‘Warning Lights’ of Self-Righteousness

For many years, the Lord has been patiently and gradually showing me signs of the self-righteousness that hides in the deep recesses of my depraved heart. He began many years ago, and continues today. Sometime in the past year, a friend of mine gave me one of his extra copies of Extreme Righteousness: Seeing Ourselves in the Pharisees. This book is a biblical study of the Pharisees whom the author, Tom Hovestal, affectionately calls the “scoundrels” of the Gospel accounts. It has been in my “books to read soon” bag for awhile, but I finally took it out a few days ago. In the fourth chapter, the author effectively indicts every one of us as a Pharisee and warns of the self-righteousness that lurks within.

Pharisaism’s fatal flaw is self-righteousness. It lurks just beneath the surface of our evangelical souls. But we do not see it! Why? Perhaps we live such good lives that we look for sin in all the wrong places! We tune in to the external symbols of goodness but miss the internal symptoms of evil. Jesus does not want us, however, to live our lives in the pseudo-security of human righteousness. While on earth, He loved people too much to permit them to continue their merry religious ways blinded to their true spiritual condition. Instead He regularly engaged in the ministry of enabling religious people to find freedom and true life.

A few pages later, he writes, “We are sufficiently sophisticated and self-controlled to cover up most self-righteousness….So what subtle clues expose the hidden condition of our hearts?” He then describes 4 ‘warning lights of self-righteousness’ and challenges us to ask questions of ourselves. For myself, I see all four in my life at certain times and in varying degrees. How about you? Do you see yourself in this mirror?

Warning Light #1: A Contemptuous View of Others. “Do I compare myself with others and look down on those who do not live as I do? Of course, all the time! This tendency to compare my righteousness with others is endemic to humanity. Any level of contempt for others is a telltale sign of hidden self-righteousness.” The author then directs us to Luke 18:9.

Warning Light #2: A Shallow Sense of Forgiveness. “How deep and well-developed is my personal sense of God’s forgiveness? This subjective sense is another telltale symptom of my level of self-righteousness. Our personal awareness of God’s forgiveness will profoundly impact our level of self-righteousness. Our response to sinners, particularly those who wrong us, is an excellent gauge to measure potentially self-righteous hearts.” The author then directs us to Luke 7:36-50.

Warning Light #3: A Wrong Sense of Grace and Fairness. “How do I respond to working hard and being ignored when the less-deserving are rewarded and promoted? Fairness is a sense learned early in life; in fact, fairness is one of the most well-developed senses of a child….But grace and fairness do not mix well. Grace by definition is unfair. It extends favor to the undeserving.” The author then directs us to the older brother in Luke 15:11-32.

Warning Light #4: An Unhealthy View of Failure. “How do I respond to failure or being exposed as a sinner?” The author then directs us to the parable found in Matthew 21:33-36.

When I think of Jesus being the Savior of self-righteous sinners, like me, I cannot help but think of the Apostle Paul’s conversion testimony in Philippians 3:7-11, which I relate to so well. The only way any of us can be saved is if we exchange our self-righteousness, which we mistakenly think we possess, for the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which can only be received as a gift by repentant faith. I am forever grateful for Jesus who died on the cross and rose again to save Pharisees like me.

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