Whose Righteousness Is It Anyway?

In Romans chapter 10, the Apostle Paul says, For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.

We all want to feel righteous, to feel good about ourselves. Even people who reject most traditional morality usually feel “righteous” about something they do and condemn others for doing differently.

Most of us have some concept of what is good and true and right. If so, we will see some inconsistency between what we think is righteous and our own behavior. There are several ways we may try to deal with this.

Obviously we can try to do what we think is right. But we repeatedly fail at it. As the Apostle says earlier in this epistle, For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. (Romans 7:19).

The most popular way to deal with this inconsistency is to establish our own righteousness, as the Apostle calls it. We change the definition of “right” so that our conduct fits it. That is, we “change the rules.” We associate this phrase with those who reject traditional moral teachings, but good Orthodox do it all the time. In whatever way we fail to conform to the Gospel or Church practice, we say to ourselves, “this is OK for me because of (whatever we think justifies it).” This reminds us of the lawyer in St.Luke’s Gospel who asked, who is my neighbor? (St. Luke 10:3). He knew that the Law says thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself (Leviticus 19:18), but he wished to justify himself by limiting the meaning of neighbor so that his conduct would fit the commandment; even sinners love those that love them (St. Luke 6: 32). We may reason, “because this person has done this, I don’t have to love him.”

The Christian way to deal with the disparity between what we know to be right and our own behavior is this: simply admit that we are not righteous, indeed most likely we are not going to be righteous in this world. This can lead to either despair and indifference or repentance. (Even despair can be a good thing if it means despair of being righteous by our own efforts.) But the Christian way is repentance. Repentance means a change (metanoia). Yes, we must try to change our minds, our hearts, our conduct. But even if we don’t succeed in this, even if we fail again and again, we can be honest about it.

That’s what repentance really is. That’s what Confession is about. It is to be honest and say: “Yes, there really is such a thing as goodness and truth and righteousness and beauty. It is what it is; it’s not up to me to change the definition of it. And my conduct does not conform to it.” Repentance is simply the truth about human life. It opens the door to mercy and forgiveness and even grace to change.

This is what the world calls “hypocrisy.” Whenever anyone speaks of what is good and true, the world wants to point out whatever way he inevitably falls short of it and call him a “hypocrite.” The world thinks it is better to have no ideals than have them and fail. But the real meaning of hypocrisy is pretending; the repentant person makes no claim to be righteous.

By the way, wanting to be righteous, that is, to obey God, is a good thing; wanting to feel righteous is not a good thing. Wanting other people to approve of us is one of the worst traps we can get in to. For this reason some of the holy monks who are recognized as saints actually lied and claimed to have committed sins they had not in fact committed. If they noticed that their brothers had a high opinion of them and considered them holy, they would say, “Pray for me; when I was in the city I fell into fornication,” when in fact they had not done so. They so feared the pride and vanity that might result from being praised by others that they would say anything to avoid it.

As for wanting to establish our own righteousness, in fact there no such thing as our “own righteousness.” The phrase St. Paul uses is idian dikaiosunen. The word idian (one’s own) has the same root from which we get the word “idiot” – it’s idiotic to think we can have a righteousness of our own. God is our righteousness. He goes on to say, For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. The “end” (telos) means the Jewish Law is over with; it has been fulfilled in Christ, but telos also means “purpose” – the whole purpose of the Law was to reveal Christ, who is Himself the real law, the real righteousness, the real truth – Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom,and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: (1 Cor. 1:30). The way to be righteous is to be united to Christ and share His righteousness. We can never be prideful about this righteousness, because it is His and not ours. This is the righteousness we are told to seek: Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His Righteousness (not ours) (Matt. 6:33).



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St. Mary of Egypt


St. Poemen the Great

"A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others, he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent, that is, he says nothing that is not profitable."

St. Gregory the Great

"Every day you provide your bodies with good to keep them from failing. In the same way your good works should be the daily nourishment of your hearts. Your bodies are fed with food and your spirits with good works. You aren't to deny your soul, which is going to live forever, what you grant to your body, which is going to die."

St. Paisius Velichkovsky

"Remember, O my soul, the terrible and frightful wonder: that your Creator for your sake became Man, and deigned to suffer for the sake of your salvation. His angels tremble, the Cherubim are terrified, the Seraphim are in fear, and all the heavenly powers ceaselessly give praise; and you, unfortunate soul, remain in laziness. At least from this time forth arise and do not put off, my beloved soul, holy repentance, contrition of heart and penance for your sins."

St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

“Prayer does not consist merely in standing and bowing your body or in reading written prayers….it is possible to pray at all times, in all places, with mind and spirit. You can lift up your mind and heart to God while walking, sitting, working, in a crowd and in solitude. His door is always open, unlike man’s. We can always say to Him in our hearts Lord , Lord have mercy.”

St. John of Kronstadt

The candles lit before the icons of the Theotokos are a symbol of the fact that She is the Mother of the Unapproachable Light, and also of Her most pure and burning love for God and Her love for mankind.

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