How Do You Help a Person Who Is Stuck on Herself?

How Do You Help a Person Who Is Stuck on Herself

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Trying to be perfect in an imperfect world to garner the favorable opinion of others is a delusion that will strain any relationship, not to mention how it will bind any soul to a lifetime pursuit of the un-fillable love cup. The temptation to be stuck on oneself is native to all of us because of the Adamic shame that creates an internal awkwardness, motivating the hungry soul to create a personification of themselves to convince others they are something special when none of us are—outside the grace of God. Let me illustrate how this works with my friend Mable.

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Self-righteous Insecurity

Mable is insecure. She has a hard time admitting she is wrong. Mable has a high view of herself, a form of self-righteousness. How she appears before others and brings self-centered commentaries about how others think about her are of utmost importance. Many of her friends love her; they see Mable as an example they want to emulate. Her family has a different perspective. They can never honestly say what they think about her because Mable has never been humble enough to receive their observations. Insecure people are like this. Whenever her family brings their perspectives about Mable to Mable, she responds with anger or other emotive reactions while letting them know how they failed her. Rather than trying to understand, Mable’s insecurity forces her to turn the tables with unfounded accusations.

Mable’s family has taken the position of overlooking so much because it is not worth the conflict. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” (Proverbs 12:15). Mable’s self-righteousness has had an even more detrimental effect on her husband, Biff. He has had his sin problems, and Mable has not been shy about reminding him of where he has failed and how he has hurt her. She expresses her disappointment to Biff through her nagging, criticism, and consistent demeaning attitude. Recently, Mable told him if he continued sinning, she would leave him. Biff has been trying to walk out his repentance in humility, and it appears he is doing well with this process. Recently, he said during a counseling session:

I don’t want to sin anymore. I’m working hard not to. I have spent more time in prayer than at any other time in my life. I have been reading the Bible more than ever. I’ve set up accountability partners to help guard my heart against falling back into sin. Even so, I know there will be times when I will fall. I don’t want to do this, and I’m not making excuses, but I’m unsure I can live a life of perfection, which Mable is asking me to do. I know it sounds wrong, but there has been this temptation to lie to Mable when she asks me if I sinned. Do you know what I mean? So, when she asks, “How’s it going, Biff?” What am I to say?

Esteeming Yourself

There are many layers and concerns related to her case study. I will only interact with one of the problems presented—Mable’s self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is part of the brokenness that comes with being born in Adam. Along with unbelief, shame, guilt, fear, craving for comfort, and a desire to be in control, there is also a compulsion to think well of ourselves, all parts of who we are as sinful humans. These things are objectively Mable’s sin list. All of these things have traces of self-righteousness, something that our culture perpetuates through their self-esteem gospel. Those who do not want to submit to the Lord seek other means to feel good about themselves, which typically has something to do with being superior to others. Self-righteousness elevates yourself above others, even if the other person is yourself. Let me explain.

  • Self-righteous people look down on others.
  • Self-righteous people look down on themselves—the things they do not like about themselves.

We all have enough self-awareness to know that we are not perfect. Something within us motivates us to be better than the person we know ourselves to be. Therefore, we mask our flaws while we promote our more preferred qualities. This problem implodes inside of us as we sabotage our inner selves by elevating ourselves above others. This attitude is what the Pharisees did in the New Testament. Becoming a Christian does not insulate us from this sin. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). Though we may have accepted the righteousness of Christ as our own, the temptation is to smuggle our righteousness into our lives to build a reputation that can feed our desire for self-glory.

The humble Christian is intuitively familiar with this problem. Only a self-righteous person would be offended if someone told them that they were self-righteous. Their high opinion of themselves would motivate them to reject any negative assessment, even if the evaluation was accurate. Confronting the elevated soul is one of the things that makes caring for the self-righteous person so challenging. Their high view of themselves compels them to resist the analysis. Even with the best intentions, they would receive your care as inaccurate, harsh, or unkind, a worldview that makes Paul’s self-analysis counterintuitive. He was clear-headed regarding his honest, sober, and biblical self-assessment.

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The Chiefest

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

He understood and humbly lived in the antithetical juxtaposition of his total depravity and Christ’s impeccable righteousness. He was free to drop his denials and self-defenses while admitting the more accurate dimensions of his sin.

The gospel of justifying faith means that while Christians are, in themselves, still sinful and sinning, yet in Christ, in God’s sight, they are accepted and righteous. So we can say that we are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope—at the very same time. This creates a radical new dynamic for personal growth. It means that the more you see your own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying, and amazing God’s grace appears to you. But on the other hand, the more aware you are of God’s grace and acceptance in Christ, the more able you are to drop your denials and self-defenses and admit the true dimensions and character of your sin. – Tim Keller

Self-righteous people have not experienced this practical liberation to think about or present themselves as Paul considered himself and lived before others. They continue to guard, protect, and justify on one side while being defensively and fearfully critical, negative, and arrogant on the other side. If you bring any critique to them, you will experience some form of anger that will put you down while elevating them over you.

Fear of Man

The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe (Proverbs 29:25).

The companion sin that hangs out with the self-righteous soul is the fear of others—culturally called co-dependency, insecurity, or people-pleasing. Mable is enslaved and bound by the opinions of others. If you approve of her, she will be your friend. If Mable perceives your disapproval—whether founded or not, she will be your enemy. She hopes you will think about her in the way she thinks about herself, which is a high view of herself. She does not understand and cannot enjoy how the only opinion in the room that should matter is the Lord’s opinion of her, and sadly, God’s opinion does not control her.

The Lord’s thoughts of her, as experienced through the application of Christ’s righteousness, should be her controlling identity. She is still under the influence of others. Will you accept me? Please don’t reject me. What do you think of me? Her thoughts are controlling when she thinks about friends and family, creating an enslaved mindset. Mable hopes others will have a similar view of herself that she has of herself. The primary way she can influence those opinions is through self-promotion, which is the essence of self-righteousness. A person trapped by the fear of others has many symptoms that they employ to cope with their slavery. Here are a few of Mable’s awful habits.

  • Over-sleeping
  • Overeating
  • Too much talking
  • Easy embarrassment
  • Can’t be transparent with others
  • Is frustrated and discontent
  • Avoidance of others
  • Self-conscious
  • Can’t handle rejection well
  • Is inflexible
  • She has to be in control
  • Afraid of failure
  • Exaggeration
  • She is reactionary and defensive.
  • Competitive with others
  • Name dropping
  • Must have the last word
  • Struggle with oversensitivity
  • Confronting people corporately but not personally

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The quickest and most straightforward way to assess a self-righteous person bound to the fear of others is to listen to them. How do they talk to others? How do they respond to others? How do they talk about others? Here are a few questions that have helped me assess my lingering Adamic self-righteousness.

  • Am I quick to acknowledge my sins to the right people?
  • Am I tentative about acknowledging the sins of others?
  • Can I receive a critique?
  • Do I actively pursue others for correction?

Here are a few more diagnostic questions that I have benefited from, and I hope they will help you to discern any self-righteousness that may be present in you. All of them are closed-ended, so you want to explain your answers.

  • Have you ever been tempted to critique or judge another person, group, or church sinfully?
  • How do you usually respond to those who do not do things according to your preferences?
  • Do you focus on what you do correctly and what others may do wrong?
  • How do you think critically about others living out secondary preferences differently?
  • Do you secretly feel smug because God has delivered you from some of the sins you see in others?
  • Do you become impatient or frustrated when you think about those who do not do things your way?

The humble person is feisty about taking their soul to task and would see the questions above as opportunities to continue the lifelong transformation into Christlikeness. That attitude is a core characteristic of the humble person—a humility that seeks critique even if the person bringing the evaluation does not present the assessment correctly. Like an investigative reporter, the humble soul will figure out the bits and pieces of truth they can apply to their lives. Like a desert wanderer searching for water, they see God’s hand in corrective measures because they want to change.

What about Mable?

Mable is in bondage to sin. Her two controlling sins are self-righteousness and fear of man. Mable needs a friend willing to come alongside her in a permanent, persevering, and persuasive way. Her problems are not as much about amputation (Matthew 5:29-30), though she needs to cut out some things, as they are about mortification (Romans 8:13), the long process of removing the vitality from the sins that have gripped her heart. Her restoration will not be a quick fix. She must know that this kind of friend will walk with her through the thick and thin of her junk. Her friend must be for her (Romans 8:31), a necessity for why counseling would not be the best option for Mable. Biblical counseling is an artificial context that anticipates change within that temporal construct and timeframe. Mable does not need a therapist. She needs a co-laboring friend willing to put up with her and her game-playing.

Discipleship v. Counseling 02

This friend would set up multiple contexts to engage and interact with her. She needs someone to do life with her, as the graphic illustrates. Mable’s sin did not sprout up in the past few months. Her sin patterns have long roots—reaching back into her childhood, and it will take a lot of competence, compassion, courage, and continuity to walk with her through the thick weeds that have entangled her soul. As a woman with the world’s worst sunburn, you cannot bring quick and decisive care to her. If you touch her, you will hurt her, but you must “touch” her. After you “hurt” her, she will “hurt” you in return, which will be a relationship cycle that you must endure. There is no way around this inevitability. The process of cooperating with the Lord in the transformation of her soul will be painstakingly complex and lengthy. More than likely, you will become frustrated with her, which is why you must heed Paul’s advice.

If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:1-2).

Call to Action

The good news is that she has a local church with caring disciple-makers. They will be able to bring long-term care to her while also helping Biff to continue to mature through his issues. In time, within the context of a loving community, this couple should receive the help they need. What about you?

  1. In what ways are you like Mable? All of us are.
  2. Do you have a community of friends who speak into your life, even correcting you? Do you make it easy for them, or are they like Mable’s family—always on guard and unsure if it’s safe to bring up something? Please explain.
  3. Will you work through the questions I listed under self-assessment and answer them with a friend?

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