Speaking the Truth in Love

Is It Self-righteous to Be Righteous?

One Saturday I tuned the radio to an ESPN station, hoping to hear some talk about a game to be played later in the day. That morning the host of the live program was irate over an email from a listener offended by the show’s affiliation with a liquor company. “Don’t write us again,” the host jeered. “Go away! You are so self-righteous.”

Is it self-righteous to take a strong moral stand and openly express your views? If so, Jesus himself was self-righteous. He condemned sexual immorality, theft, murder, slander, deceit, disrespect for parents, and, yes, drunkenness. He also opposed sins of the heart—greed, lust, envy, malice, selfishness, hypocrisy. For Jesus, these were not private opinions. He voiced his values boldly and explicitly. And yet, there was no hint of pride in the Lord’s demeanor.

To be self-righteous is to be arrogant: “I am better than other people. I am more worthy before God because of my own moral or spiritual attainments.” This attitude, of course, Jesus denounced. Once he told a parable about a Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12). This fellow was a caricature of people who trust in themselves and despise others (v. 9).

What the ESPN host and so many others fail to realize is that a moral person may share his views not out of contempt but genuine compassion. For instance, the man who sent the offending email was probably motivated by deep concern over the consequences of encouraging and glamorizing alcohol consumption. No doubt, the writer was distressed by the countless broken marriages, the ruined careers, the abused children, the addicts living in cardboard boxes, and the dead bodies scattered on U.S. highways after drunk-driving collisions.

No, it is not self-righteous to be righteous. It is right to be righteous.

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