What is to be self-righteous? It’s when we base our idea of what is right and wrong, good and bad on our own estimation of things with hardly any reference to God. Or there might be some references to God, as usually the case, but in the end, it is our own ideas that would prevail. In other words, when we make ourselves our own law.
We are reminded of this danger in that gospel episode where Christ asked some Pharisees if it was lawful to cure a man with a withered hand on a sabbath. (cfr. Mk 3,1-6) What should have been an easy, common-sensical answer to make turned the Pharisees mad, even thinking of how to eliminate Christ. Their position typifies the rigidity of a self-righteous mind.
The common phenomenon of self-righteousness can be considered as the irony of ironies. That’s because one can earnestly pursue the path of holiness, of what is good and right, and yet ends up the opposite of what he wants. He can practically have the trappings of goodness and holiness and yet misses the real root of righteousness who is God. It can be so self-deceiving that one becomes fully convinced he is righteous.
The main problem with self-righteousness is when one’s search for holiness does not go all the way. His relation with God, his understanding of God’s will and ways only goes to a certain extent. Usually it stops at that point where he feels he already knows everything. In other words, he makes himself the ultimate judge of things, discarding the many other things of God’s will and ways that may still be hidden in mysteries.
This was well personified by the Pharisees, scribes and other elders during the time of Christ. They preferred to stick to their own ideas of goodness and holiness, their own laws and traditions, and went all the way not only to be suspicious of Christ, always finding fault in him, but also to finally crucify him.
This danger of self-righteousness usually affects people who are considered intelligent, gifted, talented. They often regard themselves, either in an open way or in a hidden way, superior to others.
If one is truly righteous with a righteousness that is a participation of the righteousness of God, then he should include in his idea of goodness and holiness the essential virtues of humility, compassion and mercy. He always defers to the ultimate judgment of God. Whatever judgment he makes is always open to God’s judgment.
He should have the love that God manifested in Christ, the God made man to offer us the way, truth and the real life meant for us. And that love includes love of one’s enemies. It’s a love that can go all the way to offer one’s life not only for his friends but also for his enemies. This is the real test of a truly righteous person.
Yes, it’s true that Christ said that that there can be no greater love than when a man lays down his life for his friends. (cfr. Jn 15,13) But St. Paul said that “God proves his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5,8)
In other words, even if we consider ourselves enemies of God because of our sins, God continues to love us. For God, we are all his friends, his beloved, no matter what the circumstances are. We have to reflect this kind of righteousness of God!
If there are those who do not love us in return, that’s their problem, not ours.*