“Those who know their unworthiness seize grace as a hungry man seizes bread; the self-righteous resent grace.” — Randy Alcorn, Edge of Eternity
In Deuteronomy chapter 9, Moses is preparing a new generation to enter into and conquer the Promised Land. While through God’s grace they will experience victory, Moses knows that they will also experience some challenges they have never seen before. One such challenge will come from within — the temptation to become self-righteous. Righteousness that comes from a healthy relationship with God is not the problem. Allowing self-righteousness to slowly creep into your heart is a problem. Moses warns this next generation of two dangers that result from allowing yourself to become self-righteous.
Self-Righteousness Distorts Reality (vv. 1-3)
When self-righteousness creeps into your heart and thinking, it in turn affects your actions and reactions in life. Self-righteousness distorts your ability to see and experience two things in relation to God: His presence and His power. By pointing out to God’s people that they will face enemies in the Promised Land that are “greater and stronger than you” and have “walls up to the sky” (v. 1), Moses is making clear that the moment they step across the Jordan River into the land, they will be over their heads (vv. 1-2) and overwhelmed (v. 3). It is only by trusting in and relying on God, that His people will overcome the challenges they will face.
In v. 3 Moses tells this new generation that they can “be assured” that God will provide a way to overcome. The words “be assured” means confident assurance. It is a call for the Hebrew people to remember how faithful God has been to them in the past. They can, therefore, have confident assurance in the present that He will provide a way, despite circumstances that are overwhelming and over their heads.
Self-righteousness and self-sufficiency causes us to miss that we are over our heads and overwhelmed, and, therefore, we need God’s presence and power. It always distorts reality and causes us to miss this truth.
Self-Righteousness Inflates Egos (vv. 4-6)
In the last half of this narrative, Moses mentions the problem of becoming self-righteous three times in three verses. Clearly, this had been a problem in the past and he expected this next generation to struggle with it as well. In v. 4a he says: “After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’” Moses warned them not to deceive themselves into thinking their righteousness (“because of my righteousness”) is the source of victory. If they did, they would begin to develop an inflated view of themselves. They would begin to think they were inherently better than other people. Moses makes it clear (vv. 4-6) that any victory they experience will be because of God’s grace and His purpose, not because of the Hebrew people’s personal merit.
We all fall short and are in need of God’s grace (Romans 3:23). You may be better off than some people, but that does not make you inherently better than anyone else. As with God’s people though, when self-righteousness is allowed to creep into your heart and your thinking, you will begin to view yourself as inherently better than others.
To finalize his point, Moses reminds his people of their history as a “stiff-necked people” (v.6). That phrase takes two words: stubborn + trouble to create the concept of “stiff-necked”. Stubbornness toward God always invites trouble in life.
It is human nature to drift toward self-righteousness. How should you counter when self-righteousness creeps into your heart and thinking? Simply this: Each new day choose to align with and live out of the heart, the thinking and the priorities of Christ. To do so will result in genuine righteousness rather than self-righteousness.
“Hear, O Israel. You are now about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and stronger than you, with large cities that have walls up to the sky. The people are strong and tall – Anakites! You know about them and have heard it said: ‘Who can stand up against the Anakites?’ But be assured today that the Lord your God is the one who goes across ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them; He will subdue them before you. And you will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the Lord has promised you. After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.”