What Does “Self-Righteousness” Mean?

I think there’s a lot of confusion when this term is thrown around by others and many don’t know what it means.  I think many equate self-righteousness with thinking you are better than others, morally or in other ways.

Webster’s definition of self-righteous is this:  convinced of one’s own righteousness especially in contrast with the actions and beliefs of others; narrow-mindedly moralistic.

Zondervan’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary gives the theological definition:  belief, attitude, or behavior of persons who seek God’s acceptance by their own efforts, that is, by doing good works and keeping divine statues.

Bible passages where the concept of self-righteousness is discussed:  Luke 18:9, Romans 10:1-3, and Philippians 3:9.

Zondervan continues, “A self-righteous person is righteous neither in the religious nor moral sense.  Those who trust in themselves do not have right standing with God through self-effort nor are they morally upright since their attitudes are not affected.”

From my understanding, righteousness is a gift from God that we received from Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross.  The “self” goes directly against righteousness since we humans have nothing to do with God’s grace.

If someone is being self-righteous, they are basically being self-reliant and in relation to others portray a smug and prideful attitude which is where superiority creeps in.  They waste precious energy, time, and resources trying to earn God’s grace and mercy when it was freely given.  And because they are striving so hard to earn God’s love they create a feeling inside of themselves that they are better than others because of their good works.  It becomes a numbers game and they end up judging themselves against others–again, something God should only be doing.

Self-righteousness is a sin because we are relying on ourselves and not accepting what Jesus has done for us on the cross.  And when coupled with others it is an act of judging others and only God can do that.

Self before righteousness is like putting you before God–self-reliant instead of God-reliant.

Examples of self-righteousness:  thinking you are better than others because–you believe in God, do more good things than others, are a better person in your view, etc.

Self-righteousness is another form of the wrong kind of pride and as Jesus says, “…he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:14

End Note:  Definitions and examples of Bible passage are from Zondervan’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary by JD Douglas and Merrill C Tenney.  I would not have been able to explain this concept without this help!  Thank you!

I would love any other ideas or clarification points added!

4 thoughts on “What Does “Self-Righteousness” Mean?

  1. I appreciate your deep digging on this subject. I don’t have anything profound to add. Humility is something I seem to struggle with weekly. It goes against what the world values and my basic personality…which is again something I struggle with…yes, I am a sinner. I don’t like to think of myself as a sinner. I have often been put off when in lecture when someone referred to herself as lower than a worm. And this week’s lesson for my group…#25…does deal with Jesus’ response at the trials before his crucifixtion. Whoa. What an an eye opener this has been for me. I find myself thinking I’m a bit elevated at times…it just creeps up on me…usually on Facebook when someone else posts some nebulous status. I’ll think, well, bless their hearts…they need to stop x, y, or z so they won’t have to feel a, b, or c. Meanwhile, I’m judging, feeling a bit superior, and yes…drum roll…just a bit self righteous. All theological whoop di do aside, it’s just wrong. Sin. And I have been totally hit “up the side of the head” with it ever since the leader’s retreat. First of all, on a lot of levels I was disappointed. Oh, I thought it would be like those old Billy Grahamn crusades I’d see on tv when I was younger. Lots of incredible singing. Big prayers. Big sermons. Break out groups of some amazing this or that. Silly old me. This was BSF on steroids. Stripped down. Lean. On time. On point. Tough. Thought-provoking. Rough. Painful. Ultimately beautiful. I didn’t know a lot about how Susie came to BSF or her background. After hearing a bit of her story, I was encouraged and amazed and blessed to see how God had worked in her life. I was a bit rebellious and gloomy about the study of Revelation, the long hike we had to the hotel, and all kinds of other outside factors. But God was working on my heart big time…and my self righteousness I wasn’t even aware of…and yes, my big time sinner’s heart that I wasn’t willing to accept fully. I remember Susie saying something about being a worm and thinking…oh, there one of these incredible Christians goes again being all…I’m such a sinner. I really was annoyed at that moment but boy, howdy, did God deal with me!!! I won’t bore you with some of the silly stuff that led up to the moment of me being alone instead of with my roommate…but I was in the shower washing my hair and God just convicted me…opened up this window that showed me every single heinous sin I had committed…especially with my children….how dare I pray for this or that for them or complain about their adult sins when God showed me every single wrong, too lenient, too liberal, not loving, wrong worded, and even cruel thing I said or did or allowed…every moment I did not protect them from sin and even allowed sin into our home through people, books, movies, and so on. Oh, what a horrible moment and for the first time in my life, I felt like a worm and knew I was a worm. Most people used to think I was such an incredible mother with these incredibly artistic, outstanding, multi-talented, perfect children. I pushed and they produced. They didn’t just stand out in one area…they stood out in many areas. I remember my mother-in-law with whom I don’t have the greatest of relationships telling me that people mattered more than competitions and on and on but I would not listen. They competed at the highest levels and won. They studied and took the hardest AP classes and collected rooms and rooms of trophies and awards. I am not exaggerating. Seriously rooms of trophies, floor to ceiling, bookshelf after bookshelf. And they played the piano and other instruments each and excelled. And they sang and made the All State Choirs, Bands, and Orchestras. They were the stars of the theatre departments. And they each had their sports and one played at the national level. They not only got full college scholarships, they got multiple scholarships to multiple schools. The elder one had more than a million in scholarship offers and was a National Merit Scholarship winner. The younger one received one of a very select few full scholarships in that sport. And you know what? Both fell apart in college. Both of them. They were burned out. Messed up. Not spiritually centered. And I could go on. Meanwhile, our finances were messed up from years of pushing all this stuff on them…academic camps, model congresses, sports camps, travel to competitions nationally and internationally. No time to visit families. Where would we practice? No time to go on a mission trip or this or that…well, let’s just say I was a sweeter version of Tiger Mother. And I was a Christian! A born again Christian! A former home schooler! A Sunday School teacher! Someone who had attended BSF whenever we were living anywhere near a class. And I was self righteous as homemade sin. So your writing about this as I’m doing Lesson 25 really hit home. You haven’t gotten the notes yet but there is a point about how a sheep doesn’t make a sound when being sheared even if being roughly handled that has spoken to me. Jesus did not respond to any of his accusers or fight back verbally. I always want to get my word in and defend my position. Jesus didn’t do that at the end. He knew he was about to become the sacrificial lamb for the world. He did not fight it. He did not beg. He didn’t even give a sermon or theological defense of his position. He was silent. That’s another of those things that used to annoy me about people I viewed as “higher up” the spiritual and theological scale than myself. OH, they’re so self righteous, I’d think, never having an opinion or being so quiet or organized or perfect or whatever I was childishly (really more middle school girl) in my head so judgementally (to e or not to e…voting for the e). I’m starting to realize that I’m a lot more rebellious than I used to think for such a good girl who didn’t smoke or drink or mess around too much as a teen and who never smoked weed. Because ultimately we are ALL sinners and fall short of the glory of God. David and Solomon were a mess at times. So was Peter and Paul was a murderer. We’re given their stories to be reminded that God can do mighty things with us and through us when we get out of the way and let him mold us and shape us and hone us and refine us and prune us and shear us. This week I’ve gotten the message…SHUT UP and let GOD. PRAY and allow God. STOP judging my children and give God the priviledge of working in their hearts, souls, and minds this week. Let God be the Manager. There is no need for me to micromanage. God has a plan and He is merciful. Jesus can and will give them and me the peace that passes all understanding. The Holy Spirit is there for us all. So…instead of working on my lesson…I’ve wanted to share with you what I’ve learned the last few weeks and I hope it helps you like your blog has helped me the last few months. I do appreciate it so much.

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Sweet Mama, and please don’t be so hard on yourself as a parent. You do the best you can with what you know at the time. Your kids will mess up. Mine will. It’s the gift of Free Will in action. Kids have to mess up to learn. It’s how I learned. I love Oprah’s saying, “When you know better, you do better.” Now you know. God knows. And with Him you will learn.

      I need to be humbled daily just like you. I wrote the self-righteous piece so I’d remind myself not to be so condescending sometimes and not to think so highly of myself. Like a worm. Thanks for adding another perspective!

      Many blessings!

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  2. Hi, I enjoy your posts. I try to avoid looking at your answers to the BSF homework until after I’ve finished the work for that day. I’m usually successful in that. 🙂

    I do have a comment regarding judging each other. 1 Cor 5:1-13 indicates we (the body of Christ) are told to judge within our church and not leave in the church those who are immoral, etc. So, I think we are not to judge those outside the body of Christ but we need to judge those (with compassion) within the church and gently correct improper behavior. If the behavior is not corrected, we are to send that person out from the church so the leaven won’t spoil the entire loaf (so to speak). I remember something about if we do not make a believer aware of his sin, we share the guilt of that sin. Don’t remember the chapter and verse.

    And, perhaps I simply misunderstood what you meant by your post :-).

    Blessings and keep writing!

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