How Self-Righteous Can You Be?

It’s been almost 25 years, but I can still see that hateful scowl like it was yesterday. That Amish woman, in her crisp navy-blue dress and head covering, glared at Dawn with such a look of sneering contempt that it took my breath away. Her stare seemed to snarl out the words, “You filth. You disgust me.”

This was my Dawn. Sweet, gentle Dawn. The Dawn, whom I can’t imagine anyone finding fault with. Why would she be the object of such scorn?

We were in the emergency room of the regional hospital in Sharon, Pennsylvania. It was 1989. Dawn was in the middle of a painful miscarriage. But all that Amish woman saw was that Dawn was wearing shorts.

Are You Self-Righteous Like That?

— Maybe not. But lots of people are. Jesus ran into them all the time. They were the type who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.

On one occasion, Jesus told them a story about two men who went to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). One man had a pristine social reputation. He was a good man who did good things. He was admired. Everyone thought well of him. You would have felt honored if he came to your dinner party. The other had a shady profession. He mixed with the wrong crowd. He wasn’t trusted. Frankly, he didn’t deserve anyone’s trust. The people Jesus was speaking to wouldn’t have like this man at all.

The story goes that the first man stood alone and prayed boldly, thanking God that he was not like the second man or others like him, and he reminded God of all the good things he had done. But the other man hung at the back of the room as if he had no right to pray at all. He only said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and beat his breast as if to stab the sinful heart that beat inside.

Abstract Silhouette Praying

Are You A Sinner Like That?

“A sinner?” — Maybe not. But lots of people are. Jesus ran into them all the time. They were the type who listened closely when Jesus said God accepted the prayer of the man who begged for mercy, not the first man, the good, upstanding man.

This type – sinners – took these lessons to heart that day:

1. Every person, even a good, moral, civil, polite, charitable, generous, respectable person, needs God’s mercy. No one can stand boldly before God and list their virtues without being condemned, because everyone’s list will be found wanting.

2. Every person, especially the best among us, is blind to the severity and extent of his or her sins. Our self-righteousness, our pretense of goodness, merely betrays how our true nature deceives us.

3. Every person, even the worst among us, will receive mercy when they know they deserve nothing from God. We receive mercy when we pray like we have no right to pray at all.

Are You Self-Righteous or A Sinner?

You may not think you’re much like either man in the story. Most likely, you’re a nice, average sort of person who thinks you have a lot to feel good about. Sure, there may be a little to be ashamed of, too, but hey, doesn’t everybody have some skeletons in the closet?

But, Jesus left us no room in between.

Can there be any doubt about why He would tell a story like this? Perhaps, so that in telling us the bad news about ourselves, our hearts might be open to the good news about His mercy? Perhaps, if we realized even the tip of the iceberg of our sin, we would plead for mercy, and therein find a loving welcome we never could deserve.

We receive mercy when we pray like we have no right to pray at all.

As he said, only the sick need a doctor. He came to call sinners, not the righteous, to repentance. (Luke 5:31-32).

I am an average man, and therefore, a sinner in need of mercy. I have found it in the gospel of Jesus, the Son of God, who drove himself to the cross to make mercy possible for people like me.

I hope you’ll join me at your local church each week to remember who Jesus is, what He did, why He did it, why we need it, and what difference it makes.

How does the story about the two men apply to you?


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8 thoughts on “How Self-Righteous Can You Be?

  1. Great post, Lon! I had somewhat of a similar experience with an obviously religious woman giving me a dirty look at a Laundromat in college. In her long sleeve white shirt tucked under her ankle-length denim jumper, she scowled at me and shielded her two young girls (who were similarly dressed) from being able to see me in my jeans and t-shirt. I was offended, indignant and shouting in my head that she had no right to judge! In looking back, I realize that I was judging her (in my head, of course) at the same time.  
     
    There’s a certain release in accepting that we are all broken individuals, sinners in our own ways. For me, it helps me combat those feeling of self-righteousness that inevitably creep in from time to time. It brings about a humbleness and serves as a reminder that while I am very blessed and have much to be thankful for, I certainly don’t get things right all of the time…and if that’s true for me, it’s true for other people. In all cases, it is only by God’s great mercy that we are forgiven. That’s simply beautiful.

  2. Pingback: Isn’t this why we are wrong? « Emmanuel

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