A friend of mine said something weird to me recently. She said two women in her family expressed that she wasn’t doing “enough” for her husband. My first reaction was shock. I know these women came into this home to help a young mom navigate pregnant life with a toddler. How would this voice of judgment help! And what is this phantom “enough”? How can one ever be successful with the goal of “should do more”!
After I got over the shock of condemnation, I got a little more insight. They were seeing the stress and pain in my friend’s life. Pain they were powerless to change. Feeling powerless is uncomfortable. Feeling self-righteous is way more comfortable. So they choose that. Just like I did when faced with the discomfort my friend experienced from the feelings of betrayal from her family.
Why is judgement, particularly women toward women, so rampant in our culture? I believe it is so common because self-righteousness is a way that we defend ourselves. There is real hurt in our lives, real exhaustion from the stressors, and so we protect ourselves from difficult things like powerlessness and sympathetic heartache, which, in this case, my friend’s mothering choices stirred up in well-meaning women.
Recognizing different choices in others also stirs up the difficult, risky business of self-examination. This requires a look into ourselves to see if there is anything that we need to change or adjust. If someone else is making different choices than I am, the choices I’m making might be WRONG. And being wrong, especially about something that you value, feels unacceptable. If I were wrong, it would mean that I am worthy of judgement. And that is just too uncomfortable to face. So, we hide those thoughts by looking to many other strategies to avoid feeling uncomfortable.
Pointing out perceived flaws in others without a hint of humility is an expression of self-righteousness. Jesus Himself talked about this exactly in Matthew 7:1-5
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
So, obviously, Jesus knew about our self-righteous tendencies. He recognized that it is part of our humanity to do this. And He asked His disciples to be different from it- to have a firm grasp on our own inadequacies before we try to help anyone overcome theirs.
Self-righteousness is so dangerous! Why do we keep falling into this? Why do we seem to take pride in “educating” others about their faults? Why is internet shaming almost a competitive sport? We see the damage it causes and yet we can’t seem to keep ourselves from it.
Let’s try to understand. Self-righteousness stirs up all these wonderful chemicals in us. These are chemicals that can overwhelm other feelings- like anxiety about lack of control, depression, fear about if I’m doing it right. They give a temporary relief from all of those feelings. In that way, self-righteousness is much like every other vice. Pornography, alcohol, cutting behaviors, McDonald’s french fries, and other unhealthy things all temporarily change our body chemistry in order to dull the uncomfortable feelings we want to escape. They let us change what we feel without dealing with the underlying cause of those feelings.
So what do we do about this? I’m just as guilty as everyone at trying to feel different, feel better, when I feel uncomfortable. What is the solution?
As I was pondering this, I wondered what followed Jesus’ talk on judging others. As it so happens (not by chance here), He talks about how God knows how to give good gifts to His children. I think the concepts are related. God’s gifts are good! He even uses the analogy of a father giving food to his kid. Let me tell you, my kids would be the first to cry out that the food I give them is uncomfortable (maybe akin to torture, but they are wrong. I am a wonderful cook). They have this amazing perception that the food I give them is worthless suffering. And they are quick to point out that I am doing it wrong and should give them pizza every day. Yet I, as the parent, understand the good in the horror that is broccoli.
If I, as a sinful parent, know to give broccoli to my children, how much more does my God, who is good, give me what I need, even if it seems horrid to me!
Oh those poor Pharisees! They were so consumed with whether their righteousness was good enough! What an uncomfortable place to be! And they found no recourse for their discomfort, so they had to find ways to beat it down. One was passing judgement, feeling superior. They might not have known if what they were doing was good enough, but they did know it was better than that other guy!
We have a different, better, answer. We might not know if what we are doing is good enough to escape judgement from the people around us (odds are, it isn’t). However, we do know that God says our “good enough” is not what matters. Which is great, because our very best was as good as the righteousness of the Pharisees. And Jesus exactly said, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20). But Jesus died on the cross so that our own failing attempts at righteousness were no longer what mattered. What matters is His imputed righteousness on our behalf. What He did was enough so that we do not suffer His judgement.
The feelings remain- it’s a part of our culture to avoid feeling wrong. There is no space in our culture for making mistakes, and thus we learn from our culture to defend ourselves by looking for the mistakes in others. Jesus is calling us to a different, harder thing. We need to look at ourselves and clearly see our wrong, our mistakes, that plank in our eye. Only when we humbly acknowledge it can we begin to allow God to help us deal with it. And to let Him do that, it’s going to be uncomfortable. At least as uncomfortable as eating broccoli.
Yet because we know He is good, we can learn to trust that the process is good, too.