The Ugliness Of Religious-Righteousness

Hurricane Sandy was the second most devastating hurricane in United States history. On October 29th, 2012 it stormed ashore in New Jersey, leaving a wide wake of destruction.

But the destructive path was random and arbitrary. Huge clusters of homes were annihilated Breezy Point, NYwhile houses right next door were unscathed.

A week after the hurricane, I saw a post on Facebook. It showed the picture of a man standing in front of his unharmed house, while the scattered remains of his neighbor’s house lay completely destroyed by the storm.

Under the picture was this caption:

The LORD’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the home of the righteous (Pr. 3:33).

I never met the man and I don’t know his heart. I hope his insensitivity was simple naiveté, and that the judgment of his neighbor was unintentional.

But it smacked of smugness. It reminded me of the ugliness of religious-righteousness.    

Why is it ugly?

Religious-righteousness is self-righteousness with a dash of religion. It oozes the arrogance of inner self-goodness as it scorns the evils of the less fortunate; it takes credit for personal success while it altogether forgets grace.

True kingdom living nurtures humility, “I can’t do it on my own—even be good.” And if I can’t do “it” on my own, how can I despise anyone else who also can’t?

Verses like “God blesses the righteous” are prescriptions for hope in God’s power; they are not diagnoses of our own moral greatness. When we use external circumstances to quantify our goodness, we snub others with our superiority.

Or—if the circumstances are negative—we despair. I personally know real believers who recently experienced terrible losses:

  • A man who lost his son to a brain tumor
  • A woman who lost her husband in a freak accident
  • A friend stricken with a congenital nerve disorder

Did they lose their son, husband, or health because of their wickedness while you and I prosper because of our goodness? Were they faithless while you and I were faithful? Goodness no!

When we use such verses as self-congratulations, we are insensitive, mean, and ugly. Jesus said, “God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45).

Maybe our good circumstances have nothing to do with our goodness. Maybe they’re just God’s mercy.

Let’s strive to be good

The law tells us to strive for godly character, and the modern world doesn’t like it. It smacks of moralism. But the world is filled with violence, oppression, brutality, and treachery. It suffers because people do not strive for goodness.

We should teach, preach, cajole, and encourage everyone to live morally, full of goodness.

But it won’t be enough.

The overlooked point of the law

Our feel-good, therapeutic view of the world—I’m Okay, You’re Okay—will dislike the second purpose of the law even more than the first. First the law tells us how we are supposed to live, and then it tells us how we can’t do it on our own. Luther wrote:

The Law is a mirror to show people what they are like. The foolish idea that a person can be holy [or righteous or good] by oneself denies God the pleasure of saving sinners.

God must therefore first take the sledge-hammer of the law in his fists and smash the beast of self-righteousness and its brood of self-confidence, self wisdom, self-righteousness, and self-help.

When the conscience has been thoroughly frightened by the Law it welcomes the Gospel of grace with its message of a Savior who came … to preach glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, and to grant forgiveness of sins.

Few people seriously admit their own contribution to the evils in the world. I’m told that Hitler thought himself a pretty good guy. Using the law as a mirror to reveal our inadequacies will drive us to God for his grace.

If using the law as a mirror simply makes us humbler, the world will be a better place.

The beauty of gospel-righteousness

Tim Keller says, “Jesus came to live the life we should have lived and to die the death we should have died.” Jesus didn’t come to earth just to die for us. He also came to live for us.

That means Jesus perfectly lived a life of love, holiness, obedience, and righteousness. In his righteousness, though, he didn’t snub us. Instead he poured out his goodness into us. When God looks at us, he literally sees the goodness and righteousness of Jesus.

Therefore we can stand confidently in righteousness, and we stand humbly because it isn’t self-righteousness. Even righteousness is a gift, and that “gift” is the law of grace.

If grace rules, all circumstances can bring peace. If our house escapes the next storm, we rest in his righteousness. If our house is flattened in the storm, through the resurrection we know that God brings the greatest joys out of the darkest nights.

It’s all grace.



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What do YOU think?

21 thoughts on “The Ugliness Of Religious-Righteousness

  1. Beautifully written Sam! And a very timely message – in another example, I’ve been appalled at the insensitivity of many religious folk towards Rick Warren when his son committed suicide recently. Self-righteousness really is ugly!

    • Hi Sonja,

      I too am appalled at how Rick Warren has been treated during this time. Ugly is the word.

      And then I have to think, what ways do I show religious ugliness? God please save me from hidden faults (hidden from me that is … others probably see them very clearly!)

      Thanks Sonja, so good to hear from you.


  2. Wonderful! As you know, we can all be guilty of “religious righteousness”, forgetting that we too were the reason Jesus suffered so much. It isn’t hard to see this attitude around us, question is ?!?!?.. do we (I) recognize the probability in my own life?? Thanks Sam, keep on keeping on. Lyle

  3. Philippians 3:3 has an excellent antidote to this human condition of self-righteousness that, sadly, I find pops up in me: Boast in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

    • Mischl,

      Excellent antidote. And that is such a perfect application of the passage.

      When we talk about “flesh” we believers normally think of sensual sins. But Paul was actually talking about the sins of self-righteousness.

      You nailed it. Thanks.

  4. Thank you for sounding the bell of the message, the good news, we so need to hear. Religious self righteousness is what plagued the older brother and kept him out of the party. It was realizing that I was that older brother that started to wake me up. It is why the church must leave the four walls more and demonstrate His

    love, because from the outside, the welcome sign is not out!

    • Hi Fred,

      Thanks for bringing up the older brother. It’s a perfect example of such ugliness. He couldn’t rejoice in the younger brother’s party.

      Alas. How often do we do that same thing?

      So thanks again.

  5. I’m amazed that I found your Blog at this time in my life when I am exploring Grace, and slowly leaving a legalistic worship style behind. God bless you Sam.

  6. Four years ago and two years after my wife passed from cancer I was at a large Bible study group. I man got up to speak who had survived a life threatening medical condition and spoke about his story and the book he wrote about his journey. As he talked he started talking about how he was healed because he did all these right things and kept doing them. For instance he was in prayer every day and things like that. Then he went on to talk about those who did not get healed were doing something wrong or their faith was faulty. I remember wanting to choke him.

    As I prayed about it further God reveled how great He is. It takes the faith of a mustard seed, one prayer is all it takes, and His ways are different than ours. This mans message was full of self righteousness, pride, and works. Unless I am wrong Jesus came to free us of all that.

    I feel bad that his book is out there spewing messages of this kind and not bringing people to the message of grace. So much of the church today is anti Christ instead of pro Christ.

  7. If the only houses left standing after the hurricane, or after the Oklahoma tornadoes, belonged to Christians, would that cause people to turn toward Jesus or away from Jesus?
    I doubt they would become believers, but rather bitter and resentful.
    Why would God want that?

    • Berry,

      Great question and great observation.

      I, for one, and glad God has mercy on the unrighteous. As someone once said, “If God is not a God of justice, what hope is there for the world; but if God is not a God of mercy, what hope is there for us.”


  8. Very true. We are to learn to be merciful unlike the slave who was forgiven much and then failed to forgive the debt of his fellow slave. Forgiveness should teach us to both forgive and also not to sin. We also must forgive others or Christ will not forgive us, Matthew 6:14-15.

    Peter walked on water by his faith in Christ and only when he turned away and saw the
    waves (the struggles of life) did he start to sink. We too can walk on water if we truly believe in Him. Just like Peter walking on water depended on both Christ and his faith in Christ, salvation is just as dependent on us as it is on Him. The two cannot be separated. If truly believing in what God has promised us is being self-righteous then I want to be counted as part of that group. If we do not truly believe then His sacrifice is useless and we will remain helpless for His Spirit will not remain with us. I thank God for loving me enough to give me
    the choice instead of being controlled. He disciplines/instructs us in hopes that we will choose to return unto Him.

    Do you not believe that we could walk on water as Peter did?

    Do you believe Christ when He says in Matthew 17:20, “ truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you”?

    I choose to believe I can because of His promises. Hopefully you will do the same.

  9. I don’t believe circumstances are random. God does bless those who are obedient in different ways than those who want nothing to do with Him. The problem is that we think we know exactly what a blessing or curse should look like. Someone wins the lottery and initially thinks it’s a blessing…several years later, when he’s divorced, mourning his dead family members, being harassed by panhandlers, and spiraling into debt, those lottery winnings may not look like such a blessing.

  10. Whenever I think about “righteousness,” I think back
    to the comment Jesus made as he spoke to His followers when He said that the
    people’s righteousness needed to EXCEED that of the religious leaders of that
    time, if the people wanted to go to heaven. The question that followed
    was spot-on. Who then, can get in?

    Now, the answer is made clear through His life and His sacrifice
    as depicted in Scripture. Although we should aspire to righteousness
    growing out of our obedience to God, we MUST claim HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS if we are
    to enter heaven.

    Your post illuninates our faulty motivations of our aspirations
    at times.