Over dinner at Christmas Conference last week, one of my co-workers asked me what I was going to write my first book about. I laughed, since I’m not planning to write a book, but then I thought about it. “What would I write a book about, if I had the opportunity and time and creativity and space to do so?” I thought. And I knew almost immediately: I would write about my journey coming out of Phariseeism.
For most of my life, I adhered to the Christian faith, but without much actual belief in God’s love for me. There were multiple reasons for this, the primary one being my belief in my own goodness instead of my actual need for a Savior.
Of course I knew that Jesus died to save me from my sin, but beneath the surface, I really thought I was a pretty good person. When it came time for confession, I always thought, “I don’t really have anything to confess, except maybe a little pride. But what is that compared to all the ‘big’ sins?”
The other reason why I didn’t believe that God loved me was because of Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees. In case you don’t know who the Pharisees were, they were the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. They were known for their piety, for obeying the religious law to the T. The Apostle Paul, who was a Pharisee before he became a Christ-follower, even claims that in his former life as a Pharisee, he was faultless in regards to obeying the hundreds of commands in the Jewish Law.
So the Pharisees were supposedly the men who everyone else looked up to as their religious and moral guides. And I totally identified with them. I’ve always enjoyed studying the Bible; I always knew all the right memory verses; right and wrong were like black and white to me, and I had a terrible conscience, so I always did the technically right thing. Also like the Pharisees, I had little compassion for others; I thought very highly of myself and not so highly of most others; I looked down my nose at people who struggled with the “bad” sins.
But beneath all that, I knew that something was terribly wrong. If I was a Pharisee – well, have you ever read Jesus’ words to the Pharisees?? “Woe to you, you hypocrites! … Woe to you, you blind guides! … You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:13-33) That’s just a taste of Jesus’ words.
Now, if you’re like me and you grew up in the evangelical church, you probably went to approximately 23090932 retreats and conferences and mission trips and heard that you’re supposed to love Jesus – that any real Christian loves Jesus. In fact, even the first night of this conference last week, the speaker’s very energetic point was that real Christians love Jesus so passionately that they do crazy things out of their love for Him – but he never told us how or why we can love Jesus. How are you supposed to grow to love someone who speaks so seemingly abusively to you?
But one day a while back – I don’t remember when – I realized something. Love does not always mean being nice. What if Jesus, in his love for the leaders of his chosen people, knew that he had to first show the Pharisees their sin before they would be able to love him? What if He loved them so much that he knew he would have to be harsh with them before he could be gentle? Later on in that same Matthew dialogue, Jesus mourns over the fact that the leaders of Jerusalem would not repent.
If your story is similar to mine, please hear this today: Jesus does love Pharisees. His love for you looks different than it does for the prostitutes and gamblers. But if you are a Pharisee, Jesus wants you to know him and have genuine relationship with him just like he wants that with every other sinner out there.
But it will take you a bit longer to get there, because you have to add a step at the beginning. You have to realize that you’re not as good as you thought you were. In fact, you’re quite bad. Once you realize that, the GOSPEL that you adhere to intellectually will become wonderfully good news!
If your story is opposite of mine, then please don’t judge us Pharisees. I’ve heard that once a person is an alcoholic, they’re always an alcoholic – even if they haven’t had a drink in 30 years. So really, I guess they’re Recovering Alcoholics for the rest of their lives. Well, I’m a Recovering Pharisee. And God loves me just like He loves all the other sinners out there. Hallelujah!