“There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood....” Proverbs 6:16 - 17
“Haughty eyes” has several meanings, but in this post, I’m talking about self-righteousness as a human flaw because everybody gets self-righteous sometimes. It has nothing to do with political leanings, religious convictions or aesthetic tastes. There are many self-righteous liberals, conservatives, Christians, atheists and indie rock fans. Self-righteousness is a human trait, not a consequence of ideology.
Once we consider self-righteousness as a human flaw instead of an ideological flaw, then we can start to parse the emotion from the logic. We all hold dearly our ideas, values, and convictions because we believe they are moral, just and ethical, or else we could not, in good faith, believe or act upon them as we do. We all believe that we only believe logical and intelligent precepts and ideas, and we all care about what happens to us and to other people by way of our values (as in, we care about our influence on policy through politics or our impact on our communities through service). This represents an emotional attachment to our principles, not just an intellectual attachment. Only certain strange people get upset about the inner-workings of a computer or calculus because simple data holds very little emotional weight compared to the intense emotional charge in our values, opinions, ideas
Defending and supporting our values, ideas and opinions is not, in itself, self-righteousness. “Self-righteous” does not describe the debate but the debater. We can defend any idea with or without self-righteousness, and here's how to avoid it in debate and conversation:
Give others the benefit of the doubt.
Self-righteousness is not a judgment of value and content, but a judgment of personal character. We think that our ideas are the only possible logical or moral conclusions, so without pause for consideration, we consider that folks who disagree with us must be misled, not very smart, or they might be (worst of all) willfully degenerate and easily provoked. Christians can be self-righteous about the morality of our character and the purity of our actions, and at the same time, in the same place, atheists can be self-righteous about their superior intellects and their ability to see “a bigger moral picture.” Political liberals and conservatives are often self-righteous about the same things: defending rights. It affects everyone, everywhere, often.
I don’t mean to say that all ideas, values, and opinions are equally valid on moral or intellectual grounds. We ought to have reason and evidence to uphold our ideas and convictions, and we should definitely expect the same from others. Self-righteousness, however, precludes any meaningful conversation. It's counterproductive. Others react not to the idea under fire, but to their perception that they are themselves under attack, and after that, everyone digs in their heels, and then nobody moves.
For us as Christians, self-righteousness is an idolatrous, antichristian sin. Christ exemplified humility and suffered humiliation, and his humility stands directly opposed to our self-righteous attitudes and actions. Our righteousness comes from God because he has credited us as righteous – we are not righteous for believing the right things and voting the right way, nor are we righteous by “winning arguments” on Facebook, on the street-corner or at the supermarket. In the end, our humility wins the Gospel a chance to be heard, which is our mission from God, but our self-righteousness sounds just like the rest of the world. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God overcomes our prideful human nature so that we can declare his Gospel.