Making Room for the Self-Righteous
Open Your Bible
Matthew 7:1-5, Matthew 23:37-39, Luke 15:11-32, Luke 18:9-14, Romans 2:1-11, Romans 3:9-23
As a teenager I was a pretty lousy prodigal. The youngest of three daughters, I had the benefit of watching my sisters’ rebellious moments backfire, and so I learned quickly that the best way to stay in my parents’ good graces was to toe the line. Add to that the fact that we lived at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, surrounded by structure, discipline, and people who knew how to do things right. Early on, I decided I wanted to be like them. While good leaders might make honest mistakes, they usually don’t blow a bunch of cash partying. They go to college, get good grades, and become generals and senators.
I applied that same logic to my young Christian faith. I thought if I lived “rightly,” all my dreams would go just as I’d planned. I even claimed Scripture to back me up! (See Proverbs 16:3.) Instead, my self-righteousness grew like a cancer, slow and undetected, hidden by a life focused on pleasing others.
There is so much irony in self-righteousness because it is exactly the self-righteous who don’t think they have a problem. That’s why it can be a toxic sin, one that creeps into our lives without our awareness. Today, I find it most apparent in my marriage. When I’m having a bad day, God forbid my husband sneeze too loudly, miss a button on his shirt, or accidentally leave the stove on. I’m quick to point out or dwell on his minor flaws while ignoring the far bigger issue: my critical spirit.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the older brother starts a long argument with his father. He was angry and, legally speaking, he probably had a case against his younger brother. But followed to the root, his anger was really a deep-seated resentment. He tells his father, “I have been slaving many years for you” (Luke 15:29). His angry confession reveals that all along, he’d felt bitter about the work his father had asked him to do. He mentions that he’d never had a party thrown in his honor. Deep down, he felt he deserved one, along with the accolades that would surely come with it.
Self-righteousness blocks our ability to find joy in the redemption of others. When I’m being self-righteous, I’m far better at calling other people names than I am at naming my own sin. Reading the parable of the prodigal son has never been fun for me because I know I’m the older brother—heart hardened and locked up tight—and I would much rather be the younger brother, who knows he’s in desperate need of forgiveness.
In church circles, people often talk about the father running out to meet his son. I’ve heard it told that men in that culture didn’t run; they never picked up their robes, exposing their ankles. What the father did was unabashedly and radically loving. But something I’ve never noticed before was that he didn’t stop there—he didn’t just run out to greet the son who’d been lost and gone astray. The father also sought out his self-righteous son; he looked around and noticed that his eldest was missing from the party.
There is hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ, even for self-righteous people like me. Out of His abundant love, the Father comes after us too. There is room for all of us at His table.