Every way of a man [or woman] is right in his own eyes: but the Lord ponders the hearts. – Proverbs 21:2

It is impossible to correct an aspirant who has the dangerous habit of constant Self-justification. He is ready to bring any kind of clumsy argument to justify himself, to keep up his position and prestige. – Swami Sivananda [1]

Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: but a faithful man who can find? – Proverbs 20:6

Seventh Precept: I take up the way of not praising myself while abusing others. The reason I praise myself and abuse others is that I seek to justify and defend myself as a certain kind of rather superior being. – Ten Grave Precepts of Buddhism [2]

Self-justification is a common human fault. We all seek to escape blame for our actions. Numerous Biblical examples clearly illustrate how self-justification is used to try to avoid responsibility and side-step correction.

When the first man and woman ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, Adam blamed both God and Eve for his sin, and Eve, in turn, blamed the snake: “And the man said, ‘The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.’ And the Lord God said unto the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ And the woman said, ‘The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat’” (Genesis 3:12-13).

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and questioned his brother Aaron about making the Golden Calf, Aaron blamed the people for his decision to make an idol for them to worship: “And Aaron said: ‘Let not the anger of my lord [Moses] wax hot; you know the people, that they are set on evil. So they said unto me: Make us a god, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.” (Exodus 32:22-23).

When the prophet Samuel sent King Saul ahead of him to Gilgal to prepare an offering and await his arrival, Saul disobeyed Samuel’s instructions and made the offering before the people on his own. When Samuel confronted him, rather than accepting responsibility for his actions, Saul blamed Samuel and the people for his disobedience. “And Saul said, ‘Because I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you came not within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered themselves together at Michmash; therefore I said, The Philistines will come down now upon me to Gilgal, and I have not made supplication unto the Lord: I forced myself therefore, and offered a burnt offering’” (Samuel I 13:11-12).

All of these examples demonstrate how widespread self-justification is in human behavior. They also point out the Bible’s keen awareness of the negative role self-justification plays in undermining the Divine command, and enabling us to escape responsibility for our actions.

If we do not learn to stop justifying ourselves, we will never learn from our mistakes, and we will never change and evolve. How, then, do we learn to not justify ourselves?

We begin by recognizing the truth of the humble nature of the human condition. Everyone is imperfect. Everyone does wrong. If not, we would not have incarnated on this physical plane of existence. We come to this world to learn and grow. Mistakes and failure are an unavoidable part of that process.

If we want to grow, we should not try to hide our wrongdoings, rather we should willingly confess them. The Bible gives us several good examples of individuals who had the courage to face their failures and confess their mistakes. One of the greatest is King David.

After the prophet Natan admonished King David for his actions with Bat Sheva (King David had sent Bat Sheva’s husband to his death in battle so that he could marry his wife), King David repented, acknowledged his errors, and pleaded with God for forgiveness. In the first five verses of Psalm 32, King David lays out a basic model for the inner work of contrition and confession.

“A Psalm of David. Maskil. Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is pardoned. Happy is the man unto whom the Lord counts not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile. When I kept silence, my bones wore away through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my sap was turned as in the droughts of summer. Selah! I acknowledged my sin unto You, and my iniquity have I not hid. I said: ‘I will make confession concerning my transgressions unto the Lord’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah!”

Confession does not need to be a gloomy painful act. It can be a positive expression of our trust in God’s compassion and forgiveness. The Sephardim have integrated this understanding into their High Holy Day prayers. Rather than engaging in somber breast-beating on Yom Kippur, they joyfully sing about their sins. Chatanu lefanecha – “we have sinned before You”, they happily proclaim, rachaim alenu – “[now] have mercy on us”.

Even when we agonize over our sins, we can still take comfort in the realization that mistakes are an integral part of our humanity – they are a distinctively human experience that we all undergo. We can also find strength and inspiration from the rich outpourings of the heart and soul that have been created in response to our failures. As Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev once proclaimed to God in the middle of chanting the confession on Yom Kippur “if we did not sin, O Lord, where would you hear such beautiful melodies?”

“Look upon the man who tells you your faults as if he told you of a hidden treasure.” – Dhammapada 6:76 [3]

To overcome the desire to justify ourselves, we need to change our attitude to other people’s criticism. Criticism is not a bitter pill that we must swallow in humiliation because we have failed. It is a gift that is meant to help us grow and evolve – a way for us to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. We need to learn to quietly listen to the advice of others. We need to heed their counsel and be open to correction.

The Ethics of the Fathers 4:1 states: “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” Being open to the counsel of others is a sign of true wisdom. As Proverbs 9: 9 states: “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning.” Only a fool surrounds himself with flatters and deludes himself into believing their praise. Such a path will only lead to ever greater sorrow and failure. As Ecclesiastes 7:5 advises us: “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools.”

The Hasidic Masters transformed this spiritual attitude toward praise and censure into a way of walking in the world. Rebbe Elimelech of Lizensk taught his Hasidim: “If anyone admonishes him, he should be happy that God showed him a person like this that criticizes his ugly actions.”

“His words with other people should be pleasant. If they praise him, he should proceed carefully and reflect with regret: “how they are praising me for something that I am not. If they only knew my low state and all of my foolishness, misdeeds and wrong actions! How can I turn my face toward God who knows and sees my actions at every moment and instant, and nonetheless, He has mercy on me with everything.” [4]

Swami Sivananda saw overcoming the need for self-justification as part of the essential work of any serious spiritual seeker:

“Do not be offended by trifling matters. Cultivate an amiable loving nature and adaptability. Admit your faults if they are pointed out by others. Eradicate them and thank the man who points out your defects; then only can you grow in spirituality and meditation.

“Introspect. Look within. Try to remove your defects. This is the real Sadhana [spiritual practice]. You will have to remove all your weaknesses. Many old vicious habits will have to be cut out. Remove the defects of self-justification and of self-assertive nature.” [5]

We will have gone a great distance along the path if we learn to accept chastisement and not be disturbed by small unimportant slights. The real test, however, comes when we are unjustly accused of wrong action. How will we respond then? Can we rise above our instinctual reaction and not reply with anger and indignation?

When Saint Teresa of Avila was falsely accused of scandalous behavior by a well known priest, she laughed at his words. Then she turned serious and told her outraged nuns: “They do me the greatest possible good, for if I am not guilty of what they accuse me of, I have offended God on so many other occasions that the one pays for the other.” [6]

Many teachers made accepting even erroneous accusations without self-justification an integral part of the training of their disciples. They saw it as a way to deepen their equanimity and humility, as well as a tangible sign of their faith in their teacher and mentor.

Swami Radha, a western disciple of Swami Sivananda, witnessed a classic example of this type of training while she was staying at the ashram in India.

“This afternoon a group of teachers arrived with their students and wanted to do a spiritual play as a gift to the Master [Swami Sivananda] and entertainment for the ashram members. There was a half hour delay so Swami Chidananda [Swami Sivananda’s premier disciple] took matters into his own hands and told in English, to the three or four hundred people who had gathered, the story we were going to see.

“Suddenly across the place there rolled a powerful Om. Everybody was silent. There was no doubt that Om came from Gurudev [Swami Sivananda]. He scolded Swamji [Swami Chidananda] in front of everybody. ‘What is this nonsense? You have no humility. Who gave you the order?’

“I was shattered. This was just more than I could take. I felt very deeply for Swamiji. I walked over to Gurudev, shook my head and said, ‘Gurudev, I don’t understand.’

“In a low voice he said, ‘He is a strong soul. He is a diamond already. What I do is a little polishing because I care.’” [7]

When we let go of the need for self-justification, we put down a heavy burden that we have needlessly carried around. This inner-lightening infuses us with tremendous spiritual power. It fills us with wisdom and washes away arrogance, fear and pride. We are no longer affected by the praise or blame of anyone. All of the barriers between God and us come tumbling down.

A man or woman who is free from the need for self-justification is the sovereign of the kingdom. He can go anywhere and do anything. She is a great hero and a valiant conqueror. For they have vanquished the most formidable of all foes: the ego of their lower self.

Copyright © 2014, by Yoel Glick

Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Swami Sivananda , Light, Power and Wisdom: Eradicate Self-Justification
  2.  http://www.thezensite.com/ZenTeachings/Teishos/Ten_Grave_Precepts.htm
  3. Dhammapada as translated by Juan Mascaro
  4. Elimelech of Lizensk, Hanhagot
  5. Swami Sivananda, Light, Power and Wisdom
  6. Marcelle Auclair, Saint Teresa of Avila
  7. Swami Radha-Sivananda, Radha