Trying to be perfect in an imperfect world to garner the good opinion of others will hurt your relationships with God, family, and friends. Let me illustrate how this works with my friend Mable.
Listen to the podcast
You may want to read:
- The Danger of Trying to Be Perfect
- How to Overcome the Opinions of Others
- The Danger of Trying to Please God
Mable is insecure. Mable has a hard time admitting she is wrong. Mable has a high view of herself. Mable is self-righteous. How she appears before others as well as how she thinks others think about her are of utmost importance to Mable.
Many of her friends love her and see her as an example that they want to emulate, but her family has a different perspective on Mable. They can never honestly say what they think about her because Mable has never been humble enough to receive their observations.
Whenever her family has brought their perspectives to Mable, she would respond with anger or other emotional reactions, while letting them know the many ways they have failed her. Mable’s family has taken the position of overlooking things because it is not worth getting into an argument with her.
Mable’s self-righteousness has had an even more detrimental effect on her husband, Biff. He has had his sin problems, and Mable has not been shy about reminding him of where he has failed and how he has hurt her.
She expresses her disappointment to Biff through her nagging, criticism, and consistent demeaning attitude. Recently she told him if he continued sinning, she would leave him.
Biff has been trying to walk out his repentance in humility, and it appears that he is trying to change for the right reasons. Recently he said during a counseling session:
I don’t want to sin anymore. I’m working hard not to. I have spent more time in prayer than at any other time in my life. I have been reading the Bible more than ever. I’ve set up accountability partners to help guard my heart against falling back into sin.
Even so, I feel there will be times when I will fall. I don’t want to do this, and I’m not making excuses, but I’m not sure I can live a life of perfection, which is what Mable is asking me to do.
I know it sounds wrong, but I’ve been tempted to lie to Mable when she asks me if I sinned. Do you know what I mean? So, when she asks, “How’s it going Biff?” What am I to say?
There are many layers and concerns related to this case study. I am only going to interact with one of the problems presented–Mable’s self-righteousness.
Self-righteousness is part of the brokenness that comes with being born in Adam. Along with unbelief, shame, guilt, fear, craving for comfort, and a desire to be in control, a compulsion to think well of ourselves is part of who we are as sinful humans.
In addition to being born with self-righteous pre-wiring, our culture perpetuates this desire to think highly of ourselves. Those who do not want to submit to the Lord seek other means to feel good about themselves, which typically has something to do with being superior.
Self-righteousness is the act of thinking you are better than who you are. It is elevating yourself above others, even if the other person is yourself. Let me explain.
- Self-righteous people look down on others.
- Self-righteous people look down on themselves–the things they do not like about themselves.
We all have enough self-awareness about ourselves to know that we are not perfect. There is something within us that motivates us to be better than the person we know ourselves to be. Therefore, we mask our flaws while we promote our more preferred qualities.
This problem becomes more complicated after we alter our inner selves by elevating ourselves above others. This attitude is what the Pharisees did in the New Testament. Becoming a Christian does not insulate us from this sin.
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them. – Matthew 6:1
Though we may have accepted the righteousness of Christ as our own, we are still tempted to smuggle our righteousness into our lives, with the goal of building a reputation that can feed our desire for self-glory.
The humble Christian intuitively knows about this problem. Only a self-righteous person would be offended if someone told them that they were self-righteous. Their high opinion of themselves would motivate them to reject any negative assessment about themselves, even if the evaluation were accurate.
This problem is one of the things that makes caring for the self-righteous person so challenging. Their self-righteousness compels them to resist your analysis. Even with the best intentions, they would receive your care as inaccurate, harsh, or unkind.
This perspective is one of the more unusual things about Paul’s self-analysis. He was relentless when it came to his honest, sober, and biblical self-assessment.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy. – 1 Timothy 1:15-16
He understood and humbly lived in the antithetical juxtaposition of his total depravity and Christ’s impeccable righteousness. He was free to drop his denials and self-defense while admitting the more accurate dimensions of his sin.
The gospel of justifying faith means that while Christians are, in themselves still sinful and sinning, yet in Christ, in God’s sight, they are accepted and righteous. So we can say that we are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope — at the very same time.
This creates a radical new dynamic for personal growth. It means that the more you see your own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying, and amazing God’s grace appears to you.
But on the other hand, the more aware you are of God’s grace and acceptance in Christ, the more able you are to drop your denials and self-defenses and admit the true dimensions and character of your sin. – Tim Keller
The self-righteous person is not free to think about or present themselves this way. They continue to guard, protect, and justify on one side while being critical, negative, and arrogant on the other side. This combination means if you bring any critique to them, you will experience some form of their anger.
How to Overcome the Opinions of Others
Fear of Man
The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe. – Proverbs 29:25
The companion sin that hangs out with the self-righteous person is the fear of others–culturally called co-dependency, insecurity, or people-pleasing. Mable is enslaved and bound by the opinion of others.
If you approve her, she will be your friend. If she perceives your disapproval–whether founded or not–she will be your enemy. Her hope is you will think about her in the way that she thinks about herself, which is a high view of herself.
What she does not understand and cannot enjoy is how the only opinion in the room that should matter is the Lord’s opinion of her, and sadly that opinion does not control her. God’s thoughts of her, as experienced through the application of Christ’s righteousness, should be her controlling identity.
She is still under the influence of others. Will you accept me? Please do not reject me? What do you think of me? These are some of the controlling thoughts that course through her mind when she thinks about other people. This kind of thinking enslaves her.
She hopes others will have a similar view of herself that she has of herself. The primary way in which she can influence those opinions is through self-promotion, which is the essence of self-righteousness.
A person trapped by the fear of others has many symptoms that they implement to cope with this kind of slavery. Here are a few of them.
- Much talking
- Easy embarrassment
- Can’t be transparent with others
- Are frustrated and discontent
- Avoidance of others
- Can’t handle rejection well
- Are inflexible
- Has to be in control
- Afraid of failure
- Hides behind much talking and laughter
- Are reactionary and defensive
- Competitive with others
- Name dropping
- Must have the last word
- Struggle with oversensitivity
- Confronting people corporately but not personally
The quickest and simplest way to assess a self-righteous person, who is bound to the fear of others, is to listen to them. How do they talk to others? How do they respond to others? How do they talk about others? Below are some questions that have helped me to assess my self-righteousness.
- Am I quicker to acknowledge my sins?
- Am I tentative about acknowledging the sins of others?
- Can I receive critique?
- Do I actively pursue others for correction?
Here are a few more diagnostic questions that I have benefited from and I hope they will help you to discern any self-righteousness that may be present in you.
- Have you ever been tempted to sinfully critique or judge another person, group, or church?
- How do you usually respond to those who do not do things according to your preferences?
- Do you tend to focus on what you are doing right and what others may be doing wrong?
- How do you think about others who live out secondary preferences differently from you?
- Do you secretly feel smug because God has delivered you from some of the sins you see in others?
- Do you become impatient or frustrated when you think about those who do not do things your way?
The humble person, who is feisty about “taking their soul to task,” would see the questions above as opportunities to continue the lifelong transformation into Christlikeness. This kind of attitude is a core characteristic of the person who is humble–a humility that seeks critique even if the person does not present the evaluation correctly.
Like an investigative reporter, she will figure out the bits and pieces of truth that she can apply to her life. Like a desert wanderer in search of water, they see God’s hand in a correction because they want to change.
What about Mable?
Mable is in bondage to sin. Her two controlling sins are self-righteousness and fear of man. Mable needs a friend, who is willing to come alongside her in a permanent, persevering, and persuasive way.
Her problems are not as much about amputation (Matthew 5:30), though she needs to cut out some things, as they are about mortification (Romans 8:13), the long process of removing the vitality from the sins that have gripped her heart. Her restoration will not be a quick fix.
She must know that this kind of friend is going to walk with her through the thick and the thin of her junk. Her friend must be for her (Romans 8:31). This necessity is why counseling would not be the best option for Mable. Biblical counseling is an artificial context that anticipates change to happen within that temporal construct and timeframe.
Mable does not need a therapist. She needs a co-laboring friend who is willing to put up with her and her game playing. This kind of friend would set up multiple contexts to engage and interact with her. She needs someone to do life with her like what this graphic illustrates.
Mable’s sin did not sprout up in the past few months. Her sin patterns have long roots, and it will take a lot of compassion, courage, and continuity to walk with her through the thick weeds that have entangled her soul.
As a woman with the world’s worst sunburn, you will not be able to bring quick and decisive care to her. If you touch her, you will hurt her, but you have to “touch” her. After you “hurt” her, she will “hurt” in return, which will be a relationship cycle that you will have to endure.
There is no way around this inevitability. The process of cooperating with the Lord in the transformation of her soul will be painstakingly hard and long. More than likely you will become frustrated with her.
If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Galatians 6:1-2
The good news is that she has a local church with caring disciple-makers. They will be able to bring long-term care to her, while also helping Biff to continue to mature through his issues. In time, within the context of a loving community, this couple can find help.
The real question for you and me to think about is, who is going to help us? We are just like Mable. Will we find a community so we can be cared for as we continue to mortify our life-long battle with self-righteousness and fear of man? If you do not have a community to care for you, I suggest you consider our community as a partial help.
Also published on Medium.