Today, “holier than thou” is usually a term reserved for Christians who think they are better or more holy than everyone else, but it originates from Isaiah 65:5. “(those) Who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me, For I am holier than you!” The King James version says, “holier than thou”, and the New International Version says, “I am too sacred for you!” The “who”, not the rock band, in this verse is referring to the Israelites, the “rebellious people who walk in the way which is not good, following their own thoughts” (Isaiah 65:2). This is interesting because those who thought they were “holier than thou” or righteous were actually in rebellion against God. Isaiah was sent to straighten them out, but they didn’t listen and were eventually conquered by the Babylonians, a judgement from God for their disobedience.
While it is true that Christians can get a little too big for their britches, this term should not be limited exclusively to the “holy huddle”. Anyone can be “holier than thou” or self-righteous. As the passage in Isaiah demonstrates, even those in open rebellion towards God, “living in a way that’s not good”, or “following their own thoughts” can be considered “holier than thou”. So, it seems that Isaiah’s version of this term may actually have an alternate meaning that is somewhat opposed to our modern-day equivalent.
I am especially intrigued by the “following their own thoughts” part of this verse. I take this to mean thoughts that are apart from God. In other words, we are leaving Him out of it. We’ve kicked God to the curb and are flying solo. We have elevated our thinking above God. We are saying that we know better or more than God. We are higher and greater. This is what we call humanism or “an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems”. So how has “following our own thoughts” or our own thinking worked out for us so far? Well history and our current culture gives us a pretty clear answer.
3For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. Romans 12:3 NIV
Thinking more highly of ourselves is quite common. In fact, our current culture is loaded with it. We even have a name for it, the “moral high ground”. Most of humanity regardless of identity, ideology, religion, politics, or anything else we can think of has tried to plant a flag on the summit of the moral high ground. I’ve charged up the hill a few times myself only to realize that I don’t belong there. While most of the world may not agree, the moral high ground is reserved for one person, well three in one, God the Father, The Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. All the rest of us are just wannabee’s and so far throughout human history, in spite of all of our advancements and progression as a species, we still fall short. Sure, we have had our moments in the sun, but our “morality” never quite measures up to the one who created it.
When I was in my late twenties and in ministry, I made a statement to one of the parents in my youth group. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but she responded, “Well Robby, not everyone is as perfect as you.” OUCH! But she was right, and I made a quick mental note and attitude adjustment. I often go back to that moment when I’m feeling a little full of myself. I wish I was immune to haughty behavior and sticking my foot in my mouth or both feet, but it happens. Hopefully less often as I get older. I’m trying to phase it out.
Several years later when I was a part of a youth ministry cohort, which is just a fancy way of saying that a “group” of youth ministers got together for a workshop. “Cohort” sounds cooler, I guess. During this cohort led by a youth ministry guru that I admired, we discussed strategy and philosophy of youth ministry. Doesn’t that sound exciting? “Uh, sure, whatever you say Robby”.
There were about 12 of us in the group and I was probably the one that had the most experience in youth ministry. During our discussions in which everyone contributed I shared my two cents worth. After one of our meetings, this guru took me aside and said, “Robby, you kind of come off as a know it all”. This was the first time anyone had ever referred to me in this way, at least not to my face, and I was devastated. The idea that someone felt that way about me or that I was capable of being a “know it all” was repellent, but apparently someone thought so, and it tore me up. I wasn’t angry or thought “how dare you say that!” I was disappointed in myself for giving off that kind of vibe. Later, I apologized to the guru and told him that I’ve always thought of myself as more of a failure than a successor.
Of course, the opposite of “thinking highly of ourselves” is humility, “thinking of ourselves with sober judgment”. Sober means we are thinking straight, unhindered by ego or pretense. In layman’s terms, we’re not full of ourselves. Humility is not “elevating” our self-importance like I was during the youth ministry cohort. Humility looks in the mirror and sees flaws, blemishes, and imperfections. It’s not self-abuse either. It’s okay to see the good stuff. We just can’t get intoxicated by it. Some call it “being real” or “keeping it real”, but most use that as a smoke screen for unsolicited criticism. It’s like the phrase, “I’m just saying”.
Hey, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, so this is just me working it out in my own mind. I guess that’s part of what these devotionals are all about.
“2Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2 NIV
The “pattern of this world” that Paul is referring to is humanism. It’s when we choose to rely on our own thinking or ability apart from God, thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to. Instead of conforming to this kind of thinking, Paul tells us that we need to be transformed. The worldly or humanistic pattern of thinking needs to be broken and replaced. Our minds need to be renewed by a new pattern of thinking, one that will reveal God’s ”good, pleasing and perfect will.” “Holier than thou” thinking, humanism, and self-righteousness are not a part of God’s ”good, pleasing and perfect will.” They are unbiblical and contrary to the message of the gospel. It’s not what God had in mind when He created us.
27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Matthew 23:27-28 NIV
This is how Jesus feels about that kind of thinking. He had little patience with those who elevated themselves above others and God, especially those who claimed to be righteous. Read the rest of Romans 12 to see what God has in mind, and we’ll explore this topic a little more next week.
Have a great weekend! Love y’all!
Director of Family Ministry and Facility Coordinator – Andrews UMC