Friday, April 13, 2007

Self-Righteousness

Every time I study the New Testament, I am fascinated by the behavior of the Pharisees. The one term that seems to best describe them (besides “pharisaical”) is “self-righteous”.


Start tangent.
Actually, when I was younger, I didn’t think self-righteous had a bad connotation. I just thought if someone was self-righteous, then he/she was righteous even when by him/herself or something. That reminds me…you know how the Book of Mormon uses the term “dwindle in unbelief” to indicate a general diminishing of righteousness and belief in God? Well until I was probably 13 or so, I thought it was a good thing when the people dwindled in unbelief. I thought it meant that the unbelief of the people was dwindling. That’s good, right?
End tangent.

Self-righteousness is a funny thing. We all know what the word “righteous” means. But self-righteous may be a little harder to define. I will define self-righteousness as the act of thinking oneself better than someone else because of one’s own perceived righteousness compared to another person. Defined this way it obviously contains elements of pride, namely comparison and judgment of others. In other words, self-righteousness is a sin. Now here’s the funny part about self-righteousness: Try to think of someone you know or in the scriptures that is self-righteous, for example we’ll use the Pharisees. Now, aren’t they wicked, you know, being self-righteous and all? Oh wait, now we are self-righteous because we are thinking ourselves better because we think we are more righteous than they. This is different than say, theft or cheating. The act of pointing out the theft or cheating of someone else doesn’t make one a thief or a cheater.
Now I’ll back up a bit, because I did try to pull a fast one. In the above logic I equated recognizing a sin of another and recognizing that we don’t commit that sin to thinking that we are “better” than the other person. That is not necessarily true, though it sometimes is. In fact, I think the very moment when one makes that leap of thinking they are “better” than someone else because of one’s perceived comparative righteousness is exactly when that person is self-righteous. (Just to make sure we are rigorous, let’s define better as “of more value or worth as a person”.)

I first recognized this phenomenon a few years ago when I was still a BYU student. I was visiting an apartment of girls one evening. Some other boys were there visiting as well. On of the boys had to go to the bathroom, and since he lived on the other side of campus, he asked the girls if he could use their bathroom. Remember that the BYU Honor Code strongly discourages having boys use the bathrooms in girls’ apartments (and vice versa) but allows it if “courtesy dictates” or something like that. So one of the girls went back to the bedrooms and took a poll of her roommates who had already retired to their bedrooms for the night. Some of them were in pajamas, getting ready to use the bathroom, etc. So they weren’t comfortable with the boy coming back to use the bathroom. The girl came back and politely refused the boy and told him he’d have to find somewhere else. I volunteered the bathroom at my apartment. The boy accepted, but was visibly angry. He used our bathroom and then we went back to the girls’ apartment, the extra walking time between the two apartments being about 1 minute round trip. When he returned, he called the girl self-righteous for not letting him use the bathroom, adding that if a girl asked to use his apartment bathroom, he would never refuse.
I am almost sure I was the only one present to notice the irony. The boy was trying to let everyone know how much “better” he was because he wasn’t self-righteous like this girl. In reality, of course, the girl didn’t pass judgment on the boy for asking to use the bathroom. She merely exercised her right to refuse politely, and showed no aspects of self-righteousness. The boy’s attempt to point out self-righteousness in someone else was itself self-righteous.
Of course, this incident wasn't really isolated. There are certainly many BYU students who are self-righteous, as well as many who are quick to point out self-righteousness when they see it. Maybe it just gets talked about so much that people sometimes forget what it really means.

To me, it seems like the cure for self-righteousness is humility. Actually, I guess true humility can be thought of as the antidote for all forms of sin (inasmuch as all sin stems from pride, the opposite of humility.) In other words, as we encounter people in our lives who are sinful in ways in which we are righteous, we must remember that we are all imperfect. We can recognize the evil and destructive power of sin made manifest in people’s lives, but we must also recognize that they have the ability to repent and gain eternal life just as we do. When we hate the sin but love the sinner, we are not being self-righteous, but Christlike.


2 comments:

randy said...

This is a great read. I too have noticed this type of irony in the behavior of people, and even in my own thinking toward others. I agree that the solution is humility, but humility is one of those illusive attributes that is hard to detect and measure. How can I know if I am sufficiently humble? Can I ever know if someone else is sufficiently humble? If I ever think that I have attained the level of sufficient humility, does that mean that I'm not humble at all? (If I think I have it, I've already lost it.) It seems that you can't really work directly at improving your humility, but it is more of a byproduct of love. Love is also hard to directly work on, but in turn is a byproduct of service. So go serve!

Cabeza said...

Good post, Jon. I agree with what you're saying here. Remember the JST to Matthew 7:1--

"Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged: but judge righteous judgment."

We're supposed to judge. We've been given the ability to judge and we're told to use it (Moroni 7: 15-18), but to use it well.

But yeah, I agree that that balance can be difficult. Humility is definitely key. I guess the way to make sure you're sufficiently humble is to make sure that you know that you're not, and always be working on it. It's like Bill and Ted so astutely reminded us before they met Socrates: "The only true wisdom lies in knowing you know nothing.... Dude, that's us!"