That “holier-than-thou” attitude some people exhibit can get pretty annoying. But self-righteousness goes even deeper than that when you consider it from the secular and theological point of view. In a sense, there isn’t a righteous person on the planet right now, and if you believe in God, only He can have that attribute.
Here are some crucial facts that should help you understand whether you’re on a good path — or perhaps have a superiority complex you need to deal with.
What Does It Mean to Be Self-Righteous?
Fortunately, there are many dictionaries online that could give you an idea of what self-righteousness is.
Collins dictionary points out that self-righteous people are convinced they are right when it comes to their behavior, beliefs, and attitudes. Oxford takes it to the next level with its definition, saying that self-righteous people always believe they are morally right and everyone else is, of course, wrong.
Cambridge dictionary says something similar again. Self-righteous people are, according to Cambridge, those who believe they are morally better than others. Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster goes a bit further, adding that self-righteous people are narrow-mindedly moralistic.
Overall, it all boils down to a simple notion: self-righteousness is a trait of people who believe they are morally or otherwise above others. It is, above all, a holier-than-thou attitude that makes someone intolerant of others’ opinions, beliefs, and behaviors.
What Causes Self-Righteousness?
It is easy to see how your focus on yourself can be the primary cause of self-righteousness. Inside your mind, you are the main character. Everything else around you almost seems like a sitcom episode if you’re lucky — or a thriller in some cases.
But the reasons for someone becoming self-righteous are mostly tied to irrational thoughts.
One of them is the black-or-white perception — something is either this or that, and there’s nothing else in between. This causes you to never broaden your mind (something self-righteous people are notorious for). Instead, you restrict yourself to believing that the opposite of perfect (the maximum) is an utter failure (the minimum).
Self-righteous people also dabble in overgeneralizations a lot, especially when it comes to negative experiences. They use radical words like always and never that are extremely limiting. There isn’t anything above always or below never, so these are, once again, two extremes self-righteousness thrives on.
Fear, Insecurity, and the Anxiety They Produce
Another reason you may become self-righteous is insecurity that stems from fear and anxiety. Self-righteous people often feel as if they are under attack. If you don’t agree with them, you are definitely AGAINST them.
A person that can rationally think things through and come to a conclusion based on facts, logic, and consideration doesn’t have anything to be self-righteous about. They understand the topic at hand thoroughly, so they can be confident not so much about them being right but about their capacity of thinking.
They may not have followed the easiest road to a conclusion, and they may have made mistakes along the way. However, they self-corrected until they got a firm grasp on a certain notion.
Self-righteous people don’t do that because they aren’t sure of their logic and way of thinking. Unfortunately, that causes a lack of inner peace that makes them turn to persuasion and even intimidation to prove they are, in fact, right about things.
If others come to the side, they will get evidence their behavior, thoughts, and beliefs are superior to others. There’s no need to prove them through rational thought, as they win by numbers in that case (no matter how hollow the victory is).
The Difference Between Self-Righteous and Righteous
There are two ways to explain what righteous and self-righteous mean: the secular and the theological explanation. However, there are some stark differences here, with righteous people being painted overly positively when put into a more religious background.
In a sense, the polar opposite of sin in the Bible is righteousness. It describes the perfection that is God, and it’s an essential attribute — the only standard of living — people should aim for if they want to stand before Him.
The thing with righteousness in the theological sense is that people are closely tied to sins and cannot become righteous on their own. Every notion that could make them appear more moral or holier than others is bound to self-righteous acts as the motivation behind them isn’t to glorify Jesus. Therefore, only God can make someone righteous, or rather, Jesus assigned righteousness in people by atoning for their sins.
Through the theological lens, self-righteousness is recognizing final authority to yourself and not God. Individuals who possess this trait are arrogant, smug, judgy, and much too confident in their own moral superiority. In contrast, the righteous are humble servants of God.
The secular perspective of self-righteous people doesn’t paint it any better, as it once again implies smugness and narcissism. They are often greatly proud of their achievements (vainglorious), which makes them overly vain and can easily make others around them uncomfortable.
At the same time, they are hypocritical and enjoy double standards regarding their own behavior. They employ self-bias and judge others, believing their moral compass and enlightenment are always better than others.
Righteous people, on the other hand, are morally just and virtuous. They follow the rules and lead a good life, i.e., by not judging others, believing they are superior, etc.
However, the irony here is that simply believing that righteous people are better could make someone self-righteous. To be truly righteous, you need to follow a moral code without comparing it to others or implying they should be more like you.
Self-righteous people often have big (and unyielding) personalities. Thus, the list of characteristics specifically tied to self-righteousness is pretty exhaustive:
• Self-righteous people believe they know best and are right about everything all the time.
• If someone says that they need to change their ways, they will resist and fail to respond well to it. They may see it as an attack — why would anyone want to change a superior being anyway?
• They may get angry if someone criticizes them or warns them because of their behavior, even if it’s done empathetically.
• Self-righteous people aren’t very tolerant of others’ mistakes, faults, and weaknesses.
• Similarly, they resent any opposition, be that in terms of traits or direct accusations.
• They believe they are superior to others in terms of sin. Their sins aren’t so bad in comparison to others’!
• They aren’t capable of working in teams, as they always believe they’re the smartest or just better than others.
• They would like to lead, not follow, which goes against what the Bible says (and what most people like). Self-righteous people think everyone should act and think like them.
• They judge others for their lifestyles, mistakes, etc. However, their rules are pretty subjective and reveal a self-bias. Others are to blame for their sins, and it’s OK to judge them to justify their own self-righteous ways.
• They deem themselves important and love hearing praise for their good work. In fact, they are ready to list their good deeds to show how righteous they are, not knowing that’s exactly what makes them self-righteous.
• They condemn sinners instead of forgiving them. Righteous people won’t judge the sinner but the sin. In contrast, self-righteous individuals are quick to show hatred and contempt because, as said, they see others as weaker than themselves.
What Does the Bible/God Say About Self-Righteousness?
According to the Bible, only God is righteous, while others should pursue righteousness to prepare for eternal life with Him. That doesn’t have much to do with doing as many good deeds as you can so that you can pat yourself on the back. People should instead turn to Christ and his ideal of righteousness to become more like him. The only way to become truly righteous is to follow the word of God.
Self-righteousness is condemned in the Bible in various parts. Some of the most interesting ones are:
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)
“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)
“For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.” (Romans 10:3)
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2)
“If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8)
“All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight. But the Lord weighs the motives.” (Proverbs 16:2)
Quotes About Self-Righteousness
The secular view of self-righteousness is similar to what the Bible says. However, it focuses more on the person, giving way to a more modern interpretation of how being self-righteous harms you and where it stems from.
1. “The greatest enemy to human souls is the self-righteous spirit which makes men look to themselves for salvation.” – Charles Spurgeon
2. “Anger, and the self-righteousness that is both the cause and consequence of anger, tends to be easier on the psyche than personal responsibility.” – Barry Eisler
3. “Beware of self-righteousness in every possible shape and form. Some people get as much harm from their “virtues” as others do from their sins.” – J. C. Ryle
4. “Self-righteousness is the devil’s masterpiece to make us think well of ourselves.” – Thomas Adams
5. “In order to turn around and do something better, we must first escape the vicious circle of self-righteousness and denial. And that calls for the humility to say, ‘I’m sorry. Please forgive me.’” – Desmond Tutu
6. “The true cure for self-righteousness is self-knowledge.” – J. C. Ryle
7. “When your sin is exposed, you will run toward confession and forgiveness or self-righteousness and self-justification.” – Paul David Tripp
8. “Immorality is the word we use to describe people that are not sinning the same way we are.” – Shannon L. Alder
9. “Beware the self-righteous man, for he will destroy the world many times over before he sees his folly.” – Stewart Stafford
10. “Self-righteousness belongs to narrow-minded.” – Toba Beta
11. “You will never overcome your self-righteousness if you continue to believe that God prefers you over other people. The moment you feel entitled is the moment you feel superior and distance yourself from a humble heart that believes God knows what he is doing.” – Shannon L. Alder
As you can see, self-righteousness isn’t easy to explain, as both the secular and theological definitions make sense but focus on different aspects of the trait. What’s clear is that being righteous isn’t something a righteous person would boast about, as it would make them focus too much on themselves and thus make them self-righteous.
Is there even a truly righteous person in this world, or is the pursuit for that attribute flawed from the very start as humans are preoccupied with themselves? It is very likely!
Unless you are a religious person, you may never learn how to be righteous in the exact sense of the word. Whether you like it or not, self-righteousness seems to be a part of everyone’s life to some extent.
However, the secular and religious don’t have to clash on self-righteousness, especially when it creates problems affecting theirs and other people’s lives. It does take self-awareness and humility to admit being self-righteous. One can act on that knowledge and strive to be better, be kinder, and grow deeper in your faith.
It is up to you to decide if you want to correct the behavior through making deeper connections, avoiding judgment, questioning your own beliefs and thoughts, and truly opening your mind. To achieve that, you will need to face your fears and insecurities — and that’s a scary thought in and of itself.