Forgiveness for the Self-Righteous

Is the desire for righteousness a bad thing? 

Shouldn’t our actions be so good and above reproach that people will notice and wonder what makes us different? 

While James 2 states that that “faith without works is dead”, in Isaiah 64 we are told that all our righteous acts are like “filthy rags”. Of course, we can’t just grab Bible verses for our own purposes without understanding context, the writer, the audience etc., but this type of contradictory language is pervasive in the Bible. Jesus curses the tree that doesn’t bear fruit, but tears apart the Pharisees for parading their prayers and actions to make themselves look good. 

This has always been a difficult balancing act for me. I can quickly fall into the trap of feeling good about my own “works”, but it shouldn’t be an issue. Sure, my feeble attempts at “righteousness” are not a bad thing, in and of themselves. We are taught to use whatever gifts we have for the kingdom. What I need, though, is to go back to the same things I have taught over and over to high school kids in catechism class: Salvation comes before service and grace comes before gratitude. Remembering that both salvation and grace are gifts that are not contingent on anything I do gives the proper motivation for doing my best to serve in any way I can. 

The gift of righteousness is just one of many layers of the ultimate gift in the form of Jesus Christ that we celebrate at Christmas. It is not a reward, a bonus, a prize or a participation award for what we do–or for even trying!  It is a gift that has been bought and paid for only through His life, death and resurrection.  He stands in our place. That is the only way we become truly righteous before the Father, and it is all we need. 

More often than not, the aspect of this gift that I need the most is forgiveness for when I start feeling that I am doing a pretty good job on my own. We all need to be reminded that this gift is constantly offered to all of us not only during this Christmas season but all year long, regardless of how we are doing in our own quest for righteousness. We need only to accept it through faith in the One who gives it. Then we can begin to serve with gratitude.