Here's a Bible verse that mischievous boys everywhere ought to learn: "Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?" (Ecclesiastes 7:16). At first blush, it would seem that a verse like that stands in direct contradiction with statements like Matthew 5:48: "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." How can we be commanded to be perfectly righteous and yet also encouraged not to be "overly" righteous? Have we found a mistake in the Bible? Should one of these statements not have been uttered? Who was wrong, Solomon or Jesus?
Well - just as we ought to any time we encounter a seeming difficulty - we should search the context (the verses surrounding our verse) to see if there is a good reason for Solomon saying what he does. And we don't have to look far beyond verse 16 of Ecclesiastes chapter 7 before we find our answer. Verse 20 says, "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins."
So, why should you not try to be "overly righteous"? Because you're not righteous. You're a sinner, and so am I. And no one likes a 'holier that thou' goodie-goodie. It's not that we don't like and respect righteousness. It's that we don't like people who pretend that their poop doesn't stink - someone who will look down their nose at you as if their heart does not also struggle with wickedness. It is a deceitful demeanor. A person like this hides his or her own sin and then condemns others in order to make himself or herself feel more praiseworthy.
It is at this point that we encounter the difficult questions of how and just how much we ought to judge others. "Judge not, lest ye be judged" is probably one of the most frequently quoted Bible verses in today's culture, and yet the Bible is also full of righteous commandments and encouragements to stand for the truth. To further complicate the issue, the Bible also contains strong statements like 1 Corinthians 6:3: "Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!" And that comes after a lengthy exhortation to throw a sinful man out of the church!
So how can we be righteous, but not overly so? I think that Jesus has provided the best answer in the same immediate context that contains His instruction to be perfect (Matthew 5:48) and His command not to judge (Matthew 7:1). Just two verses after saying, "Judge not...", Jesus says, "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?" And His solution? Verse 5: "You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye."
I think that we can solve this difficulty of judging-but-not-judging and being righteous-but-not-overly-righteous by saying that we ought always to be honest and open about our own sin (Ecclesiastes 7:20) and the sin of others (Matthew 7:5, James 5:19-20). You're not a hypocrite if you admit that you have a log in your eye and agree with your speck-eyed brother to help each other overcome your various sinful tendencies. All Christians ought to constantly remember the depth of sin from which Christ plucked us and ought to be acutely aware of the lingering presence of sin in our lives. We should never excuse sin, but just as Christ is able to "sympathize with us in our weakness" (Hebrews 4:15), we also ought to be able to sympathize with any sinner, because we share their nature.