Hello. My name is Jim. I’m a Pharisee

“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” “How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Matthew 16:6,11-12

I am a Pharisee. Oh, not a member of a particular sect of Judaism, yet still a product of a religious system as steeped in tradition and rules as in Jesus’ time. Specifically, I am one who has reduced the freedom and beauty of God’s redemption through the atoning death of Jesus to a set of rules to be followed. And I judge those who don’t obey those rules to my satisfaction as being inferior to me.

Every religion in the world is basically a system of rules and regulations, a set of “do’s” and “don’ts”. The degree to which one progresses in the religion, the level to which one attains the goal (the goal of every religion is always basically godliness — or God-ness) is measured by how well one obeys the rules.

The thing that sets Christianity apart from all other religions is just this. While religion is man’s attempt to get to (or become) God, Christianity is God reaching down to man. The true truth of Christianity is that God has done all the work and there is nothing I can do to earn my salvation or get God to like me more. Unfortunately, for the most part the modern Church has reduced that marvelous gift to a set of rules to follow. “I don’t drink, smoke, dance, cuss, or chew, or go with those who do.”

The Pharisees were not intentionally evil people. James Michner paints a beautiful picture in “The Source” of an ancient rabinnical scholar who so loved and revered the Torah (the Law of Moses) that he helped craft the rules and regulations that interpreted the law. They realized that transgressing the law was heinous in God’s sight, so they wanted to create a “fence” of rules around the law, such that even if one broke a rule, the law was still intact.

However, by Jesus’ day those rules had become a crushing weight around the neck of the people. No one, except the elite few, could ever know them all, much less obey them. The Pharisees, then, held themselves up as the standard of goodness.

It is a fact that the normative response of a soul reborn by the grace of Christ is to do good works. But the modern (evangelical) church has implied (if not stated outright) that it is the responsibility of the sinner to manifest these good works as a precondition to acceptance. This heresy puts the cart before the horse, demanding the fruit of new life in Christ prior to receiving new life in Christ. This emphasis on external works is the yeast of the Pharisees that Jesus warned against.

Like alcoholism, Phariseeism has no cure. The best one can do is to recognize the weakness and purposefully and repeatedly let go of the rules and the judgements, and return to the cross. I am a debtor to grace. I am a recovering Pharisee.

On Faith and Suffering

A lady called the Christian radio station, distraught. Her baby was diagnosed with cancer and she wasn’t doing well. The lady said she was really struggling with her faith. The host was gracious and compassionate (much more than I would be, big surprise). But this truth resonated loudly in my soul: if your faith is dependent on your child’s health (or healing), then your faith is in the wrong thing.

All of us have plans, hopes, dreams for ourselves, our marriage, our children, our career. However, in this fallen world, those plans rarely work out exactly as we expected. Bodies fail, spouses break trust, children choose other than we would hope, and jobs fail to fulfill. Where is God in all of this?

The doctrine of the sovereignty of God would seem to place the blame for our suffering squarely on God’s shoulders. After all, if he is in charge, then this suffering must have come to me with his passive permission, if not his active direction. However, there is a false assumption in this accusation against God. When we create our plans, hopes, and dreams, and (tacitly or explicitly) demand that God grant them all, then we are placing ourselves in the role of sovereign, and relegating God to the genie in the bottle who is obligated to grant us three wishes.

Job said, “shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10). A true faith in the sovereign God is faith in God: faith that he is good, that he is loving, that he is trustworthy. This faith accepts that things may not go according to our plans, but that God is big enough that His plans will work out as intended. So my faith is to trust God, even when I can’t figure out what he is doing.

So when the body breaks, the spouse cheats, the child rebels, the career crumbles, the man (or woman) of faith clings closer to the God who redeemed them from the kingdom of darkness. We live in a fallen world, and sickness is a reality. While God can and does heal, not all are healed. Ultimately, all will die.

Spouses are free moral agents who may choose to do exactly the opposite of what we wish. A spouse who breaks the marital covenant is responsible for his/her actions. It is worth examining our role in the break-down of the marriage, but each person is responsible for their actions. A spouse who breaks faith does not diminish the worth of the other.

A child who rebels is acting of their own volition. Despite the self-doubt and self-recriminations (“I must be the worst parent ever”), this truth should hold sway: No matter how good (or bad) a parent you are, you are not responsible for their choices. It has been said that God was the perfect parent (Adam and Eve) and his children rebelled. Forgive yourself for being imperfect, and trust God to have His way with your child.

To a man, the career is often inextricably connected to his self-worth. So when a career goes down the tubes, the man suffers similar feelings of worthlessness. However, with an eternal perspective, what we do in this life is not nearly as important as who we are. The work I’ve poured my life into for the past 30 years will be of no consequence in 100 years. So work in such a manner to please God, and trust that He offers greater meaning and significance to your life than any title or salary.

Paul talks about a pseudo-religion, “having a form of godliness, but denying its power.” (2 Timothy 3:5). Faith in the person and character of God is powerful faith. Such a faith is not shaken by trouble (“Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” — Job 13:15). It recognizes that God is bigger than tragedy, is not shaken by calamity, and is working in the midst of catastrophe.