Striving to be a Pharisee
Striving for Pharisee status.
That's what I suddenly realized I have been attempting to do for most of my life.
As strange as that may sound, this realization crashed on me this morning before I was able to get out of bed. And getting out of bed was a struggle for me this morning for reasons I couldn't seem to grasp; but I knew that something just didn't feel right. Whether it was the kind of dreams I had or the food I ate last night or whatever, I found myself feeling a little depressed, maybe discouraged or out of touch to some extent with the kind of hopeful, trusting feelings I have enjoyed for some weeks.
I found myself praying familiarly intense prayers that resonated with the dark days of growing up always feeling afraid that God had something against me that I could never resolve completely. It is hard to define clearly what this feels like, but for me it defined my emotional life for years. I could never find rest or peace in God's love for me for there was always something nebulous in the way between my heart and God which prevented me from ever having peace and confidence in Him. As my beliefs about how God feels about me and what kind of God He really is have morphed from those dark days, correspondingly my peace and attraction toward Him have increased significantly in recent years.
But this morning I felt that old familiar sense of fear and depression that marked every moment of my life in my early years, and I slipped back into old patterns of depressing prayers that so debilitated me for many years, unknown to anyone around me. I found myself praying for God to make me feel hopeful again, to feel loved, to feel like having a reason just to get out of bed, but to no avail. I know that it is a mistake to trust in one's own feelings to define reality, but there are times when that fact simply doesn't carry enough clout to overcome the inertia that holds one down, whether that be emotionally, physically, spiritually or a mix of all of them.
Finally what I have been learning in recent years began to sink in that I was failing to practice. When facing the kind of depression that always comes from lies about God as I have felt most of my life, I have been learning that instead of thrashing around trying to figure out what is wrong with me, I need to change my focus. Instead of looking for something to confess or fix or straighten out so that I will feel accepted by God, what I must do more than anything else is to intentionally focus my thoughts on what I have been learning about Him – how good He is, how faithful He is, how kind and gracious and loving He always is and always will be irregardless of what any feelings may imply might be the case. Only by turning my attention away from myself and my feelings and injecting life-changing truth about Him can I ever begin to experience the kind of freedom from depression that results from lies about God. And somehow I suspect nearly all depression is in some way linked to this basic cause.
That is when it hit me. In essence what I have been trying to do for much of my life is what Jesus described to the extreme in the story of the Pharisee and the publican praying in the temple. Of course I have known this story since I was an infant and have heard it expounded upon many times. But it is not until the Spirit takes such a lesson and impresses it deeply on me in a time when I am living in the problem myself does it start to have significant effect.
Now it is starting to make more sense for me. In trying to 'get my act together' in some way as I have so long thought I had to do for most of my life, absorbed from the religious culture many of us know so well, I have long been trapped by a subconscious lie that God will not fully accept and forgive and love me unless I first achieve certain basic minimum requirements spiritually. While growing up these were called 'conditions' for receiving the benefits of promises by God. And for me that word 'condition' itself was like a giant loophole which God could always exploit to excuse Himself from fulfilling most of His promises for me, for there could always be something in a condition that I wouldn't completely satisfy which in turn would mean God did not have to keep His side of the arrangement.
Does this sound legalistic? Of course it does! But that is how my brain has been wired to relate to God from the earliest days I can remember. This is the kind of mindset that has been my default mode, the paradigm everything had been forced to pass through until recent years. Now with amazing new revelations about a God shockingly different from how I perceived Him growing up, challenging these old dark views, I find myself caught at times between my default ways of feeling and thinking and new ways that, though they make far more sense and have produced for the first time major breakthroughs in peace and joy in my life, still appear suspicious by traditional standards of belief.
Yet as I pondered anew the real message Jesus was seeking to get across in this story, I saw more clearly the truth about how my heart has felt, that unless I could offer some level of compliance, some evidence that I was obedient now so God would know I was serious about following Him, that He would not empower me to further change my life. What I am beginning to see now in this extreme example of the arrogance and self-righteous attitude of the Pharisee in this story is the emphasis on the mindset at the end of the path I have been pursuing most of my life in trying to come to God.
Of course that is hard to see or admit for a well-trained religious Christian like me. To ever admit that I might be trying to become like that proud, selfish, self-righteous, priggish Pharisee would cause me to recoil in denial. How could it be possible that I would ever be attracted to emulate such a person as the ultimate example of how to please God? After all, used as the ridiculous extreme of what Jesus warned us not to become, why should such a one be a mentor I would ever want to use? I thought I had spent my life seeking to follow the example of the publican by focusing on my own unworthiness and sinfulness so as to be the one who could 'go home justified' as Jesus assured us happened with him.
"Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 'I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get....' But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:10-14)
I thought I had this figured out after all the times it has been explained to me. Yet some years ago I also began to realize that given our inverted perceptions of that culture because of viewing everything through the stories of Jesus, we may well be in danger of becoming proud of being like the tax collector instead of being proud of being like the Pharisee and thus still fall into a similar trap.
But this morning that was not so much the lesson I felt impressed with as much as something deeper. I guess I have always subconsciously assumed that since the Pharisee was focusing so much on his arrival at outward righteousness and bragging about it to God, that this was the mindset I was supposed to avoid. But in trying to steer clear of that arrogant attitude I fell into another ditch of focusing on how bad and worthless and evil I must be. This is the message I took away from this story for most of my life – that the lesson Jesus was teaching here was that we should never feel too good about ourselves but should always live in a state of near despair and sinfulness and near hopelessness like what I assumed was felt by this tax collector/publican.
Well, now I am starting to see that I have still missed the point of what Jesus was trying to say. For on closer examination (not to mention nearly a lifetime of trying that method with no success) I suddenly see in this story that the one who went home feeling accepted by God (that's the real meaning of 'justified') was in fact not because this sinner focused on how bad he was but rather on how merciful God is. And this is what God has been teaching me for a number of years now; that when I begin to see more clearly the incredible goodness of God, the kindness and graciousness with which He always views me, my own natural character by contrast shows up as very dark as it actually is. But my mistake is that I thought I was supposed to highlight my own lostness, my own sinfulness, my own inherent evil bent in order to satisfy the demands of a God waiting for me to be honest and humble myself before He would be willing to justify me.
Now some of those words are sure to open up a whole can of worms that should be addressed if I am not to be misunderstood. But at this point I don't feel like chasing them all down. The point I want my heart to grasp strongly right now is my own need at all times to keep focused primarily on how good and kind and faithful and forgiving God is all the time – with no disruption. This is how I can begin to feel healing hope and salvation coming into my psyche. And I have been experiencing this more and more in recent years, but obviously at times I forget the power of this way of seeing God.
Satan was successful for a couple hours this morning in throwing over my heart that old familiar, smelly, dank blanket of spiritual foreboding that God would not quite accept me until I got just a little more righteous. Now I am feeling a little angry at him (Satan that is) for sucking me back into that old familiar mindset that nearly destroyed me so long. The message I must always take away from this story in my own relationship with God, is the truth that this justified sinner (they both were sinners, but one just couldn't admit it) was not trying to impress God with how much his sins qualified him for God's grace, but rather how that God's amazing grace was a perfect fit for his own sinfulness.
Just articulating that last sentence causes my heart to suddenly well up with an overwhelming emotions of gratitude. It feels amazing to at last feel my heart beginning to awaken under the increasing warmth of the real truth about how God actually feels about me, after so many years of living in the cold of fear trying desperately to figure out the formula to get Him to accept me. The Pharisee in this story thought he had the formula figured out and was bragging about it. I never got that far but was still trapped in the same mindset that there even is a formula at all that I have to follow. Yet the problem is a mistaken belief that God is into formula living instead of embracing the simple reality that I am loved whether or not I ever allow His love to sink in. And though I know that my internal receptors for accepting love from any direction have been incapacitated from the damage of years of living under fear and from abuse from various sources, that does not change the fact that God still is love, and I don't have to jump through any hoops to earn it in the slightest. I just need to change my mind about how He feels about me in order to begin to open my heart's access door so His love can begin to be felt on the inside.