If you're a follower of Christ, I would be willing to bet that you've heard the phrase "holier than thou" used to describe yourself, your church, or your religion at some point. To many nonbelievers and former churchgoers, the best way to describe the church is that it's full of "self righteous" and "hypocritical" people who preach a better game than they practice, and then expect far more of those around them.
Maybe they're right, in some cases - although as a lifelong Christian and churchgoer I have yet to find nearly as many holier-than-thou people in the church as they'd like you to believe.
What I have found more of, unfortunately, is the kind of people I might describe as "holier than God." Sometimes myself included. But what does that even look like?
Well, you might consider yourself holier than God if...
...you value love over truth.
Love! It's all the rage these days. At least, it's all the rage in its malleable, diluted, culturally-relevant form...the kind that spawns hashtags like "#LoveWins" and has become more synonymous with the word tolerance than with the word selflessness.
If you've ever said, thought, or believed something like "Love can't be a sin" or "Love should be without conditions," or even considered it more important to show "love" than to speak an uncomfortable truth to a fellow believer, you might consider yourself holier than God.
Fortunately for us, we're not the first generation of believers to deal with this kind of moral balance between love and truth. The Corinthian church went through something similar when one of its members committed incest, and the rest of the congregation turned a blind eye in order to show him "love." Paul, their spiritual leader, had a harsh response:
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. . . . Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?
- 1 Corinthians 5:1-2, 6
If we are followers of God, we should prioritize the same things He does, and in the same order. Failing to uphold the consequences of sin out of so-called "love" undermines the importance of God's truth and is nothing short of arrogant. We ought to treat sin like a tragedy, and deal with it biblically - not consider ourselves "too loving" to follow God's design for the church.
This goes for evangelism, too. I often hear people saying that all we really need to do is "show the world an irresistible light" to draw them in - not contest their values or beliefs, because that's "too offensive." But what few people realize is that the light we have to offer the world IS the truth. If you read the book of Acts, you won't find Paul sitting in synagogues trying to be all glowy and charitable. You'll find him repeatedly, forcefully contesting the Jewish rejection of Messiah and using the Word of God to provide clear evidence for the Gospel - and, when they became offended and kicked him out, taking the same message of truth straight to the pagans, with the same zeal.
The truth is what sets us free, my friends - nothing less.
...you are an obsessive perfectionist.
Someone very wisely described perfectionism as "ego with a dash of self-doubt." As a pro-league perfectionist for my entire life, I can fully attest to that description.
One of the verses that many perfectionists (as well as many parents, teachers, and micro-managers!) use to justify their efforts is 1 Corinthians 10:31:
Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
It sounds noble. But when you're a perfectionist and you're up till 2AM studying frantically for the next day's test and you sleep less than five hours so you can get there extra early and you labor and re-labor over every question on the sheet and then feel crushed when your teacher hands it back with a grade of 98 - let's just be real and admit that you didn't do any of that work for the glory of God.
You did it all for the glory of self, hidden behind a holy-sounding mantra.
But that's just how perfectionism manifests in my life. For you, maybe it shows up in other ways: you think you need to be at a certain place spiritually before you can approach God in prayer, or you keep up a highly curated facade in front of the fellow believers you talk to at church (even when you're shattered inside), or you only sing positive and upbeat worship songs because you think God is too holy for your complaints - when in reality, you are merely too much of a perfectionist to let Him see you at your worst.
This is not holiness, humility, or even obedience. This is pride and self-deceit. It builds walls between you and God and it cuts you off from community with others.
...you can't stop calling yourself a sinner.
This is probably where trying to be holier than God is by far the most prevalent in our churches. It sounds something like this...
"You know, I'm just a sinner, saved by grace."
"What they did was wrong, but I don't want to judge because I know I'm a sinner too. It could have easily been me."
"Hey, on our best days we're all just helpless sinners who were given salvation."
I know the intent with these kinds of statements is to maintain humility and mindfulness of the incredible chasm that Jesus' gracious sacrifice bridged for us. If I'm being honest, I have to admit that I've been a chronic sinner-identifier for most of my life. But now that I have studied the Bible - even while I still highly value the grace of God and believe in taking sin seriously - I can find no biblical support for continually bashing ourselves for the sake of a false holiness.
In fact, in the New Testament, the word "sinner" is used either to denote pagans living outside the Jewish faith, or to refer to people who had not yet been saved. Never is it used to refer to believers. Believers, throughout Old Testament and New, are called something far better: saints, or "holy ones."
Here are just a handful of the word's 67 occurrences in the New American Standard Bible:
But the saints of the Highest One will receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, for all ages to come.
To all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
And He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household.
If the authors of the Bible and the pioneers of the Church placed so little emphasis on reminding us of our sinfulness, and so much emphasis on reminding us of our sainthood, why are we still trying to be super-spiritual in our self-degradation? Yes, identify your sin so that you can overcome it, but if you're saved by the blood of the Lamb it is a cheapening of that sacrifice to continue to identify yourself with it!
If you have been saved, you are not a dirty, rotten sinner anymore. You are a saint who, yes, still sins - but who is being perfected by the gracious hand of God every day. Can it be anything but damaging and wrong to view yourself differently than He looks at you? Can His precious blood sacrifice possibly not be enough to wipe away your sin and change your identity completely?
The "holier-than-God" syndrome can only be cured by one thing: a more intimate knowledge of God Himself.
A holier-than-God attitude feeds on pride, good intentions, and mishandling of Scripture - and thus, it can't survive a humble seeking of God's character and His Word. Shed your mind of preconceptions and study the Bible for what it really says, not merely what you think it should say or what others have told you. The story of God and His Creation is utterly magnificent, and you will find that His true holiness shines like glittering diamonds compared to the counterfeit costume-jewelry "holiness" you've been trying to live by.