thrown around it is implied to mean someone who acts, thinks or believes they are better than you. Or that they are “holier-than-thou.”
But could it also imply our own self-righteousness? In claiming it in someone else, could it come from a place of our own “holier-than-thou” attitude? It truly is the pot calling the kettle black, as the old saying goes.
I wonder if our use of the phrase is a convenient safeguard for us. It quickly and safely puts the blame on that person and relieves any chance of my own insecurity or guilt. Could it stem from my own desire to be right? If I open up to listen to their conviction, could it mean I might be wrong?
But the problem here is not their self-righteousness or even my own. The problem is not “self-righteousness” at all. The problem is pride. The concept of self-righteous is often used wrongly today. We use it to imply that this person must think they are better than me. We use it to imply that they think they are holier than me.
The problem is that this is not what that word means. Self-righteousness is the belief that my good deeds, my choice to live this way or that way, my fill-in-the-blank with whatever, makes me closer to God. That it makes God love me more, that it makes me more righteous. I don’t know about you, but I in no way think my choices on a given issue makes me more righteous. Only One makes me righteous. His perfect active and passive obedience is what makes me righteous before my heavenly Father. I cannot do anything that makes God love me any less, and I cannot do anything that makes God love me more. If I believed that I could, that would be true self-righteousness.
This is why I think the real problem is not self-righteousness but pride. And pride plagues us all. It plagues the ones who think they made an ethical choice and it plagues the ones who think it isn’t an ethical issue.
The key for all of us is what we do with that tug we feel to call someone self-righteous. I believe the onus is on us first rather than the person we think is being “holier-than-thou.” The key is to lay down our own hearts and push ourselves to be willing to wrestle with the reasons we may want to accuse someone else of self-righteousness. Could it honestly be because we do not want to apply that same conviction to ourselves? Could it be my own struggle with insecurity so I am quick to accuse them with that statement?
Maybe before we jump to accuse someone of self-righteousness we might ask ourselves a few questions. Do I honestly believe that this person thinks this issue makes them more righteous is God’s eyes? Is my heart maybe a little harder than I thought it was concerning this issue? Could their conviction be one I need to apply to myself? It may not be, at least for you, but we have to admit that to call someone self-righteous ultimately comes from a place of self-righteousness. Better yet, a place of pride within us.
We need to be quicker to see, admit and examine the log in our own eye before we look to what we think is a speck in our brothers and sisters. It may be a speck to us, but to them it could have been, or continues to be, a log. The conviction might not seem great to us, but to them it is a deep heart issue. Let’s first lay the conviction honestly before ourselves and see if we simply were too hard-hearted or too proud to let it work on our hearts.
I believe there are a few practical applications to disarm the pride possibly rooted in our own hearts.
Stop using the phrase self-righteous.
Most of us would never say that our conviction on something makes God love us more. If we believe that for ourselves, let’s assume the same for the other person. If we do believe it makes us more righteous, let the Holy Spirit be the one to bring conviction of that false pride.
Let their conviction sit in our own heart first.
Take time to read on the topic. Willingly, slowly, ask yourself, should this be something that matters more to me? Can we admit we may be wrong? It is okay to admit you are wrong. After all, we are fully forgiven in Jesus Christ. This means that I can openly admit my pride and trust that it doesn’t condemn me! With that good news I can lay that aside and honestly ask if I have been wrong.
Be quick to listen and slow to speak.
I don’t know about you, but often when my pride gets wounded I get into defense mode. My mind races with counter-arguments, ways I can manipulate their words to then win, our build my view, my pride, back up. In reality I stop truly listening. I can’t speak for you, but I can admit my failures and, per point 2, trust that it doesn’t condemn me before my heavenly Father.
Give the benefit of the doubt.
This is that old idea of granting the person the same grace I would want in return. Maybe something wasn’t phrase or worded the way you have worded it. Maybe their tone was not in a manner that you liked. In instances like those how would you want someone to receive your words and thoughts? Can we extend that same generosity to others as they open up and share a deep conviction to them?
is a writer who lives in Davidson, North Carolina.