The Opportunity in Being Called “Self-Righteous”

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Surely I’m not the only one who finds it incredibly ironic that Christians seem to attract a “self-righteous” label from the world. Is this something we can avoid? And what should we do when it happens?

If you’re a Christian and you tend to stay silent about moral issues at any and all cost to avoid painful accusations, I hope this article will be helpful for you. My purpose is not to help you pick fights, but rather to arm you with boldness and confidence that will enable to you stand up for what you say you believe in. The truth is, we need more humble-minded Christians who are equipped to confidently defend their faith in a disarming way that doesn’t compromise on the gospel’s foundation or its implications.

A quick disclaimer:
I’m writing in full acknowledgement that some “Christians” are just jerks. They’re definitely out there. While no one is perfect, there’s a massive difference between a self-professing Christian who seems to enjoy heartlessly pointing out other people’s sin without acknowledging their own and a Christian who is gently defending or presenting their basic convictions. Asking honest and curious questions about an alternative worldview is different from seeking to destroy someone’s values. The fruit of the Spirit is still love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. And if these are not evident and important in your life, I will be the first to say, you’re doing it wrong.

No one wants to be labeled something that is synonymous with being prideful, pushy and unloving. I totally understand that. Christians are to be known by our love for one another, so “self-righteous” seems like a title we should do everything we can to avoid. But I think this reveals at least part of the reason why secular, non-religious people use this accusation so readily: they know how effective it is. Over and over, they’ve watched Christians squirm, quietly grow silent, or blow up in weakness-revealing anger.

This is part of why I wanted to write this. The whole thing is honestly ridiculous, and they’re actually doing us a favor. Let me explain a couple important ideas first, though:

If we claim to have the Truth, we shouldn’t feel the need to tiptoe around people who disagree with us. Having the Truth also means we shouldn’t feel the need to resort to emotional and angry statements in order to make a point. Both approaches represent weakness and a lack of confidence. Besides, being slandered by others is something Jesus explicitly warned His followers to expect as part of the deal. In reading through the scriptures, unwarranted verbal attacks seem to be one of the signs that we’re actually doing it right.

The only way to take it upon ourselves to prevent others from lobbing false accusations at us is to stay silent about what we believe altogether. This wouldn’t be a problem if we weren’t called to be ambassadors and witnesses, who are characterized by their willingness to speak about and represent a person or fact when given the opportunity. When it comes to staying silent about the gospel, only Satan could be the author of such an option.

It’s also very important to understand what tolerance is. True tolerance is giving people permission to hold different beliefs and convictions, and to actually expect them to act on those convictions. When we go into a conversation with an unbeliever, I promise you will invite much more honesty and sincerity if you make sure they know you do not expect someone who isn’t a Christian to behave like a Christian.

Nevertheless, when talking about moral issues, the emotional accusation of being self-righteous gets called in like a last resort air strike. It’s the clearest signal that someone has run out of logical arguments but refuses to accept defeat. Because while you aren’t expecting a non-Christian to act like a Christian, it’s still offensive to many people that you aren’t willing to affirm their views and convictions.

So then what do we do? How should we respond? Well, the first thing to do is remember how absurd the accusation is in itself. Truly.

The moment someone tosses the “self-righteous” grenade into a conversation on biblical morality, remember one thing, Christian: you’re not the one self-defining moral arguments based on personal feelings– they are.

The Christian moral argument is based on ideas which are entirely outside of (and even contrary to) our own desires, which means it makes no sense to accuse us of defining our own righteousness. In fact, that’s precisely what non-religious, secular thinkers are doing. They are claiming to determine right and wrong solely through their own feelings and ideas.

That’s the first thing– see through the emotion and recognize the truth of what they’re saying. Their comment actually reveals an enormous misunderstanding of what Christianity teaches, and hopefully presents an opportunity to explain the very foundation of the gospel– that in our natural state, we believe we need to be rescued. The human heart in all its changing cannot be the source of Truth, and claiming that we somehow know better than God about what’s right and wrong represents the very heart of sin.

At that point, you can take the conversation to the root of the issue, and begin talking about all the times your feelings have been wrong, how often they’ve led you to hurt others, and even yourself. You can admit how often you’ve had to change your mind about little things and big things alike, and how culture and society constantly changes. If we confidently believed we knew what was right and wrong 100 years ago, and that view has changed so drastically, why should we be so sure that what we believe about right and wrong is correct now? You can explain how you just don’t have much of a reason to trust what your heart says is good and bad anymore, and that you needed to look outside of yourself to something unchanging and eternal.

You can also explain how gracious it is that God would allow us to have even a glimpse of why He created us and how He designed us to truly flourish according to that purpose. When it comes to flourishing, there’s one thing we can be sure of– the answer is not found within ourselves. We are always left feeling like we’re missing something.

At this point, you’d likely hear something about how the Bible isn’t reliable. It was written by man and, therefore, can’t be trusted (ironically). But that is your opportunity to ask what they believe about Jesus as a historical figure. Did He or didn’t He die on a cross and rise from the dead?

If He didn’t, why did His followers refuse to admit they were lying, even while they were each living in abject poverty and eventually executed for spreading such news? But if He did, wouldn’t that warrant a closer look at what those followers testified to be Jesus’ teachings while He was still alive?

This is obviously a hypothetical conversation, but if you’ve managed to scale back on the emotional accusations and reveal the need to understand these fundamental issues, you’ve arrived at a place where true seeking can occur. Great, honest questions can come to light, about which extensive research has been accomplished, and it’s no longer about how you’re a despicable, hateful human being (hopefully). All you can do is encourage them to seek those answers for themselves and offer yourself as a sounding board along the way.

Just remember that many, many people just aren’t ready to admit their own brokenness. And that’s not for you to control, or live in fear of. And if you are a Christian and are somehow relying on your own righteousness, again, you’re doing it wrong.

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