“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men; extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess’ ” (Luke 18:11,12).
WE WILL NOT SEEK GOD AS WE SHOULD IF WE ARE HINDERED BY SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS. If our focus is centered on the good deeds we’ve done and we forget how far short of perfection we still fall, we won’t recognize how much we continue to need His mercy. There will be no real longing for grace or gratitude for forgiveness. This, of course, is the attitude illustrated by Jesus in His familiar parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, a story in which the Pharisee thanked God that he was not sinful like other people and, in effect, congratulated himself for being so careful in his observance of God’s law. Luke prefaced this parable by saying that Jesus spoke it to some “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (Luke 18:9). People do not seek God if their trust is in themselves. They may visit the self-help section in the bookstore, but they do not seek God.
Self-righteousness is such a devilish thing because it begins to afflict us at those times when we really are making some spiritual progress. Just when we begin to demonstrate some diligence in our spiritual lives and take some long-overdue steps in the direction of obedience, our enemy is often able to rob us of our progress by tempting us to become proud of our progress! The joy and wholesome confidence that come with doing what is right begin to slide off into the murky waters of self-satisfaction. Ever so secretly, we begin to entertain the thought that, yes, maybe we are a little more deserving of salvation than those who are less spiritual-minded. And although we’ve gone no more than a little distance in our journey toward God, we begin to be proud of ourselves for our patience with those who are somewhat less enlightened than we — and we can hardly understand why they aren’t more eager to let us help them with their problems.
And so it can happen, if we’re not on constant guard, that we end up with an attitude that is not very different from that of the Pharisees, who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” And if what started out as spiritual progress ends up as spiritual pride, then our adversary will have held on to us after all.
“Self-righteousness is the devil’s masterpiece” (Thomas Adams).