Watch Out for Self-Righteousness!
IN THE first century, the Pharisees enjoyed the good reputation of being righteous worshipers of God. They were earnest students of the Scriptures and prayed frequently. Some people viewed them as being gentle and reasonable. Jewish historian Josephus wrote: “The Pharisees are affectionate to each other and cultivate harmonious relations with the community.” No wonder they were probably the most respected and highly regarded individuals in Jewish society at that time!
However, today the word “Pharisaic” and related terms are derogatory, synonymous with sanctimonious, self-righteous, holier-than-thou, overpious, and giving lip service. Why did the Pharisees lose their good name?
It was because, unlike most Jews, Jesus Christ was not deceived by the Pharisees’ outer appearance. He compared them to “whitewashed graves, which outwardly indeed appear beautiful but inside are full of dead men’s bones and of every sort of uncleanness.”—Matthew 23:27.
True, they offered long prayers while standing in public places, but this was just to be seen by others, as Jesus said. Their worship was a mere charade. They were fond of prominent places at evening meals and the front seats in the synagogues. While all Jews were obliged to wear fringes on their garments, the Pharisees tried to impress people by wearing excessively long fringes. They were proud to display their enlarged scripture-containing cases worn as amulets. (Matthew 6:5; 23:5-8) Their hypocrisy, their greed, and their arrogance finally brought them disgrace.
Jesus voiced God’s rejection of the Pharisees: “You hypocrites, Isaiah aptly prophesied about you, when he said, ‘This people honors me with their lips, yet their heart is far removed from me. It is in vain that they keep worshiping me, because they teach commands of men as doctrines.’” (Matthew 15:7-9) Their righteousness was really self-righteousness. Understandably, Jesus warned his disciples: “Watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees.” (Luke 12:1) Today, we too must “watch out” for self-righteousness or guard against becoming religious hypocrites.
In doing so, we should recognize that a person does not become self-righteous overnight. Rather, this tendency creeps in progressively over a period of time. Even inadvertently an individual can acquire the undesirable traits of the Pharisees.
A Superior Attitude
What are some of the traits that we must “watch out” for? Self-righteous individuals usually “speak, and stand, and look as if they had never done a wrong,” explains the Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics. The self-righteous are also boastful and self-promoting, which was a major problem with the Pharisees.
Jesus described this Pharisaic attitude with an illustration: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and began to pray these things to himself, ‘O God, I thank you I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give the tenth of all things I acquire.’” In contrast the tax collector humbly admitted his faults and proved to be more righteous than the boastful Pharisee. Jesus addressed this illustration to those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and who considered the rest as nothing.”—Luke 18:9-14.
As imperfect humans we may occasionally feel that we are better than others because of our natural abilities or advantages. But Christians should quickly dismiss such thoughts. You may have many years of experience in Christian living. You may be a skillful Bible teacher. Or perhaps you profess to have been anointed to reign with Christ in heaven. Some in the congregation enjoy special privileges as full-time ministers, elders, or ministerial servants. Ask yourself, ‘How would Jehovah feel if I were to use what he has given me as a basis to feel superior to others?’ Surely, this would displease him.—Philippians 2:3, 4.
When a Christian displays a spirit of superiority because of his God-given abilities, privileges, or authority, he is in fact robbing God of the glory and the credit that only He deserves. The Bible clearly admonishes the Christian “not to think more of himself than it is necessary to think.” It urges us: “Be minded the same way toward others as to yourselves; do not be minding lofty things, but be led along with the lowly things. Do not become discreet in your own eyes.”—Romans 12:3, 16.
According to one Bible encyclopedia, a self-righteous person “considers himself either morally upright or in right standing with God because of his adherence to the letter of legal requirements without regard to their spirit.” Another work describes the self-righteous as “excessively religious people who spend all their time seeking out wickedness in others.”
The Pharisees were guilty of this. In time their man-made rules seemed more important than God’s laws and principles. (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:41-44) They appointed themselves judges and were prone to condemn anyone who did not meet their self-righteous standards. Their superior attitude and exaggerated self-esteem generated a need to control other people. Their inability to control Jesus enraged them, so they plotted his murder.—John 11:47-53.
How unpleasant it is to be in the company of someone who sets himself up as judge, always looking for faults, scrutinizing and policing everyone around him. Really, no one in the congregation has the authority to impose on others his opinions and self-made rules. (Romans 14:10-13) Balanced Christians realize that many aspects of daily life fall into the realm of personal decision. Especially must those who have a tendency to be perfectionists and demanding avoid judging others.
True, the Christian congregation is authorized to have guidelines that contribute to the smooth operation of Jehovah’s earthly organization. (Hebrews 13:17) But some have distorted these guidelines or have added their own rules. In one area all students in the Theocratic Ministry School had to wear suits and button up their jackets when delivering a talk. A student who failed to do so would be disqualified from giving future talks. Rather than make such hard-and-fast rules, would it not be more reasonable and in harmony with the spirit of God’s Word to give kindly, personal guidance as needed?—James 3:17.
Self-righteousness may also promote the view that if a Christian is undergoing many personal difficulties, he must be spiritually deficient. That is precisely what self-righteous Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar thought about faithful Job. They did not have a complete picture of the situation, so it was presumptuous for them to accuse Job of wrongdoing. Jehovah disciplined them for their distorted evaluation of Job’s trials.—See Job, chapters 4, 5, 8, 11, 18, 20.
Self-righteousness and zeal are often interrelated. The apostle Paul spoke of religiously inclined Jews as having “zeal for God; but not according to accurate knowledge; for, because of not knowing the righteousness of God but seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.” (Romans 10:2, 3) As a Pharisee, Paul himself had been extremely zealous, though his zeal was misguided, not based on Jehovah’s righteousness.—Galatians 1:13, 14; Philippians 3:6.
Appropriately the Bible admonishes: “Do not become righteous overmuch, nor show yourself excessively wise. Why should you cause desolation to yourself?” (Ecclesiastes 7:16) In the congregation a Christian may start out conscientious, but his conscientiousness and zeal can degenerate into self-righteousness. When guided by human wisdom rather than by Jehovah’s righteousness, religious zeal can hurt others. How?
Parents, for example, may become overly occupied in attending to the spiritual needs of others, and in the process they may neglect the needs of their own family. Or parents may be excessively zealous, demanding more of their children than they can possibly do. (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21) Some children, unable to meet such unreasonable demands, respond by leading a double life. A reasonable parent will take into account the limitations of his family and make appropriate adjustments.—Compare Genesis 33:12-14.
Extreme zeal can also deprive us of tact, empathy, and tenderness, which are vital in our dealings with others. A person may work very hard to advance Kingdom interests. However, his extreme zeal may hurt people along the way. Paul said: “If I have the gift of prophesying and am acquainted with all the sacred secrets and all knowledge, and if I have all the faith so as to transplant mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my belongings to feed others, and if I hand over my body, that I may boast, but do not have love, I am not profited at all.”—1 Corinthians 13:2, 3.
God Favors the Humble Ones
As Christians we need to identify the threat of self-righteousness before it strikes. We must avoid a superior attitude, the habit of judging others, and blind zeal based on human wisdom.
As we “watch out” for Pharisaic attitudes, instead of judging others as self-righteous, it would be better to focus on our own tendencies and inclinations. True, Jesus judged the Pharisees and condemned them as “offspring of vipers” deserving of eternal destruction. But Jesus could read people’s hearts. We cannot.—Matthew 23:33.
Let us seek God’s righteousness and not our own. (Matthew 6:33) Only then can we have Jehovah’s favor, for the Bible admonishes all of us: “Gird yourselves with lowliness of mind toward one another, because God opposes the haughty ones, but he gives undeserved kindness to the humble ones.”—1 Peter 5:5.