March 13, 2019

The Demonic Danger of Self-Righteousness

Gary Thomas — 

What if one of the most dangerous attitudes for believers is self-righteousness?

What if it’s possible to be “right” and toxic at the same time?

What if, in the name of doing God’s work, we find ourselves furthering the cause of Satan?

I’ve been reading through Thomas Brooks’ Christian classic Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices. It’s a book I’d recommend every Christian read. Precious Remedies may remind you of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, though in a vastly different, point-by-point Puritan style of presentation. Brooks (a 17th century English non-conformist Puritan preacher) presents Satan’s methods (“devices”) and then “divine remedies” to counter them.

One of the most vicious and subtle attacks on God’s church, according to Brooks, is Satan’s determination to destroy the saints by dividing them, until we “bite and devour” one another (Gal. 5:15). One of Satan’s favorite tools to accomplish this aim, according to Brooks, is the saints’ own self-righteousness. We catch somebody doing or saying one thing wrong, and then use that as license to destroy them and everything they are.

Brooks quotes Erasmus who showed how silly self-righteous judgment can be. Erasmus chastises a scholar who “collected all the lame and defective verses in Homer’s works—but passed over all that was excellent. Ah! This is the practice of many people, that they are careful and skillful to collect all the weaknesses of others, and to pass over all those things which are excellent to them.”

Homer’s writings are widely regarded as foundational works of great literature, but if you focus on his worst passages, you miss the beauty, power, and poetry of the best.

It would be like someone collecting videotape of Tom Brady’s worst plays, weaving them together, and putting out the video with a caption, “Tom Brady is not a great quarterback.” You ignore his nine Super Bowl appearances and six Super Bowl rings because, well, in a January 2010 playoff game against the Ravens he threw for just 154 yards and had three interceptions.

The chronicler reveals himself to be an absolute fool. Brady had a bad day, but he’s still a great quarterback.

Yet how many of us treat family members this way, looking for the worst and defining them by their worst? And how many of us treat Christians with whom we disagree this way?

Self-righteousness shame casting gets us angry and vindictive and then it snowballs. We look for more that is wrong, more to chastise, more we can use to “shame” who has now become our enemy as we “bite and devour one another.” We forget the human condition—that every person has strengths and weaknesses.

Dare I say it? Every ministry has truth and lies. The only perfect sermon was the sermon on the Mount. The only perfect book is the one God wrote. The only perfect spouses (Adam and Eve) didn’t stay that way for very long. This is the lesson I take from reading the Christian classics: there are often many nuggets of gold occasionally surrounded by a few pieces of excrement. I am most dangerous and most deadly when I become a stranger to humility and make myself the arbiter of all things true and moral and good.

Brooks asks why we “enjoy” self-righteous diatribes: “Tell me, saints, is it not a more sweet, comfortable, and delightful thing to look more upon one another’s graces than upon one another’s infirmities? Tell me what pleasure, what delight, what comfort is there in looking upon the enemies, the wounds, the sores, the sickness, the diseases, the nakedness of our friends?”

If we gather in groups to share our spouse’s shortcomings; if we meet after church to chastise the sermon’s weaknesses and the church’s failures, if we gather in blogs or on Facebook to organize and execute the most recent take down of the next victim, we may be giving way to one of “Satan’s devices.” Self-righteousness is like a snowball rolling down the hill that gets larger as it rolls, picking up momentum and force as others join in. Now, imagine an entire church or online community pushing that ball. I’ve seen some get so frenzied in their zeal they’d roll that snowball right over Jesus to attack the object of their disdain.

It’s Personal

What if Jesus views that “object” of your scorn as his son or daughter? If you have kids you know they aren’t perfect. You know they make mistakes and occasionally do or say stupid things. But you can’t stop looking at them through the eyes of a parent, can you? You are still for them even when you are against what they do or say. That’s the attitude of a graceful Christian—you remain for someone even when calling them into repentance.

God looks at every Christian you attack as his son or daughter. When we must disagree and confront sin and false teaching, we should do it with reverence. Christ died for the person you are attacking. Christ wants that person’s best. If we had to be perfect to merit God’s favor, no one would be left standing in the church.

I’ve said time and again that the biggest mind-transformation for me was when I “got” that Lisa is God’s daughter (1 John 3:1) and that as his daughter she is dearly loved (Ephesians 5:1). Any correction, any challenge, has to be done with the understanding that I am talking to God’s daughter. That calls me to more than respect; it calls me to reverence and divine gratitude. Her heavenly father has given me everything, and how I treat her says as much about how I view Him as it does about how I view her. If one of my children mess up, I know they need to be challenged, but I want it to be done with grace and understanding and good will, not hatred, malice, slander, or making them sound worse than they are.

It took me a little longer to extend this beyond my family to other believers. But this is why you won’t find me attacking books or people in this blog. I don’t know how to do it with reverence. I’ve seen my mentor J.I. Packer do it (just read Keep in Step with the Spirit). I’ve listened to another mentor, Dr. Klaus Bockmuehl, do the same with theological “opponents.” But it’s so difficult to do and it’s so easy to go from being right to being self-righteous, and that tiny gap is where you go from serving God to perhaps unwittingly furthering the cause of Satan who seeks to divide us by inciting us to bite and devour one another. “They sharpen their tongues like swords and aim cruel words like deadly arrows” (Psalm 64:3).

The world’s hostility toward the words and people of Christ grows daily; how much must it grieve our heavenly Father when he sees his children adding to this hostility?

The Gospel is What we Receive and Share

Brooks says something shocking: “Does not God look more upon his people’s graces than upon their weaknesses?” Consider how God describes David as “a man after my own heart.” James reminds us to remember the “patience of Job” (5:11), ignoring the twenty chapters of Job’s impatient ranting. Rahab the prostitute isn’t remembered and condemned for sleeping with hundreds of men; she is celebrated for hiding two of God’s chosen. In some Christian quarters today, any individuals who did what these three did would be defined by their worst moments, cast out, and banned.

Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous is a hero to many who never met him but often felt like a train wreck waiting to happen to those who did. Wilson’s associates often lamented how such an unworthy man was the figurehead for such a worthy mission. Bill’s frustrated addiction to alcohol became arguably an addiction to sex, making him chronically unfaithful to his wife. The transfer from alcohol to sex addiction isn’t uncommon; in AA circles it’s derisively described as “thirteenth stepping,” and Wilson was one of the most prolific thirteenth steppers who ever lived. A long-term mistress, Helen Wynn, was actually a beneficiary in his will. And (this is particularly sad and heart-wrenching), in the last few weeks of his life, as Bill Wilson lay dying, nurses recorded three separate times that Bill demanded a drink and became furious when they didn’t comply.

Knowing all this, any fame-thirsty blogger could have written a good “take down” of Bill; his hypocrisy, his unworthiness to be a figure of renown. How could AA or its message be any good when its founder was so “bad”? But the program Bill launched—though imperfect—has benefitted tens of millions of people, helping them find the freedom that he never entirely did.

Can I be honest with you? If you get to know any of the people behind the headlines, they are all broken people with broken pasts. And broken people usually still have a limp. Some, like Beth Moore and Bob Goff, have bravely shared glimpses of their painful pasts. Others don’t have the strength or desire to share so freely (perhaps for some good reasons) but if you dug deeply enough, you wouldn’t find a single public face without some private shame.

We are all messed up, in some way. Stepping out of the sewer is a universal human condition. To step out in the public and be used by God, we might have washed our face but forgotten to wash behind our ears or still have something sticking in our hair. As a person saved by grace I want to extend grace myself and try to whisper to the person, “You’ve got grime on your neck” rather than laugh out loud, point it out to everyone, and make the person feel shame because even though they’ve left most of the sewer behind, a little stink is still sticking with them.

Here’s a warning: when God loves someone as a daughter or son and you tear that person apart, now you’ve got a problem with God. Read the book of Job; God was angry with Job for getting things wrong, but he grew even angrier with Job’s friends for the way they responded to Job’s errors.

Let me be clear: if my son or daughter was doing or saying something heinous, and another believer found a way, with grace, to confront and correct them, I’d be grateful for the person doing the correcting. My heart would be filled with love and gratitude for them. If they did it in a self-righteous way, however, destroying and attacking their person, even if I agreed with what they were saying I would hate what they were doing. Job’s accusers said many true things, but being against Job, even in his ranting, made God stand against them because “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

God has one church—a very imperfect church. If we tear that one church apart, what’s left? An open playing field for Satan.

The Essential Ministry of Confrontation

 As a postscript, I want to make clear I don’t discount the sometimes necessary ministry of confrontation, otherwise you’d have to throw out the entire book of Jeremiah and the ministry of John the Baptist (but notice how both ended clarion calls of judgment with gracious invitations of healing). There has been some very necessary deep cleansing in the church. If men won’t treat women with respect out of reverence for God, perhaps at least they’ll now start doing so out of fear of the world’s shame and reprisal. The church is commanded to protect and stand up for the vulnerable and oppressed (Prov. 24:11) and to “gently” restore those who have sinned (Gal. 6:1). We have a very difficult time balancing these two charges, but we must find a way. We can fall off on either side.

Tim Challies’ sometimes negative reviews of books help me clarify my own thinking. Scot McKnight is someone I occasionally check out to help me think through controversial issues (I love the way he usually waits and reflects instead of commenting off the cuff). Sheila Gregoire offered some much-needed corrections to perhaps unforeseen horrendous implications behind the good intentions of the purity movement. Deb Fileta wrote True Love Dates to correct some faulty thinking on dating and was so successful, Josh Harris pulled his book from publication and ended up endorsing Deb’s. I may not always agree with Tim, Scot, Sheila or Deb, but I’m frequently listening.

It’s clear from the words of Jesus (Matt. 7:1-5) and Paul (1 Cor. 11:31; Romans 14:3, 10, 13) that we should spend the vast majority of our time judging ourselves first and encouraging others rather than attacking them (1 Thess. 5:11). That’s the practice that sets up a healthy foundation with which to confront the weaknesses of others, but it’s the first practice the self-righteous man or woman leaves behind. Pointing out the wrongs of others or the false-teaching of others doesn’t, in itself, absolve you from searching your own heart for evil and your own words for untruth. If you’re reading a blog or listening to a podcast or following someone on twitter that attacks more than it encourages, be careful. Seriously—if you’re in a tribe, online or otherwise, known more for what it opposes than what it is for, you are extremely vulnerable to being drowned in your own self-righteousness, and all the agreement you’re collecting will only push you further in that direction.

If someone actually takes glee in taking someone down, that may say more about their soul than the person they are attacking. Opposing someone who is wrong doesn’t make you right. There are two ways to miss a target.

This is why we need to be aware of the danger, even the demonic allure, of self-righteousness. “There are no souls in the world who are so fearful to judge others—as those who do most judge themselves; nor so careful to make a righteous judgment of men or things—as those who are most careful to judge themselves” (Brooks).

After reminding us that God looks more on our “graces” than “weaknesses,” Brooks writes, “Ah, saints, be like your heavenly Father!  By so doing, much sin would be prevented, the designs of wicked men frustrated, Satan outwitted, many wounds healed, many sad hearts cheered, and God more abundantly honored.”

God, please grant me the grace to correct others as you have corrected me—being for me even as you are against what I am doing; offering hope for the future more loudly than condemnation about the past; affirming me as a person even as you challenge my errors. Let me be so enamored with the perfect righteousness of Christ that I become dead to my own self-righteousness and treat others with the grace you have shown to me. Have mercy on us and please heal our broken and divided church with grace, humility, truth and compassion. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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29 responses to The Demonic Danger of Self-Righteousness

  1. Thanks Gary.
    Gina and I are on Sabbatical this month in the Dominican Republic. Each morning we take a beach sunrise prayer/talk walk. This morning I was pondering, “If we’re to let the peace of God rule in our hearts, then shouldn’t also rule in our marriage and all our relationships?”

  2. Thank you Lord. I am currently dealing with this exact issue and the wisdom in this blog helps me keep God’s perspective for me.

  3. Well written. Gave me a lot to think about.

  4. Larry Harrison March 13, 2019 at 9:26 pm

    Thanks Gary…a very true, refreshing and needed word for me today.

  5. Great stuff. Can I point out one thing?
    The Gospel is entirely from Christ – that’s why it is a gift (grace!). We can share the Gospel, but only Jesus Christ *gives* it. It may seem like nit-picking but its such an important distinction.

    • Your prayer at the end speaks volumes – thank you for writing such a personal article that should affect all of us!

  6. Dear Gary
    God bless you! You always minister to me and bring positive change into my life and many others.
    Many times I have wondered if some of my actions, thoughts and behaviour could be promoting Satan Kingdom! So at some point I would have to examine myself and ask Dorcas who are you promoting here – Jesus or Satan? TO READ THIS ARTICLE HAS MADE ME SO HAPPY AND ENLIGHTENED. I am going to share it with many of my friends and encourage them to read your books. Thank you for introducing me to Thomas Brook today. YOU ALWAYS MAKE A DIFFERENCE!

  7. I don’t have the words to come close to the ugly self-righteousness I have had in dealing with my wife over the years – especially in the past 6-plus years when she had her biggest slip-up. While my heart was totally shattered, I in no way offered her the grace and forgiveness I should have.

    Praying that God can grant me the same love and grace He offers me to permeate my heart and, in turn, grant it to my wife, whom I still love so incredibly much but have also hurt so deeply.

  8. Dear Gary,
    God’s timing is perfect. Today’s blog brought me to conviction as I and another sister just last night were disparaging another sister. I repented, fell on His grace and asked for mercy. I felt like I had been thrown off a horse just like Paul. I repented, fell on His grace asking for mercy. I then called this sister and read all of it to her. Very quickly she knew where this was going and we knew we would never look/speak about her this way again. We would always see her as a daughter of our Father.
    Thank you for this timely message as you speak/write on behalf of our heavenly Father.

  9. Thank You for this article.

  10. Game changer.

  11. Hi Gary, as a wife who spent 35 years in a very (non-physical) very abusive marriage, I guess I’m going to be the one that has a “yeah, but” for women (or men!) enduring such treatment from one who promised to love and cherish. I agree with everything you wrote, in general. But this is one of the arguments that kept me and my children trapped in abuse. I was afraid to “think the worst” when the worst was truly there. My narrative was, “We are all broken and imperfect. He loves God, had just had a rough childhood that left him damaged. We need to pray for him and have grace.” Now I know that I was enabling a pattern of sin to establish itself more deeply, and now another generation is having to deal with the fallout. I now have no confidence he truly knows Christ. Along with all you said above, I think it’s important to remember that there are wolves in sheep’s clothing among the sheep. We are wise to be discerning. And careful not to tell the sheep that “we are all the same.” Some are truly hypocrites, not just in part, like us all, but in whole. And they mean to feed on the sheep, whether that be sexual predators, domestic abusers, or narcissistic church leaders abusing their power. Dr, Diane Langberg does a stellar job speaking to this here,
    and here:

    I agree that what you said so well in this article needs to be applied to our private and public discourse when we simply differ with another’s theological position, etc. But I would not apply this when speaking about abuse of power and authority, especially in the church.

    I know that you have spoken out clearly against domestic abuse, Gary, in other blog posts, and I appreciate your stand. I just feel a sensitivity to any person trapped in abuse who reads this post and misapplies it in favor of his/ her abuser. If you are being abused: get help. Tell the entire truth. Bring it into the light. There is help, hope, freedom and healing for you.

    • I also have this concern. While this blog is excellent and I appreciate it very much, a person trapped in an abusive situation could misapply it. Perhaps a helpful division is that while we should not condemn people, we certainly should condemn abusuve and harmful BEHAVIOUR. We must call sin ( our own and others’) by its right name. If a woman is being abused she must be helped to rightly name the behaviour and helped to take whatever steps are needed to be set free from the bondage she is in.

  12. Lori Hryniewicz March 13, 2019 at 9:13 am

    Gary how I praise our gracious Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for the wisdom and discernment He has given you by way of His Spirit in writing this blog. The Lord has been dealing with me about my own pride as of late. It is no surprise to God, who sees and knows all, just how much pride permeates my life in both bold and subtle ways. It’s been grievous for me to see just how self righteous I am and humbling when I consider the humility of the Almighty One. Yes, God tells us in His Word not to be ignorant of Satan’s devices and yet often we are ignorant. Satan is subtle and crafty. Even appearing as an angel of light. He is a master at deception. From the beginning his tactics have been to deceive and to destroy. His plans have never chavnged. He wants nothing less than to rob God of glory and doesn’t care who he uses to accomplish it whether lost or saved alike. As believers we serve a Risen Savior. Oh that He would be rightly reflected and glorified in my life. That is my deepest hearts desire.

  13. Yes! Yes! Yes! You said it so well Gary and my heart is so glad to have an accomplice in this passion to see the glory of God in EVERY human and to zealously fight off the self-righteousness that wants to take residence in my own heart. Thank you for writing this and I’m praying right now that it will become your best read article of all time. I’m sharing it on FB as soon as I finish this comment. God God-man, go!

  14. fabulous–hung on every word!

  15. Thank you for this reminder.
    I recently posted a question on Facebook that asked whether we as believers was making an idol out of politics?
    The better question is whether self-righteousness has become our idol?
    Thank you for waking me up!

  16. Lindsey Pennella March 13, 2019 at 8:36 am

    You know – better than anyone – that I wholeheartedly agree with every single word of this. The reasons for taking someone “down” may be valid in their eyes – but the method of doing it is paramount. The method reveals the motive. Always. Thank you Gary! Great read!

    • Steve Pennella March 14, 2019 at 8:56 am

      I agree with Lindsey, great read! In fact, Gary, this is perhaps the best blog of yours I have ever read! Thank you for not only your convicting words but your tremendous heart behind them!

  17. Spot on loved it. Proverbs 25:11.

  18. Thank you! So needed. I see myself in this article and unfortunately, so many in my church home too. To “wait and reflect, instead of commenting off the cuff” –ouch. I love it. I just read something from Wiersbe—“zeal without knowledge”. As I read your post, I was already thinking that every one in my church home should read it because it was so on point and convicting to me but, I think I will “wait and reflect” first. Lol. Thanks again!

  19. Gary,
    We couldn’t agree more and we thank God for your “longer-than-usual” post. You’ve communicated your heart and I believe God’s heart for the church as well.
    I love the idea of “whispering in the ear rather than shouting it out loud.” Such a Christ-like response, focusing on the sinner, not the sin. May God help us be the church who is ready when the Bridegroom appears. I think there are many who aren’t tending to their lamps because they’re busy sniffing out the light in others.

  20. You should never apologize for the wisdom you impart. This was lengthy and completely worth every second it took to read.

    Thank you for every word.