Christians are used to a certain loneliness that comes with godliness. After all, Jesus told his disciples that they were to be not of the world (John 17:14). That means we must refuse to participate in sinful thinking and acting, and we should not be surprised when a culture at odds with God shuns us. Sadly, however, many of us isolate ourselves by our own unique form of ungodliness: self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is inherently lonely because it lacks the virtues of grace, self-awareness, and forgiveness.
True righteousness is a gracious gift given by God (2 Cor. 5:21). Self-righteousness, however, is generated by the imposition of customs, rules, and expectations—which may have some similarity to God’s moral law but are grounded in the flesh. Self-righteous people, then, judge others against their own performance, ability, and success. By becoming the standard, they no longer join others at the foot of the cross, equal recipients of God’s grace. Their elevation of their own righteousness puts distance between them and everyone else.
That loneliness is compounded by their inability to be self-aware, or at least to admit to others their need for an alien righteousness. Self-righteous people are a danger to themselves and others. Having made themselves the standard of righteousness, they cannot afford to have anyone look behind the curtain and see the reality of sin remaining in their lives. They cannot, however, endure that duplicity for very long. It will either crush them, or they will deceive themselves by embracing a delusion that redefines sin and righteousness in terms that enable them to believe their own lies. With a false sense of their own inherent righteousness and an inability to see the reality of their own remaining sin, their loneliness is cemented by their lack of forgiveness. In their minds, this makes perfect sense. After all, right living is merely a matter of the will; if they can do it, then why shouldn’t others? Forgiveness in this scheme is extended only to those with true contrition who endeavor to change their ways—to become more like the self-righteous ones. Understandably, few are willing to engage these self-righteous people at such a level. They have already been tried and found wanting by these self-righteous ones, so they retreat to a safe distance.
The withdrawal of family and friends, however, will not shock the self-righteous out of their delusion. Only a God who draws near can pierce this veil. “Where are you?” God called to Adam and Eve when sin drove them into hiding. “Where are you?” God calls to us when we wander into the wilderness of our own making. God’s life-giving speech opens the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. It breaks open the graves of the dead and knits together the dried-out bones on the valley floor. It rescues us from our delusions and reunites us with the community of the faithful.
Eric Landry is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine.