Why people are self righteous: The Matryoshka Principle

May 12, 2014

Matthew 6:1

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.


There’s a word for the kind of behavior Jesus speaks of at the beginning of part 2 (i.e. Chapter 6) of THE SERMON.

The word is posturing.

And beneath that word posturing is another word: pretense.

There’s a deeper layer still. The word to describe what lies beneath pretense is pride.

And, you guessed it, there’s a word to describe what lives underneath pride, but it’s probably not what you are thinking. I want to say “self righteousness” is underneath our pride, but that’s just another way of describing pride. Another word I would identify as the source of pride would be arrogance, but again, it’s just another way of saying pride. (By the way, the word arrogant comes from a Latin word which means “to claim for oneself.) And besides that, self righteousness and arrogance blow the alliterative scheme I’ve got working here. Further, these words keep me in the trap of vilifying people who act like this.

The word beneath posturing, beneath pretense, beneath pride? It’s pain. Posturing and pretense and pride are all ways of describing what it looks and feels like when a person projects a false reality outwardly of who they really are on the inside. We have all sorts of names for these people because we don’t like them.

But love looks deeper, beneath the surface of the surface of the surface to the deep underlying pain.

And what is this pain? Does the word Matryoshka mean anything to you? You’ve seen the little wooden dolls where you open up one and inside their is another one of the exact same shape and appearance. Open the next one and you find a smaller version of the same thing. And onward it goes until you hold in your hand the smallest possible shell that could be made. And when you open that one, what’s inside?

NOTHING. EMPTINESS. That’s the pain. It’s the pain of living a lie; that at the core of who I am, there’s nothing of value there. It leaves me with the desperate alternative of creating an outer appearance that I can at least be proud of. In order for me to feel better about myself, I need you to see and believe the reality I’m projecting rather than the pain that’s underneath it all.

It’s why the Kingdom of Heaven begins with poverty of spirit. If I can be honest enough to admit who I am not at the core of my being, I’ll be well on the way to finding out who I really am: which is a gift. And I’ll realize I am a gift not because of anything I’ve done but because of what the Giver has done for me. Then I can be grateful.

We could go on to talk about goodness and living for the glory of another, but then we would be into another alliteration altogether. Better stop.

Wesley sums up the transition between part I and part II of the sermon to close the daily text today.

In the preceding chapter our Lord has described inward religion in its various branches. He has laid before us those dispositions of soul which constitute real Christianity; the inward tempers contained in that “holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord”; the affections which, when flowing from their proper fountain, from a living faith in God through Christ Jesus, are intrinsically and essentially good, and acceptable to God.

He proceeds to show, in this chapter, how all our actions likewise, even those that are indifferent in their own nature, may be made holy, and good and acceptable to God, by a pure and holy intention. Whatever is done without this, he largely declares, is of no value before God.  p.114

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J.D. Walt writes daily for Seedbed’s Daily Text. He serves as Seedbed’s Sower in Chief. Follow him @jdwalt on Twitter or email him at jd.walt@seedbed.com.

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