Self-righteousness can manifest itself in sometimes obvious, but often subtle ways in the life of a Christian. To avoid the negative impact of self-righteousness in yourself or in others, it's important for Christians to know what true righteousness is, and to recognize the biblical warning signs of a self-righteous Christian.
The word righteous feels like a very weighty term, often used without a very clear meaning. One wordly definition for righteous denotes acting in an upright and moral fashion. How those morals are defined depends on the person being described.
Thus, the definition feels very subjective, dependent on the person and what they believe.
When someone’s beliefs are centered upon just themselves, we have the definition for self-righteousness. Their beliefs are superior to all those around them.
As Christians there is a much clearer meaning for what righteousness entails. For a Christian to be labeled as self-righteous, this would mean they are defining their faith not in God, nor His Word, but themselves.
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2)
Christians are ought to shape their attitudes based upon God’s teaching. How we live life is not to be “conformed” to this world, ever. Instead, God shapes our minds and our lives to reflect his will. Following God means we live according to him, not according to self.
The idea of righteousness is woven throughout Scripture. There are many examples of righteousness presented in the form of people like Abraham, Job, all the way to Jesus. Each lived a godly life.
In addition, to the people who embody righteousness, there are also descriptions of righteous behavior in the Bible.
“Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful;
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.”
This passage from Psalm 1 provides a clear depiction that righteousness is determined by a person who follows after God, not after sin, and someone who prospers for choosing to follow God.
A righteous Christian reflects on God’s law day and night, meaning all day and every day, they are living a life according to what God ascribes.
The primary indicator of righteousness based on this passage is that a Christin lives according to God. There is no emphasis on living for “self.”
Here are 5 biblical warning signs of a self-righteous Christian.
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“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, But fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7)
As we know, people who are self-righteous define their morals and beliefs based on what they know. Yet, as Christians our source of wisdom is meant to be God.
The Bible informs us of how God guides us through our seasons of highs and lows (Psalm 23:2-4). And through his Word we can determine what is sin and what is not.
How then can Christians be connected to God as a source of wisdom, but also be self-righteous?
Man does not determine right and wrong. God does. Christians run the risk of being close-minded when they stop learning from God. Instead, seeking reproof, they see whatever knowledge they have as sufficient for living a comfortable life.
A life like that is not dedicated to the Lord, however, that life is lived for self.
Christians open to learning, who realize there is so much they still don’t know, will become more like Christ. Those who do not learn cannot be changed and grown.
2. They Know It All (Including God)
“O Lord, how great are Your works!
Your thoughts are very deep.
A senseless man does not know,
Nor does a fool understand this.”
Self-righteous Christians do not seek God for wisdom because they believe they know everything they need to know. Not only do they have “enough” knowledge, but they talk about the Lord with complete understanding.
They make themselves an authority figure for understanding God and preach to others the absolute truth of who he is.
The Bible describes God as being beyond total human comprehension (Job 11:7-8). Even the most devout Christian will not understand God completely. That means that there will always be a mystery to God that will never be solved. There will always be more to learn and more to discover about him.
How then can any Christian ever feel like they know everything about God and about life? God has never over the course of the Bible given one person complete knowledge of everything so that they no longer needed him.
3. A Lack of Love
“Wise people store up knowledge, But the mouth of the foolish is near destruction.” (Proverbs 10:14)
The first greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is to love others (Matthew 22:35-40). The self-righteous Christian is not able to do either correctly. Since self-righteousness is inward-centered, those of this mindset will see everyone not behaving like them as doing wrong.
Even though Christians are supposed to define behavior by God’s standards, these individuals will see themselves as already at the epitome of good behavior. Anyone not acting like them is therefore not acting like a Christian.
Their behavior and words will reflect this disdain towards other believers and the end result is destruction. Instead of nurturing community, they will create strife and dissension in their relationships.
4. They Value Self over God
“Every way of a man is right in his own eyes,
But the Lord weighs the hearts.”
Sin is not always obvious to people, which is why Scripture encourages Christians to be in community. With the accountability of God and others, sin can be exposed and repentance achieved.
The issue with self-righteousness is that people don’t see themselves as wrong, or even sinful when they are reproved. Instead, they reject guidance from God and others. Their faith is the right faith, and in fact the only faith.
The key to true righteousness and not self-righteousness is doing good according to what God defines, not ourselves. Everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has the truth.
When Christians keep God in mind with their various behaviors, sin will not be able to easily take root. They will be able to do all things, even the mundane for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
5. They Make Their Righteousness Known
“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)
In order for the self-righteous to stay fueled in their behavior, they need the approval of others. Jesus commanded his disciples to spread the gospel. Even the self-righteous Christian will do that, but in their own way.
If their faith is the prime example for other Christians, then they have to teach others to behave like them.
When they interact with others in the form of giving advice, or donating to charity, their actions are going to carry a heavy significance, at least in their minds. Without the approval of others, they are bound to doubt themselves and what they believe. Thus, they will make their good deeds known to many.
Self-Righteous or Righteous?
The Bible makes clear, there is only one correct way for a Christian to be righteous, by following what God has instructed us in the Word. If the greatest commandments are to love God and others as we love ourselves, then our daily lives should reflect that.
This also means that we are allowed to love ourselves. However, loving ourselves should not come at the expense of others, elevating ourselves to a point that those around us feel less than.
A righteous Christian, by definition, is made right with God through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It is through our relationship with him that a Christian is then able to follow the teachings of God in a life-giving way that points others to his goodness, and not ours. Self-righteousness is destructive, while a life of humility that leans on the righteousness of a good and holy God will produce good fruit to nourish and build up relationships.
Photo Credit: © Getty Images/Khosrork
Aaron D'Anthony Brown is a freelance writer, hip-hop dance teacher, and visual artist, living in Virginia. He currently contributes work to iBelieve, Crosswalk, and supports various clients through the platform Upwork. He's an outside-the-box thinker with a penchant for challenging the status quo. Check out his short story “Serenity.”
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