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Self-Righteous Formalism

(Isaiah 58:1-9)

Lesson 8 -- first quarter 2002
January 20, 2002

by Mark Roth
© Copyright 2001, Christian Light Publications

What is self-righteousness?

The way I figure it, I have a formidable record. I mean, look at my past accomplishments. And once you're done with that (warning: it will take you awhile), scope out what I'm up to right now. That last one has some jewels, of which I'll point out just a few: speaker and writer with an avid following, chairman of a mission board, founder and leader of an established international ministry. Yup, no one should doubt that I'm OK; I certainly don't. Most importantly, I am definitely sure God is well-pleased with me.

An attitude like that should make anyone gag. Without a doubt, it makes God gag. You see, where the above person sees his own goodness in his positive accomplishments, God sees filthy rags. Notice the witness of Isaiah 64:6 -- "We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags."

Self-righteousness misses that reality completely. Self-righteousness sees any and all good we do as accomplished entirely on our own, independently of God. The self-righteous call attention to themselves, not God. The self-righteous have no greater interest than themselves, turning the focus of their lives away from God. Amazingly, many self-righteous people do not leave God out of the picture; rather, they use Him to further sharpen the focus on themselves.

Where is God in your life? If His place is not first, you are self-righteous. If He and His kingdom is not the first and motivating point of your being and doing, you are self-righteous. And if God isn't the reason for what you aren't and don't do, you are also self-righteous.

Give special attention to that last sentence in the previous paragraph. We so easily miss that point. It seems we can become downright contemptuous of those who, in their being and doing, fall short of the good and right. But we neglect to honestly evaluate our reasons for abstaining from the bad and wrong. If, ultimately, God isn't the sum of our non-evil doing, then our abstinence is filthy self-righteousness. And thus we are no better in our non-doing of evil than those who actually do it!

So what shall we do about self-righteousness? Review Isaiah 64:6 and similar verses. Take to heart what Job (a perfect and upright man) had to learn, "What is man, that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?" (Job 15:14). Turn our focus away from ourselves, "Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2). Remember that "For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). What are other helpful verses for combating our natural sense of self-righteousness?

A solution for formalism

Formalism, whether in corporate worship or in personal living, is the tendency to give greater awareness to the process than to the object. For example, our services can become very stiff and perfect, adhering closely to certain attractive forms and nice ways of doing things . . . to the point of missing the Point of our service. While forms and processes matter greatly in our lives, when we give them primacy in our worship and living, they become expressions of empty, self-righteous formalism. The solution? Do what we do for God and His enjoyment. Make Him the Point of our lives and service.

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