Of all the desires that motivate human beings, the desire for personal righteousness—wanting to be right—is the most pernicious. There is no evil, no matter how unspeakable, we will not commit if we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is for the greater good. We will put up with caging children at our borders, turning away the poor and sick, righteously stifling our own sense of mercy in service to outrage at some injustice. The desire to be right makes us spin our own actions, not only to impress others, but to burnish the image we have of ourselves. We willingly deceive ourselves about ourselves in order to preserve an image of ourselves that is noble, caring, even kind while approving and even performing acts that are cruel and selfish. The desire for personal righteousness makes us remorseless and unrepentant. After all, repentance requires acknowledging sin in our own lives. Sometimes, we willingly acknowledge some acceptable sin in an effort to cover up a deeper, more entrenched sin to which we are culpably blind. No wonder Jesus talked about picking specks out of others’ eyes while being unaware of the plank in our own eyes!
The Bible writers were well aware of how pervasive and pernicious is the desire to be right. That is why they repeated again and again, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” They wanted to assure their readers that no matter what they thought about themselves, the reality was that all their efforts at being right were worthless. As Isaiah puts it, “All our righteous deeds are like used menstrual cloths.” They are not merely rubbish, but the worst, most disgusting rubbish. (The Jews regarded a woman during her period as ceremonially unclean. She could not enter the temple or approach God. Whatever she touched would also become unclean. While laws regarding menstruation unfairly stigmatized women, they also protected the community from the spread of disease at a time when humans knew nothing about microbes.)
We cannot merely rid ourselves of the desire to be right, however. It is fundamental to our humanity. Though it deceives us time and again, it also makes us want to do better. It inspires us to keep trying to do good. What a quandary we are in—wanting to do what is good but lacking the capacity!
Therefore God has imputed righteousness to those who put their faith in Jesus. He satisfies our desire to be right without requiring us to be sinless. Because he has shown us such mercy and grace, he enables us to likewise show mercy toward those who are also trying—and failing—to do what is right.
Everyone is a hero in their own story. While some tell their story to evoke pity and others admiration, we all mitigate our sins to ourselves. We all make excuses for ourselves and seek forgiveness for our worst blunders. “If you only knew what it was like,” we say, and we are quite right to say it. None of us knows anyone better than ourselves. We know how hard we try. We know how often we fail. Despite this knowledge and the free gift that God offers of his own righteousness, we remain unwilling to acknowledge before him just how much we need what he has. To do so, we would have to admit we were wrong.