Confessions of a Former Pharisee [Part 3]: Stop Trying to Be a Good Christian

Math has never been my strong suit. In high school I only managed a decent grade in the last real math class I ever took… because I figured out how to manipulate my teacher into helping me arrive at the correct answers during tests. Yeah I’m slightly proud not at all proud of that.

So let me reframe that statement: In high school I succeeded in math by using my well-developed insight into how to motivate people to effectively compensate for my mathematical disadvantage. Much better, yeah? (In case you didn’t know, social workers are experts at making something terrible sound like something great reframing. Weaknesses? What weaknesses? I see only strengths!)

But today, in the final part of this “Confessions of a Former Pharisee” series (read Part 1 and Part 2 here), I’m going to walk you through a math problem so simple, even the most mathematically challenged could easily recognize the answer. This is the story of the equation that exposed me as a modern-day Pharisee.

Let’s Do the Math! Boo Yay

In order to work this out, we first need to understand the…er… context? (Shoot, math doesn’t involve contexts, does it? See, I told you I was terrible with math! What if we think of it as a “word problem” of sorts?). Anyways, let’s not get hung up on making this math analogy perfect, the point is we need to know about the Pharisees.

The Pharisees were the religious people of their day. They thought they loved God. They believed they loved God. They organized their whole lives around living righteously in accordance with the law of God. But actually, they were the worst! Consider this parable:

Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else:  “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14

Or how about these scathing daggers lighthearted snippets from Jesus’s rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed, and you decorate the monuments of the godly people your ancestors destroyed. Then you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would never have joined them in killing the prophets.’

But in saying that, you testify against yourselves that you are indeed the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead and finish what your ancestors started. Snakes! Sons of vipers! How will you escape the judgment of hell? Matthew 23:23-33

Ok, I don’t know about you, but I read a passage like that and I want to put as much psychological distance between myself and the Pharisees as possible! There’s no way I want to read that and think, “Oh, Ooooo, wow, yeah… I think He’s talking to me guys!”

Unfortunately…

I can’t help but recall that whole recent experience where I learned I had been going through life spiritually blind and self-righteousness…. which as we just saw in the passages above, also happen to be terms Jesus attributed to the Pharisees. Oh man. This is getting reaaaaaally uncomfortable. Because bad at math or not, I can put two and two together:

Spiritually Blind + Self Righteous = Pharisee = Me

*big sigh*

Yet where there is Jesus, there is hope! Even for a Pharisee like me. After all, Jesus opens the eyes of the blind (Isaiah 42:7), and clothes us in His righteousness (Isaiah 61:10); just as He did for me the day my pastor and I prayed. And I think there’s an important lesson to learn from my story.

Lessons Learned: Self-Righteousness vs. True Righteousness

If you’ll remember, when I first began exchanging clothing with Jesus during my “freedom prayer,” I easily imagined myself as stereotypical “sinner:” ragged and dirty and wretched. But why was that so easy? Probably because I didn’t really believe it.

Yes yes, I knew I was a sinner, after all the Bible told me so, but let’s be honest… as far as sinners go, wasn’t I kind of… a good one comparatively speaking? A righteous sinner! I’d worked hard to obey God, to make my life align with what the Bible instructed, to be a good Christian! Which was the problem, because:

 All our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment. Isaiah 64:6

So that nice, fancy, gorgeous robe of my own righteousness I saw? Well that’s what was actually a filthy rag to Jesus. Let’s call it a horrifying example of spiritual blindness perception problem. Kind of like those amusing “what I think I look like, what I really look like” memes, like this:

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via SIZZLE

Yeah that’s pretty much what’s going on when we try to do righteousness on our own. Ouch.

Realizing my true wretchedness lay in self-righteousness all the things I thought I was doing right– was a hard pill to swallow. It wasn’t what I perceived to be my failings that God could not stomach,  but rather all my own attempts at fabricating righteousness that was so detestable.

This temptation to slip into self-righteousness and become a modern-day Pharisee is a problem every one of us continually faces.

Modern Day Pharisees: AKA Good Christians

I get it, no one wants to identify with the Pharisees, and because of that it’s really hard to equate ourselves with them (I certainly didn’t prior to the events in this series). It’s tempting to glide over scriptures condemning the Pharisees and self-righteous, because we just know we are not like them, we’re Good Christians after all!

But if we want to avoid their fate, we’ve got to find a way to open our eyes to the pharisaical parts of ourselves, because they do exist to some degree in all of us. So how about we find a more modern, relatable term? Like, oh, the one we just used to defend ourselves as non-Pharisees: “Good Christian.” Yeah that one.

We all know what a Good Christian does and does not do. A Good Christian reads the Bible every day, has a consistent quiet time, prays without ceasing, doesn’t cuss, get drunk, or have premarital sex. I’m sure you have your own definition as well. A Good Christian does all the right things… kind of like a Pharisee, wouldn’t you say? So from here on out, humor me as I replace the word Pharisee with Good Christian, and let’s see what happens.

How a Pharisee Good Christian is born

For those of us who grew up Christian: We’ve been taught from day one what righteous living looks like, what we should and should not do, and are essentially trained in how to be a Pharisee Good Christian. We are capable of going through the motions of living the proper Christian life. Yet maybe we’ve never had our own life-changing encounter with Jesus, or been confronted by our own hopeless depravity, and so we are deceived about the state of ourselves. We think our self-righteous living is evidence of true righteousness.

For those of us who met Jesus later in life: As Jesus begins to transform us and we start to look a bit less like a hot freakin’ mess, we start feeling pretty good about ourselves and we start striving, trying to help God out with the process.

Furthermore, it’s inevitable that simply by being around other Christians and reading the Bible, we realize there are certain things we should be doing, as Pharisees Good Christians. We find out that Pharisees Good Christians are kind, loving, patient, generous, etc., so we grit our teeth and try our very hardest to be those things: I WILL be kind DARN IT, even if it kills me!

But words like trying, striving, and attempting are all inconsistent with the fundamental nature of Christianity, which is defined by gifts like love and grace.

Every time we try, all we’re doing is stitching together a couple of nasty rags into a hideous, patchwork garment of self-righteousness, which we then proudly clutch about ourselves, primping and preening while crooning “Oooh look at me, God, just look at me! See how good I did there?”

But all God sees is a hopelessly deceived blind person strutting about in filthy rags.

Terrible Christians = True Christians

So what’s the answer to this depressing picture I’ve painted?

Well I think as always, it needs to start with God. We can’t try our way out of being a Pharisee, or out of self-righteousness.  Transformation and true righteousness comes only as an undeserved gift from Jesus: we see only because He opened our eyes (Isaiah 42:7); we love only because He first loved us (1 John 14:9); we are saved only through His grace (Ephesians 2:8); we are the righteousness of God only because He became our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21).

So pray. Ask God to open your eyes, to show you your righteous deeds as He sees them. Even if you’re not a full-blown Pharisee Good Christian like I was, we all have areas we try to “decorate” our righteous robes of Christ with dingy, smelly little patches of self-righteousness: things we’re secretly proud of and believe we earned on our own merit.

And read 12 Signs You Are A Modern Day Pharisee or The Top 10 Things Pharisees Say Today, excellent (and funny!) articles with specific examples of modern-day, pharisaical attitudes and beliefs. Allow yourself to be convicted.

As for me? Well I know how to be a Good Christian, a Pharisee. But now?

Now I’m learning to be a Shitty Christian, because I suspect that might be the only kind of Christian.

I’m learning to accept that God loves me even when I don’t read my Bible every day, or pray without ceasing (or even for days on end), or use the word “shitty” (without playfully striking it through, and in conjunction with “Christian” no less!). I’m learning that if I mess up, I don’t have to do anything to fix it other than repent in order to be loved and accepted by God.

I’m learning to pray prayers like these: “God, I’m selfish, impatient, angry, and unloving. I can’t really be anything different on my own. If I try, I’ll eventually fail. So take those things. Fill me with your love, your patience, your selflessness.”

I’m learning these things in my heart, not my know-it-all, pharisaical head.

Every time we try to be a Good Christian, we are getting into dangerous territory: the territory of the blind, of the unrighteous self-righteous, of the Pharisee.

So please, for your own sake, stop trying to be a Good Christian. Rather, let Christ be, in you.

Sincerely,

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