On Being a Self-Righteous Prig
“All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.”
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Self-Righteous – confident of one's own righteousness, especially when smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others (from www.dictionary.com)
Prig – a person who displays or demands of others pointlessly precise conformity, fussiness about trivialities, or exaggerated propriety (from www.dictionary.com)
Self-Righteous Prig – ‘Christian’ people who believe that their own righteousness gets them God’s favor. This favor is usually granted to those who think and act like they do to the exclusion of others who are deemed ‘worse’ than they are on account of the presence of various ‘sinful vices’ or a lack of certain ‘godly practices’ in their lives. These self-righteous prigs then judge and look down upon those who do not meet with their personal standard of righteousness, which may or may not be biblical, as inferior in both behavior and person. This attitude is particularly prominent in the long-time church going population. (from Me)
We all tell our kids that we shouldn’t call names. But sometimes, as the saying goes, “if the shoe fits wear it.” The dangers of being a self-righteous prig are real for all of us and though we may not like to think that this cruel sounding epithet describes us, well, if the shoe fits we must be willing to wear it.
C. S. Lewis understood the difficulties of self-righteousness, which he clearly, bluntly and to some maybe offensively, identified in the above quote. He understood that self-righteousness is far more of a problem than the many ‘obvious’ sins and sinful people that we see around us - sins and people that we are more than willing to point to and identify as those which we are better than because we are not like them or we do not suffer from the vices that they do, all the while promoting a self-righteousness that threatens to damn our souls. Lewis identifies that self-righteousness allows me to look at those who are ‘worse’ than I am and to feel somewhat justified because I am not them. Or we may look at how good and nice and proper we are compared to others and then feel that on account of our ‘goodness’ or ‘niceness’ - our outward facade that we have it all together and that we are really a ‘good’ person - we should feel justified in seeing ourselves as better than others. We go to church as much as we can and have for as long as we can remember, we do as much good as we can when it is convenient, we don’t do any of the ‘taboo’ things that we have been taught are sins even though they may not actually be sin according to Scripture, and in general we try to be as a nice person on the outside as possible. This kind of self-righteousness stems from the desire to see ourselves, and to have others see us, in as positive a light as possible - as good and nice people. But in this attitude Lewis identifies the significant problem inherent in self-righteousness. He writes the following,
“A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world- and might even be more difficult to save. . . For mere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature.”
Once again Lewis attacks any notion of self-righteousness. He assails any attempt by me to convince myself or others that I am in fact a good person, that I do in fact have it all together and that I don’t in fact, need all that much to change about me - just a few tweaks here and there and I will be good to go. What a load of rubbish! What is needed to save me and to grow me in sanctification is not a righteousness that I generate myself, but a righteousness that is given to me from the outside - I need the righteousness of Christ that can only be accepted by faith. This is true of my first acceptance of Christ and it is equally true of my continued sanctification by faith in Christ. Why? Lewis tells us it is because...
“fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. . . This process of surrender-this movement full speed astern-is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death.”
In other words, it involves abandoning any hope that being self-righteous gets me anywhere. It is the admission that anything I do to generate God’s favor will fall eternally short in his eyes. It involves me recognizing that turning from my self-righteousness, what Lewis calls a laying down of arms, involves a total commitment to the destruction of the sinful self that exists within each one of us. Lewis goes on to write,
“To become new men means losing what we now call 'ourselves'. Out of our selves, into Christ, we must go. His will is to become ours and we are to think His thoughts, to 'have the mind of Christ' as the Bible says. . . The more we get what we now call 'ourselves' out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. . . Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.
And isn’t that what we are all after?
Soli Deo Gloria