The author of Ecclesiastes questions everything about life, labeling almost all things as futile and vain, until he comes to the final conclusion that God must be the center of all. When read in context, the real message behind this verse is that righteousness and wisdom apart from God, like everything apart from God, is “vanity and striving after wind.” This verse of scripture refers to the attitude of a Pharisee. We ruin ourselves as witnesses for Christ and ministers of His gospel when we become excessively righteous and overly wise.
Excessively righteous and overly wise people are prideful people. The excessively righteous is the self-righteous, self-exalting man or woman who values religion over relationship. This person is concerned more with outward appearances than inward sanctification. Her righteousness is self-honoring, not God-honoring. Overly wise people are those whose focus has become imbalanced, seeking knowledge as priority over seeing that knowledge make a difference for the Kingdom. These may have initially sought the knowledge of God with a pure and humble heart, but their motive has taken an unfortunate turn to selfish gain. When one seeks to know God’s word to elevate self, rather than to elevate God, she is headed for ruin.
When we concern ourselves primarily with our performance or our knowledge of God, our focus has shifted away from God and His purposes. “My” performance can easily be all about me, not God’s work in and through me. “My” knowledge level can also easily be all about me, not God’s revelation of knowledge to and through me to benefit others. As we grow in wisdom and righteousness, we grow in danger of adopting a Pharisaic attitude.
2 Chronicles 26:16 tells us how King Uzziah went from righteousness to ruin: “But when he became strong, his heart was so proud that he acted corruptly, and he was unfaithful to the LORD his God.” Jesus warns us in Matthew 6:1-4, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”
As devoted followers of Christ and leaders of others in our homes, neighborhoods, study groups, churches and beyond, we must be careful to guard our hearts from becoming full of ourselves instead of full of Him. We would also be wise to discern the hearts of those we choose to follow.
Some questions to apply to our own lives and to the lives of those who seek to influence us:
- Who is doing the work of righteousness in the life, God or the person?
- Who is receiving the glory for the righteousness and wisdom, God or the person?
- How do others perceive the righteousness, as a reflection of God or of the person?
- Could others who are under the person’s influence in any way perceive the wisdom as conceitedness, or the righteousness as condescension?
- What fruit is the righteous behavior and wisdom bringing to the Kingdom?
- Have you personally ever been tempted to misuse His gifts of righteousness and wisdom for selfish gain?
- How have you seen the righteous and the wise trip over their pride in today’s culture?
- How can you pass on this warning to others under your watch?
Perhaps more than any other time in history, the 21st century Christian community must be careful to evaluate the motives of the heart. We must first be careful that the work being done in and through our lives is God's work, not our own. Further, we must continually remain alert to our heart's condition as He works in us to make us more like Him and reveal to us more of His truths. As we are transformed by Him, we must be on guard to the increasing temptation to believe we are "above" others who have yet to know or grow in Him, rather than see ourselves as fellow sojourners on His earth.
The Proverbial Truth is, "Pride goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before stumbling." (Pr 16:18) "A man's pride will bring him low, but a humble spirit will obtain honor." (Pr 29:23)
The devil can be very sneaky, and has to be sneaky to trap the devoted God-follower. Let's keep our eyes open to his schemes and choose carefully with discernment and prayer whom we will follow. Let's also be diligent to keep watch over our own attitudes and heart as we live our own lives of influence. Satan likes nothing better than when God's faithful servants become so full of themselves, in their own prideful righteousness and wisdom, that they have no room for Jesus.