Most sins are easy to identify, such as adultery, stealing, lying or any other offense that involves a physical action. When someone commits adultery, he knows it. If you steal, lie or gossip, you know it.
Coveting, on the other hand, is harder to see. It is an attitude in the heart—the mind. The apostle Paul wrote, “No, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, You shall not covet” (Rom. 7:7). It took the Law of God to show Paul that coveting is a sin. It was not something—a physical action—that was readily apparent.
The easiest sin to see is always someone else’s. It glares at you, shining so brightly that you cannot help but see it. You may even ask yourself, “Why can’t he see his sin? How could so and so do that? How could someone with God’s Spirit act like that? If I were in that situation, I would never do that!” You may then proceed to tell yourself, “I might sin in small ways, but I would never act that way!”
Have you ever done this? Chances are you have. And if you quickly answered “no,” you should carefully reconsider. Either way, you are exhibiting symptoms of this deadly sin.
Because other people’s sins are easier to see, you are often blinded to your own. Christ clearly addressed this tendency in man: “And why behold you the mote that is in your brother’s eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own eye? Or how will you say to your brother, Let me pull out the mote out of your eye; and, behold, a beam is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of your own eye; and then shall you see clearly to cast out the mote out of your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:3-5).
Why is this a natural tendency in every human being—including you?
Proverbs 16:2 has the answer: “All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes.” Also, “There is a way which seems right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (14:12).
The way you think and act—what is generally automatic—seems and feels right to you. But your natural ways bring death. They lead you to look at others, and then cause you to compare yourself and your own righteousness with the perceived unrighteousness of others.
Most people see what others do and judge it as sin. Certainly, we ought to be able to recognize sin, but we must not tell ourselves we are better because we do not do that, and are therefore more righteous than the person we have observed.
Paul strongly warns against doing this: “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (II Cor. 10:12).
When you employ the wrong measuring stick to gauge your righteousness, your carnal nature (Rom. 8:7; Jer. 17:9) will lead you to believe that you are more righteous than you really are. This is the sin of self-righteousness. Unless you deeply repent, it will exclude you from the kingdom of God!
How God Views Man’s Ways
Let’s read what God states about the end result of the way which seems right to a man. Notice Isaiah 2: “Enter into the rock, and hide you in the dust, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of His majesty. The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day. For the day of the Lord of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low” (vs. 10-12).
In the final Day of the Lord (the year of God’s wrath), everyone who is exalted, proud and lofty will be brought low. This includes all of man’s ways—what he thinks, does and says. All things will be humbled and brought low.
As far as man is concerned, God declares, “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, He takes up the isles as a very little thing. And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering. All nations before Him are as nothing; and they are counted to Him less than nothing, and vanity” (Isa. 40:15-17).
Grasp this! Our accomplishments and achievements are nothing in God’s sight.
In Psalm 8:3-4, King David wrote about man’s insignificance in the overall scope of things: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; what is man, that You are mindful of him? And the son of man, that You visit him?”
To this, God replies, “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10), and, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (vs. 23). God commands us to stop justifying ourselves!
Notice: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:7).
Why? “For My [God’s] thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (vs. 8-9). We must put on His righteousness—not our own.
An even more blunt statement is found in the book of Isaiah: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy [menstrual] rags [something to be thrown away]; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. And there is none that calls upon Your name, that stirs up himself to take hold of You: for You have hid Your face from us, and have consumed us, because of our iniquities” (64:6-7).
Notice that on our own “we are all as an unclean thing”—including those in the Church. And any attempt at producing righteousness without God’s Spirit is “as filthy [menstrual] rags”!
Better Than the World?
Once God has put you into His Church, and you are converted, you will not see things as you did before. You will view the world for what it is. The more you see of it—and the more you deal with people in it—the more disgusted you will become. This can lead to the thinking that “we are better than people in the world.”
We may tell ourselves, “We do not keep pagan holidays anymore. We do not take part in the world’s ways—the rottenness, deceit, hypocrisy, vanity, lust and greed.”
Herein lies a great danger!
A converted mind, which sees through spiritual “eyes,” will become sick of the world. If we are not careful, however, this feeling of disgust could turn into impatience, bitterness, resentment and even hatred—not for sins, but for people. This could also cause us to develop “holier-than-thou” attitudes.
Because human nature is so competitive and wants to be above others, we can begin to take sides. We can yield to it, seeing ourselves as being on “God’s side,” and against the world. The world can then become our rival—our enemy. This can cause us to become lifted up, and esteem ourselves better than those in the world. Yet God commands that “in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better then [our]selves” (Phil. 2:3).
Again, this mentality can cause you to use the wrong measurement to gauge your righteousness, to think that you “have it made.” But, in reality, you have acquired a sin that prevents you from coming to complete repentance, because you have become blind to your own sins.
Does the fact that you see the rottenness in the world, now that you have God’s Spirit, somehow make you better than those still in the world?
Classic Symptoms of Self-Righteousness
The book of Job presents a thorough look at specific ways in which self-righteousness manifests itself. While you may wish to study the entire book, seeing how many you are able to find, here are a number of the more obvious:
|What Job Said
||The Attitude Reflected
|Job 3:23: “Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, and whom God has hedged in?”
||Self-righteous minds often feel “trapped,” like there is no way out. But repentance is the way out.
|Job 6:29: “Return, I pray you, let it not be iniquity; yes, return again, my righteousness is in it.”
||They seek to establish their own righteousness.
|Job 6:30: “Is there iniquity in my tongue? Cannot my taste discern perverse things?”
||Such a mind would say, “There is no iniquity in me—but I can discern it in others.”
|Job 7:16: “I loathe it; I would not live always: let me alone; for my days are vanity.”
||Pouting attitude—“leave me alone” attitude—“I don’t want to talk about it.”
|Job 9:17: “For He breaks me with a tempest, and multiplies my wounds without cause.”
||The person blames God for what he is going through.
|Job 10:7: “You know that I am not wicked; and there is none that can deliver out of Your hand.”
||They protest a little too much: “You know me! You know I am not wicked.”
|Job 12:4: “I am as one mocked of his neighbor, who calls upon God, and He answers him: the just upright man is laughed to scorn.”
||This attitude is described as a “persecution complex.”
|Job 13:2: “What You know, the same do I know also: I am not inferior unto You.”
||This is saying, “I am as good as you—you are no better than me. Who do you think you are?”
|Job 16:2: “I have heard many such things: miserable comforters are you all.”
||This is saying, “You lack compassion for me—you are against me.” This is a way that some feel after correction.
|Job 16:12: “I was at ease, but He has broken me asunder: He has also taken me by my neck, and shaken me to pieces, and set me up for His mark.”
||They think, “I was doing fine until God shattered my life—woe is me.”
|Job 16:17: “Not for any injustice in my hands: also my prayer is pure.”
||They are saying, “God knows my heart and my prayers.”
|Job 19:13: “He has put my brethren far from me, and my acquaintance are verily estranged from me.”
||Self-righteous people often have an attitude of “Nobody loves me.”
|Job 21:3: “Suffer me that I may speak; and after that I have spoken, mock on.”
||Instead of taking correction, a self-righteous person will feel jeered or mocked.
|Job 23:3-4: “Oh that I knew where I might find Him! That I might come even to His seat! I would order my cause before Him, and fill my mouth with arguments.”
||Feeling justified in his own eyes, the self-righteous would say, “If I could just stand before God, I could convince Him that I am right.”
|Job 26:2-4: “How have you helped him that is without power? How save you the arm that has no strength? How have you counseled him that has no wisdom? And how have you plentifully declared the thing as it is? To whom have you uttered words? And whose spirit came from you?”
||After receiving correction or having a particular fault pointed out, they reply with sarcasm, saying, in effect, “Who do you think you are? I have God’s Spirit, but I am not so sure about you!”
It is not you who is better. Did you do anything that was holy and good that made God allow you to see what the world cannot? Is it entirely the world’s fault that it does not see as you do?
What good qualities did you have? What did you do to deserve God’s calling?
Remember, God has called “not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble…but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, has God chosen, yes, and things which are not…” (I Cor. 1:26-28).
We were called because we were less than the people in the world. We were “nots,” “weak,” “despised” and “foolish.”
The last thing we should feel is that we are righteous!
God’s Word contains many instances of self-righteousness. One is found in Luke 18. There, Christ speaks a parable to “certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (vs. 9).
Jesus states, “Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank You, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican” (vs. 10-11).
A self-righteous person tends to despise others before elevating himself. Next, he will focus on the good things he himself does: “I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess” (vs. 12).
The Pharisees prided themselves on their ability to keep the letter of the Law, often looking down on others, especially publicans. Notice Christ said that the Pharisee prayed with himself—God did not hear him.
In his prayer, the Pharisee focused on how much better he was than others: after all, he was not like other men, not an extortioner, adulterer, unjust, etc. He was proclaiming his own goodness, praising his own virtues. He was telling himself that he would not—could never—sin like others. Using other people’s sins to measure his own righteousness, he could not see sin in himself, when, in fact, he was guilty of one of the greatest sins—self-righteousness.
And what he could not see, he could not repent of and therefore it could not be forgiven.
Notice the contrast with the publican’s attitude: “And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted” (vs. 13-14).
The publican felt so bad about what he was—a sinner—that he could not even look toward heaven, and he begged for God’s mercy and forgiveness. He squared his shoulders and faced what he was, based on the only true measurement of righteousness—God’s righteousness. God heard his prayer and he was forgiven.
Through David, God explains that real righteousness comes from keeping His commandments (Psa. 119:172).
We cannot follow after the pattern of ancient Israel and try to establish our own righteousness (Rom. 10:3). We must submit to the righteousness of God: “For Christ is the end [the goal, aim] of the law for righteousness to every one that believes” (vs. 4). It is Christ in us that produces righteousness. We must yield to God and Christ in every way, understanding that the only good in us is through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
The book of Job is a study in self-righteousness. In chapter 29, Job tells of all the good and wonderful things about himself and what he did. Fifty times throughout the chapter, Job says, “I…me…mine.” It was not Job’s conduct that was wrong—it was his attitude. Although he was one of the most righteous men who ever lived, it took Job a long time to see how far away he was from God’s righteousness because the sin of self-righteousness had blinded him.
As Proverbs 21:2 states, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the Lord ponders the hearts.” Every human being was born foolish, yet thinks his ways are right and clean. God must reveal this! The moment you think you have overcome self-righteousness, you are in grave danger of acquiring this attitude.
All of us must come to the point that Job reached (Job 42:2-6). The first step is to ask yourself, “Could I be self-righteous? How many self-righteous traits are found in me? How much self-pity, self-confidence, self-justification, self-will, self-seeking, self-trusting, self-esteem, self-importance, self-serving, self-sufficiency and selfishness is in me?” (See inset.)
Where these are found in you, replace them with selflessness—and true humility.
The only way to fight this most deadly sin is to focus on how great God is and diminish yourself.
Strive to see how small you are—and how great God really is!