What is the difference between being righteous and being self-righteous? These words get used a lot. I’m thinking there is a thin line separating the two. Perhaps there is some overlap. I’m going to throw out a thought or two, then let the comments carry most of the discussion.
First, some definitions pulled from Merriam-Webster online.
Righteous is defined as “acting in accord with divine or moral law : free from guilt or sin.” Synonyms are honest, upright, virtuous.
Self-righteous is defined as “convinced of one’s own righteousness especially in contrast with the actions and beliefs of others : narrow-mindedly moralistic.” Synonyms are smug, priggish, moralizing, and hypocritical.
How do you talk about righteousness without sounding (or simply being) self-righteous? This is a problem because in church there is a lot of talk about righteousness, and that is hard to talk about without doing some moralizing, and there you are being self-righteous. A lesson in how to be righteous is likely to turn into an exercise in self-righteousness.
Another trap is if you are trying to defend your membership and nuanced views to a self-appointed Mormon boundary guardian (there are many of these). It’s hard to defend your own righteousness without sounding self-righteous. In Greek, I’m told, the same root word gets translated as both “righteous” and “justified,” depending on context. So self-righteousness and self-justification are more or less the same thing. But defending yourself is largely indistinguishable from self-justification, and there you are again sounding self-righteous. It’s a corner you can be pushed into.
Maybe righteousness, the state of being just, is centered in actions, while self-righteousness, feeling a little too convinced of one’s good standing before God, is mostly centered in words, in talking about it. Maybe the best approach is to simply avoid talking about righteousness, whether one’s own or anyone else’s. But that cuts against the grain of human nature as well as the way second-hour discussions work in the LDS Church.
Some discussion prompts: Who are the exemplars we cite as being righteous or being self-righteous? [Such as the pharisee and publican image at the top of this post.] What words or actions trigger your internal mental response, “Wow, this guy (or gal) is definitely self-righteous”? Is there an age component, with righteous teens being blissfully unaware of their self-righteousness, whereas righteous but seasoned adults are better at avoiding self-righteousness traps? Or is it perhaps simply a personality thing? Do the self-righteous folks out there ever figure out they are self-righteous, or is it like walking around with a “kick me” note taped to your back without ever realizing it?