Self-righteousness can be a subtle thing. I can hide it in my thinking and those without discernment might pat me on the back as a godly person. However, discernment and careful observation will expose it. The best cover-up for a fleshy life is to hang around people who think the same way. In Paul’s day, they may have put value on some of the stuff in his list:
For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:3–6)
I can bring this up to date and describe those who put confidence in their own qualifications for godliness. Some of these items could also be on my ‘self-confidence’ list.
We put on a show of worship by showing up at church every Sunday, yet we really trust ourselves, our history and our accomplishments to brand us as godly people. We were baptized as small children after being born into a family of church goers. Some of us have fathers and grandfathers who are pastors. We know the ropes of Christian service and keep all the rules our church prescribes for living a good Christian life. We are zealous for having the appearance of goodness and a good reputation as ‘those nice religious people’ in our community . . .
This is surface stuff. Paul knew it and so do I. True righteousness is a gift of God in the person of Jesus Christ. We are sinners all, the entire lot of us, those who look good and those who make no pretense. Like people trying to swim to Hawaii, we all fall short. Anyone who sticks to the self-righteous pose has no idea of the incredible character of Jesus Christ or the perfection that is in Him.
But Paul figured it out — rather Paul found it out when Jesus presented Himself to him. He fell on his face and his life was transformed entirely. No more confidence in the flesh. He realized that the flesh or self-life, no matter how great he thought he was or how good he might look to others, did not measure up. He was able to say this and mean it with all his heart:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7–11)
His ‘my goodness list’ became garbage in his mind — as it already was in the gentle, loving heart of God. Now that he knew that, he also knew that the only righteousness available to him was in Jesus. His righteousness had nothing to do with us keeping rules, performing rituals, or even looking good and having a sterling reputation. Remember, Jesus was perfection yet the people of His day crucified Him. Instead, His righteousness leads us to be like Him, as Paul also understood
Paul knew Jesus. He knew the power of His resurrection — he’d seen new life in his own life! He was willing to share in the sufferings of Jesus — including rejection, persecution, even death rather than give in to sin and self. He knew that being able to say, “Not my will but thine be done” was a key indicator that he had the life of Christ within and this was the means or the ‘how’ of his confidence — one day he would attain (meaning achieve or arrive at) that full reality of that life as he left behind this one.
Paul knew he was not there yet but he pressed on . . .
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12–14)
Lord Jesus, Paul added good advice: “Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” (Philippians 3:15–16) I’m not mature to Paul’s degree of maturity, but I can, by Your grace, fall in line to where You have brought me so far. Knowing that all my ‘righteousness’ is like garbage in Your sight, I am trusting You and what You have done for me. I am so thankful for the gift You gave of Yourself. Amen.