The Sin Only Others Can See
There are a multitude of sins man may commit — too long to list even a small percentage here — but none so dangerous as those we cannot seem to see in ourselves. Among those is one of the most destructive: the sin of self-righteousness. The problem of that particular sin isn't just that it is sin, or that one person may be guilty; no, the problem is that the guilty seldom [if ever] acknowledge they are guilty of it, and then add to that the residual effects of everyone but the guilty party seeing it, and who are rightly disgusted by it.
Self-righteousness may manifest itself in various ways, too, and it could be that we might even acknowledge some of those ways, but then fail to see the way we are demonstrating it. It is this failure to see our own sin (as in Matt. 7:3-5) that sometimes identifies us as hypocrites or, at the very least, unpleasant to all who do see it. Let's consider a few examples from Scripture and then examine self to see if we might possibly be guilty. Actually, it might be better if you had someone else read this and then ask them if they see any of these things in you. If we are genuinely interested in being genuine [not hypocritical] and if we are genuinely interested in never being called self-righteous, then this would be a good opportunity to do a little more to ensure we are reaching that goal.
The clearest example of a self-righteous individual in the Bible is found in the story of Jesus about the praying Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). In that story, the Pharisee stood and prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:11, 12). Let us note a couple of things that demonstrated the attitude of self-righteousness:
Seeing self as superior to others. In his prayer to God, the Pharisee was thankful he wasn't like other men; why was that? As a Pharisee, he was part of a sect within Judaism that took their name from the Hebrew word pharash, which means "to separate," and they were essentially known as the 'separated ones.' They took this description because they saw themselves as superior to others as far as the keeping of the Law and, as a result, looked down on others and set themselves apart from them — in mind and, quite often, literally [in a physical sense], lest they risk defiling themselves. They believed that strict law-keeping was the most important thing, and did not bother themselves with what Jesus called “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23). In their own eyes, at least, no one was more righteous than themselves [individually] and, for that reason, they looked upon others as morally and spiritually inferior and worthy of disdain.
We may not have actual Pharisees within the Lord's church today, but we certainly can have the same attitudes, and this attitude of superiority is not excluded. When any disciple thinks his or her righteousness is superior to another, when any disciple thinks strict law-keeping is the means to obtaining that righteousness, and when this strict law-keeping [ironically, only certain laws and commands] becomes more important than “justice and mercy and faith,” then, yes, you are guilty of self-righteousness.
Boasting about good deeds. Closely linked to this attitude of superiority over others is the feeling the self-righteous must point out to everyone the 'facts' that will prove his or her superiority. With this in mind, the self-righteous one will feel compelled to make sure everyone knows how righteous he or she is, so the deeds will be listed as some sort of 'evidence' of the view everyone should have about him, and this 'evidence' simply proves his contention that he is righteous. The praying Pharisee, in this story, was even so bold as to boast to God about his righteous deeds!
As a contrast to the habit of the self-righteous hypocrite, Jesus said, “when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret” (Matt. 6:1-4), and, “when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place” (Matt. 6:5-7). In each of those cases, Jesus contrasted it with the habit of the hypocrite who did what they did to be seen of men — not for the glory of God.
Again, while we may not have actual Pharisees within the Lord's church today, the attitudes of the Pharisees still persist. When brethren make sure others know how much they give to the weekly contribution, when they feel the need to post their deeds to social media, or when brethren measure others' worth by how many 'righteous deeds' they actually know about, then you can be sure self-righteousness is creeping in.
Another example of self-righteousness is shown in the passage that tells of one time when Jesus came into Jerusalem and the Pharisees and the chief priests sent officers to take Him and bring Him to them (John 7:32-49). When the officers went to Jesus, they actually stopped long enough to hear Him, and what they heard must have impressed them because they came back without Jesus. The religious leaders, of course, asked, “Why have you not brought Him?” and the officers replied, “No man ever spoke like this Man!” (John 7:45, 46). For the Pharisees, this was just too much! They then answered, “Are you also deceived? Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in Him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed” (John 7:47-49). The self-righteous superiority of the Pharisees reveals itself again!
Self is the standard of righteousness. We probably could have concluded this from the earlier example, but this time it is essentially stated out loud by the Pharisees as they basically said, "WE haven't believed in Him, so neither should anyone else!" They did not ask what the officers had heard and they did not consider the mighty works that Jesus had done; their only question was, “Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in Him?” — as if that was the standard by which all things should be believed or not.
Finally, consider the scene after Jesus had healed the man who had been blind since birth (John 9); when some Pharisees heard Jesus talking to the man afterwards about those who are blind and those who see, they asked Him, “Are we blind also?” (John 9:40). Jesus replied, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains” (John 9:41). The fact was, though they had been plainly told they were blind to the truth, they kept insisting they were not!
This is the great fault of the self-righteous: It is a sin only others can see. The self-righteous never seems to see that he is self-righteous — he is blind to the fact, even when someone tells him plainly! It would be like someone saying, "Brother, did you realize that what you said demonstrated an attitude of self-righteousness?" and the guilty one denied it and then told his friends, "Can you believe he called me self-righteous?!?"
Friends and brethren, let us examine ourselves, but honestly. Listen when others point out characteristics you may have that may not be pleasant to hear. They may be right. — Steven Harper