2 Corinthians 5:21 For He hath made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him (KJV).
The moment we lose sight of the righteousness of Jesus being our righteousness, and count our works as things that make us “good Christians,” we move into self-righteousness. When we attribute goodness to ourselves, we vacate the life found in grace and have become self-deceived. Forgetting that our gifts and abilities come from the Father through Jesus Christ is dangerous territory indeed. We cannot define righteousness and holiness by human reasoning. We must allow God to define them for us.
If we define righteousness and what it means to live as a Christian, our standards will be lower than what it truly means. Nonetheless, those standards lead to bondage as no one can live up to them. That includes the ones who set them. When others fail to live up to those standards, judgment and self-righteousness will ensue. Beware of the attitude that says, “They don’t live like me, so they cannot truly love the Lord like I do.”
Some have mastered the art of self-righteousness to the point that they “know” other people’s hearts. Self-righteousness will always equate someone else’s actions to be who he is, while insisting one’s own failings do not display what is truly in his or her heart. We cannot presume to know what is in the heart of another apart from the revelation that comes from God. Furthermore, we cannot afford to lose sight of the purpose of discernment. If your thoughts are that of judgment, you are self-righteous.
We cannot add to the righteousness of Jesus; nevertheless, it is surprising how many try. It is not necessarily intentional; rather, they fall into traps that lead them to do just that without their awareness. One way that happens is that believers try to be their best and do their best for God. The unintended consequences are the traditions of men. Without realizing it, those traditions become stumbling blocks for others and take away from the relational aspect of their walk. For example, when there is some unwritten law about the way people are supposed to dress in order to come to church, they disenfranchise many. Whether it is the suits, ties, dresses and the way the hair is worn, or jeans and t-shirts in the name of freedom, either of these can be obstacles for people to navigate. Is “dressing our best for the King” really the best when others feel like they cannot participate because they do not have the appropriate attire? For some, owning the suit and dress is the difference between feeding their family and their family going hungry. At the same time, it almost feels like a sin for those with the “right clothes” to not dress up. Where’s the freedom in that? Similarly, some may feel out of place when others look down on them for dressing up. Keep in mind that outer appearances do not make people holy. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day wore the best attire, yet Jesus called them whitewashed sepulchers, filled with dead men’s bones. Nonetheless, those who do have the best clothing may be filled with the Spirit and absolutely love God with their whole being -even more than those who claim to be humble! As believers, we must learn to be all things to all people for the sake of the Kingdom. 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some (KJV).
We must allow the Holy Spirit to be the Holy Spirit. When we place restraints on people, we actually restrain the Holy Spirit from doing the convicting when conviction is necessary. Placing believers under man-made laws pushes them away from grace. Yes, there are absolute Biblical principles we live by, but we cannot add to them or subtract from them. What is fine for one person to do may not be fine for another. Likewise, the reverse is true. For example, if the Lord leads a person to abstain from donuts, that person cannot impose the same thing on another. It is between the Lord and him. Obedience is the issue, not the act of avoiding donuts. We cannot impose our own customs on others because our individual relationships with God are unique.
It is one thing to lead by example in order to have others follow God Who dwells in us and quite another to have them follow us alone. The idea is to teach people to follow the Lord and hear His voice for themselves. Self-righteous people tend to lead others after themselves. They want to be known as holy; whether they are or not. We cannot make people behave or look like us; otherwise, we make ourselves gods to others. In short, self-righteousness does not lead people to God; it drives them away from Him.