Written by Paul J Bucknell on April, 30, 2020
The Pride of the Self-righteous (Numbers 20:11-12)
Bitterness and self-righteousness, like a virus, invade and occupy the heart of the religious and moralist.
So why did Moses strike the rock twice rather than just speak to it as the Lord had instructed? This question probably reminds us of the many times we had determined to do the one right thing but ended up doing something else. In this case, we see Moses, who had set his heart on obeying God, disobeying Him, and justifying his wrong action. I suggest that Moses even believed his way supported God’s purposes. This incident helps us examine the nature and deceptiveness of self-righteousness and how it brandishes itself.
Self-righteousness is not easily detected, for one has already taken steps to avoid detection.
The religious, moralistic, and powerful individuals who fall to self-righteousness commonly install a defense that isolates themselves from guilt by justifying to themselves that they are beyond the scrutiny of others and any wrong.
Striking Twice (Numbers 20:11-12)
Why did God judge Moses so strongly? Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses struck the rock twice. Because of that, God was angry with Moses and did not allow him to enter the Promised Land. So why was God so severe?
The Lord gives the reason in verse 12, indicting Moses for not treating God holy in the sight of the people. The self-righteous begin to lose an accurate perspective of themselves and others when their anger begins to flare up. It’s just at this time they tend to excuse themselves from doing things God’s ways and applaud their actions. Anyone, even those possessing Moses’ intimacy with God, can disguise their waywardness with a self-righteous attitude.
So Moses took the rod from before the Lord, just as He had commanded him; 10 and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank. 12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” (Num 20:9-12)
Three Right, One Wrong
Verse 9 begins by recording how Moses obeyed the Lord. Although he later disobeyed the Lord, Moses was on the right track. Moses did three right things before his glooming mistake (though many of us would miss his wrong if God didn’t bring it up).
But this is where Moses stepped too far. He struck the Rock two times rather than speaking to it (1 Cor 10:4). Moses had faith that water would gush forth, and so, it did. But there was a problem with how he accomplished this marvelous miracle out in the barren wilderness before the eyes of God’s people. Let’s further explore Moses’ one disobedience.
- He took his rod.
- He gathered the leaders.
- He rebuked them.
An Area of Disobedience
God severely reprimanded Moses, even as Moses rebuked the people over their griping. Moses had disobeyed God, and the Lord treated this open disobedience as an issue of profaning His holiness. God said, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel.” (Num 20:12). (Interestingly, God spoke this both to Moses and Aaron—perhaps Aaron was still Moses’ spokesperson.)
Once Moses went beyond the command of God’s Word, he trod on unholy ground. Despite his apparent faith and familiarity with God, he did something that displeased the Lord. Moses, in his mind, saw himself cooperating and working for the Lord. But in this one instance, this special position of knowing God and His Word, worked against him as he presumed he could make a separate, acceptable judgment differing from God. Moses went from servant to master; he stepped from man to God. One can observe his siding with God, as seen in his statement, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” (10) Moses’ self-confidence (no doubt incited by the evil one) misled him. He trusted his judgment of his procedure rather than fixing his heart on the Lord’s instruction. Moses’ sin probably came about by a brief burst of self-confidence that led to him striking the rock, thinking it would carry more authority than merely speaking to it.
I am not asserting that Moses regularly carried a self-righteous attitude, but here, it appears, he justified his disobedience as if he was right in his action. He considered himself, whether by his proximity with God or by siding with the Lord’s purposes, to be able to judge the situation right as God.
This situation causes me to link two other passages with this one, which can increase our insight into this difficult situation. First, the General (alias Captain) confronted Joshua before fighting the battle of Jericho (Joshua 5:13-15). The General revealed himself not just as another soldier but God Himself. Joshua, wisely, backed off. As close and helpful the Lord is to us, He is not a mere man. Second, I remember how Satan seized a special moment in David’s life to attack him and the Israelites (1 Chr 21:1). David insisted on counting the people against the Law’s instructions.
On a personal level, I am hardly blaming Moses. Rather, in my heart, I’m pleading for the Lord to keep me from the evil one—Mat 6:13. How scarce I find myself seeking the Lord to keep me from the hand of the evil one. May God help us!
Let’s look at three marks of the self-righteous.
(1) The Self-righteous and False Standards
The first sign of deviancy into self-righteousness is the willingness to live by standards other than God the Lord stated. Moses struck the rock rather than speaking to it.
Now admittedly, there are many who live by standards other than God has set. Is the whole world self-righteous? The world indeed wears a guise of self-righteousness if we only focus on standards. They willingly defy the Creator by choosing to live their ways rather than God’s. But we are narrowing our definition to include only those who attempt to live in conformity to God’s Word, even if it be embedded in the Law.
Jesus often criticized the Pharisees for their false standards, the very rules by which they claimed their holiness. What they considered righteous varied from what God stated as righteous. The crux of the problem resides with the self-righteous person who allows himself to live by different standards than God’s.
Self-righteousness discloses itself when a person has set up another standard for himself other than what God has dictated.
God judged Moses’ attempt to obey God with His severe judgment. In other words, not one of us, no matter our position, problem, intimacy with God, or reasoning, should exclude ourselves from the full demand of God’s Word.
The Lord instantly rebuked Moses; he was not allowed to continue in this vein. Self-righteousness, though, if permitted, will not stop by exerting one’s self-imposed standards. They must subdue any challenges against their claim to righteousness. And so, they tend to protect and even become prideful of what they see as “acts of righteousness.”
(2) The Self-righteous and Their Veil of Deception
Since the heart of self-righteousness builds itself on a standard different from God’s expressed ways, guilt and accusation from others, open or feared, arise. Moses knew what God had said and wanted, and yet, even for a brief flicker of time, he pursued his line of action. Moses disobeyed. He went beyond what God had said. Fortunately, for Moses, God soon reproved him (not sure how long before God spoke—1, 5 days?). Did God wait to see if he would discover his sin and humble his heart? We don’t know, but we do know Moses held onto his plan enough to disobey, thus requiring a rebuke. It’s so easy to hide one’s guilt in the good work one considers himself doing. Here, Moses unleashed his fury on those who lacked faith among God’s people.
Because of the incurred guilt, the self-righteous become preoccupied with justifying one’s supposed righteousness—despite how it drastically falls short of God’s expectations.
Jesus criticized the Pharisees as having a habit of disobeying God in some areas of living. For example, they did not care for their parents by declaring their wealth dedicated to God (i.e., Corban Mark 7:11). The Pharisees had a standard that violated God’s command to honor their parents. To fight this open command of God, they created other laws and provisions to fight off guilt and accusations from others. So they ended up priding themselves on keeping their laws, rather than God’s. They would not acknowledge any disobedience, however.
But do you see what they did? They put themselves beyond the truth of God’s command—just like Moses did. They convinced themselves that they were carrying out God’s ways even more than others. But, in fact, they were not.
So already, we observed two deadly flaws of the self-righteous.
(1) They live by a standard that counters God’s truth, and
(2) They defend themselves by setting up a prideful defense of their ways.
(3) The Self-righteous and Despising of Others
Let’s look at a third and final point that helps us better understand why the self-righteous can get so prideful and angry.
To live with their guilt (inward blame from the conscience and Holy Spirit) and blame (outward accusations from others), self-righteous people must bolster their defenses. Remember, they cannot allow themselves to be seen as anything but righteous. Their resistance can get forceful at times, resulting in anger, blame, denial, and even violence.
The heart of the issue is that no-one wants the light to expose their own darkness. The self-righteous particularly disassociate themselves with anything doing with darkness. Instead, they convince themselves that they are doing a greater good—they are the light.
“For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” (John 3:20-21)
Jesus’ teaching in John 3 seems so insightful. Those who do evil, hate being exposed. There is a reluctance, resistance, and powerful force that keeps one from exposing one’s corruption. This protectionism explains why it is so difficult to apologize, and why courts need witnesses to purge evil. The self-righteous have all the more to lose. Their whole view of life is capsulized in their righteous view of themselves. Similar to Adam and Eve, they naturally shift attention away from their wrongs.
By covering up evil, the self-righteous slide into deceit. Of course, no one, including Moses, can deceive God. The truth eventually comes out shining.
To ward off one’s guilt and disdain from others (outward pride), a person must defend his evil choices over God’s (cf. Rom 2:1-11). Like Moses, the self-righteous affirms that he serves God’s interest, but really, he is not. The evil one has derailed him from God’s commands. The longer he remains fixed on defending his decision, the more distortion and danger arises. Meanwhile, he must defend himself before God and others.
Defending Oneself from God
Guilt, self-blame, and the Holy Spirit join together in a chorus of accusations against the self-righteous. As pressures increase about them, so do the intensity of those accusations. This is true with all, but even more so with believers who have the additional light of the Holy Spirit.
This inward light calls for a high level of defense. This is where we get the term self-righteous, I believe. Those who profess to carry out God’s standards must convince themselves that they still live righteous lives even when they do not. They adopt and promote false standards to distract themselves from God’s clear standards. (Please do not confuse this with a way of saving faith. We are discussing what happens after a person believes in Christ.)
Moses identified his anger with God’s judgment against His people. Anger is, by nature, delusional as it constrains a person to narrowly focus on others, allowing for the exclusion of their errors. Most of us know how angry people, when confronted, become extremely defensive of their actions. They know they are not to be rude to their wives, but they were. Anger, then, becomes accompanied by outrage and blame. They fight God’s law by justifying that the person deserved such an attack. After settling down, some admit to being wrong. But many do not. They inwardly justify their actions by turning the glare on the other person’s wrongs, thus distracting from their own behavior. The devil’s hand in this becomes obvious to people outside the circle of action but remains cleverly hidden to the perpetrator of the wrong—the self-righteous.
The Pharisees, because it was longterm group defense, they came up with a complete set of rules and mindset to shield them from their consciences. These defenses shielded them from thinking they needed to repent for they saw themselves as honoring and obeying God’s law by keeping their own set of rules.
Defending Oneself from Others
As people observe the excesses of the self-righteous, they begin to hint and sometimes outright challenge their actions. The unrighteous, however, are unwilling to evaluate their actions in light of God’s truth (i.e., the true light). Their defense includes directing people’s attention as to how they keep their standards.
They can also get rather challenging by getting louder (“I am right!”), intimidating (“How dare you to insinuate that I’m in the wrong!”), and even through the slandering of others, though probably subconscious. The self-righteous genuinely believe in their innocence and are shocked by how people might question their attempts to pursue God’s ways. In not a few cases, they physically separate themselves from others—thus, we have divisions and splits in the church. Those who cause divisions in the church often exude pride in their “better than others” attitude (Proverbs 18:1).
There are many ways for the self-righteous to defend themselves: cover-up, distract attention from their disobedience, the slander of others, and even physical separation. All these attempts keep God’s Spirit and their guilt from the point of self-examination and confession.
Moses’ Sin and Our Lives
Let’s return to Moses’ incident of not treating God holy. The Lord stated, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel” (12). What intrigues me is the way Moses, the Israelite’s judge, sins but doesn’t discover it. Moses struck the rock twice with a rod. Isn’t it true that those who critically judge others can easily fall into glossing over their sins? Because the Apostle Paul found this danger in the church, and maybe even in his own heart, he cautioned, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).
“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1)
We sometimes read of a pastor or elder who strongly fought against the same sin that he is guilty of. This exclusion of oneself is typical of the protectionism of the self-righteousness.
Christians claim to know God but need to be careful when they go about criticizing others. They sometimes are right, and yet, like Moses, they could be oblivious to their sins. They only see the sin of others. Think of a parent who excuses himself of his wrong while chastising his son, or a pastor, who though he rebukes a brother for his sin, excuses his own. Their positions and roles isolate themselves from the scrutiny of others.
- A spirit of self-righteousness shields one’s perspectives and actions from self-examination. While heatedly accusing others, they are oblivious to their wrongs. Theology can be a great escape route, priding one’s theological perspectives on some scheme of thought or interpretation while downplaying one’s personal choices.
- A spirit of self-examination welcomes further reviews of one’s life so that he might grow in his response to God and others, thus being more like Christ.
We must affirm and hold ourselves accountable to God’s ways. We should assert righteous living, of course, and like Moses, carry out God’s ways. But we need to stand in constant guard against a subtle, diabolical thought, seeking to infiltrate our lives. Perhaps, this is the reason Jesus stated we need to regularly pray for God’s protection against the evil one.
Study Questions on the Pride of the Self-righteous
- Define self-righteousness.
- What is characteristic of the self-righteous?
- What is the difference between a righteous and self-righteous person?
- Why are self-righteous individuals counted as evil even though they think of themselves as so right?
- What kind of accusations haunt the self-righteous?
- What part does the evil one play in self-righteousness?
- How do people protect themselves from God against such accusations?
- How do people protect themselves from the accusations of others against those who dare to incriminate them?
- How can theology become an escape route for the self-righteous?
- Do you tend to get self-righteous? Give an example.
- What steps do you take to protect yourself from falling into the pit of self-righteousness?