Love Does not Parade Itself

It’s easy to criticize the Pharisees, but I think we have more in common with them than we realize.

Pharisees built their sense of worth by trying to look “good.” Speaking of them, Jesus said, “Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside…” (Matthew 23:5, NLT).

These guys were so desperate to look “good” that they literally wore supersized Bible verse boxes to show their respect for God’s law. Unfortunately, this habit of parading their “goodness” tricked them into missing out on Jesus. Who needs a Savior when you’re already so good?

But are hyper-religious people the only ones who struggle with self-righteousness? Martin Luther didn’t think so:

“We should realize that we all carry in our hearts a horrible religious fanatic…”

“Each one of us carries in our heart a horrible religious fanatic,” he said. “We would all like to be able to do something so spectacular that we could boast, ‘Look what I’ve done! With all my prayers and good works, I’ve done enough for God today that I can feel at peace….’ This joy is impure because it isn’t based on faith. It’s the kind of happiness that can make your conscience confused. Consciences are delicate. We need to guard them against the sin of arrogance…. We should realize that we all carry in our hearts a horrible religious fanatic, who will destroy our faith with foolish delusions of good works” (Martin Luther, Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional, March 1).

Self-righteousness is a virus that infects our very best ideas and efforts—our personal ideals, our good habits, our social activism, our generosity, our politics, our thoughts of what others or the church should do, etc. Like the Pharisees, we compare ourselves to others in countless ways, secretly hoping to end up ahead—secretly trying to be “good enough.”

God wants to protect us from these “foolish delusions of good works,” because He knows that self-righteousness damages our faith and our ability to love others. So what’s the solution to parading ourselves? Here’s what Martin Luther says:

“The Holy Spirit provides us with a way to counter this godless delusion. We need to hold tightly to what we have received through the grace of God. God’s approval doesn’t come to us by what we do. Rather, it comes through the holiness of Christ, who suffered for us.”

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Elise Harboldt

Elise studies theology at Andrews University. A registered nurse, her background is in health ministry and resource development. She is the coauthor of Goodbye Diabetes, Diabetes Undone and graduated from ARISE in 2007.