Self-righteousness prompts us to become the very things we criticize in others.
Let’s first define self-righteousness. According to Wikipedia, “self-righteousness, also called sanctimoniousness, sententiousness and holier-than-thou attitudes is a feeling or display of moral superiority derived from a sense that one’s beliefs, actions, or affiliations are of greater virtue than those of the average person.” Next, as a Christian, I’m going to be honest: a lot of people see us as self-righteous. Sometimes, I think it’s a misunderstanding of our motivations. Even then, it’s someone else’s experience, and we need to be aware of it. Other times, I don’t think it’s a misunderstanding at all. We can come off as, “I have all the answers and I want to share them with you.” Even when that’s not the intent. I’ve had some people accuse me of such. I’ve had others claim the opposite of me with the caveat that “you don’t sound like or treat me like most Christians.” I don’t really know what to do with that.
Christians do not have the corner market on perceptions of self-righteousness. Name a group of people, and you will find self-righteousness among them. Even people who declare they want to widely help others can be self-righteous in their declaration that their approach or attitudes are right. In fact, some of the very people I’ve heard be the most adamant about declaring Christians are self-righteousness declare their own opinions, politics, beliefs, and values as the right way, what everyone should strive to become.
I don’t widen the swath of self-righteousness in order to excuse any such behavior among Christians or divert any sort of responsibility. But I want to challenge each of us to see our own self-righteousness. It’s not about feeling as if you are right; it’s what you do with it. I hope we all have some confidence in what we believe and how we live. We might struggle and doubt a bit at times, but I hope each of us is on a journey to figure out our purpose. That’s not a bad thing. Even sharing it with others isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it helps us process and grow as we share and listen to others. There’s truth check and accountability when we do life well with others. It’s okay to firmly believe. It’s okay to want to share. It’s not okay to be self-righteous and disrespect others in the process.
I’ve heard several people saying something like this recently: “I’m willing to listen to others until they start to shove their opinions in my face and try to convince me to vote or believe like them!” Then are we really willing to listen to others? So what if someone is passionate about their opinions and gets a little forceful? We can always walk away, but do we need to do so with a harshness that fractures the relationship? Do we need to respond with an accusatory, “How could you ever…?” (often heard as “Are you an idiot?”) and taint future interactions? Self-righteousness is offensive.
If we’re honest, sometimes people are offended even when there is no intent and even no self-righteousness. We can’t control how someone receives something we communicate, but we can certainly do our best to minimize the risks. We’ve become too comfortable with an attitude of “If they don’t like what I say, they can walk away.” But if we don’t care what others say, why are we saying anything—to hear ourselves?
Self-righteousness is not the same as righteousness, even though we often equate the two and throw out the latter with the former. According to Dictionary.com, righteousness is “the quality of being morally right or justifiable.”
Maybe that’s why it’s not popular in today’s culture. It’s difficult to accept righteousness when we don’t accept the possibility of an absolute morality. When morality gets to be defined by each person according to their values and preferences, there is no righteousness, only self-righteousness. Perhaps that’s part of the problem. When people speak as if they believe in an absolute morality, they are often seen as self-righteous—regardless of what that morality is perhaps? It gets a bit tricky, doesn’t it?
But I think it’s only tricky because of our perceptions and interactions. If we could infuse our conversations with respect and focus on people more than issues and arguments, we might not struggle quite as much. But are we willing to do so?