Confessions of a Pharisee
- Chris Bolinger Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- Updated May 15, 2019
“Have you ever noticed when you’re driving that anyone who is driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac?” – George Carlin
You tell ‘em, George. Spoken like a true Pharisee.
I ought to know. I’ve been a Christian for my entire adult life. And I’ve been a Pharisee almost as long.
I didn’t set out to be a Pharisee, because every good Christian knows that a Pharisee is a bad guy. The only Pharisees that got positive press in the Bible were Nicodemus and the Apostle Paul, and that’s because both became followers of Jesus.
Other Pharisees got verbally eviscerated by Jesus. Here are some examples:
He called them a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7), “hypocrites” (Matthew 15:7), “blind guides” (Matthew 12:14), and “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27).
After telling the parables of two sons, Jesus said that the tax collectors and prostitutes who repented and believed would go to heaven before the Pharisees (Matthew 21:28-32).
- After telling the parable of the vineyard and the tenants, Jesus said that the kingdom of God would be taken away from the Pharisees and given to others (Matthew 21:33-43).
Why did Pharisees get such a bad rep?
After all, they strived to be good guys. Their approach was simple: separate from the impurities of their culture, and follow in the footsteps of Ezra, who was revered for how he kept the Law.
The historian Josephus, who was born just after the ministry of Jesus, records that Pharisees had many positive traits:
- They respected their elders.
- They treated others with affection and tried to live in harmony.
- They maintained a simple lifestyle.
- They studied their Bible (the Torah) diligently, sought to understand it fully, and worked hard to follow it exactly.
- They led by example and, as a result, they were respected and became quite influential.
None of that is bad. Pharisees weren’t bad guys because of these practices.
They were bad guys because they rejected Jesus. They didn’t just reject him. They made him their enemy and led the charge to nail him to the cross.
The Pharisee’s badge of honor is pride.
It was, and is, a Pharisee’s badge of honor. And it’s the worst sin there is, according to C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:
There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves…The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit…
In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that—and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison—you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you…
Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.
The Pharisees thought that they were doing what God wanted. They thought that they were leading people down the right path.
But their pride blinded them to this reality: they didn’t know God. The God they were following was the God that they had created. A God who did things the way that Pharisees thought they should be done.
Defining God as you want Him to be is very appealing. I should know – I’ve done it enough times.
As a result, I’ve become a modern-day Pharisee.
Are you one? Here are some ‘tricks of the trade’ for Pharisees:
1. Pharisees feel they own the right to define the standard.
Originally, Pharisees were centered on the Law. Christians are not bound to the Law, but they still want to do the right thing in every situation. That leaves plenty of opportunities for Pharisees to define the standard for proper “Christian” behavior. And you can cherry-pick Bible verses to support your position, whatever it is
Should you listen to rock music? Can you watch “Game of Thrones”? Which video games are OK to play? What about seeing an R-rated movie? Can you have an alcoholic drink or two with friends? Which political party or candidate should you support? A Pharisee should be able to answer hundreds of questions such as these, ideally with a proof text or two to support each answer.
2. Pharisees stay righteous by broadcasting how they’re ‘separating themselves.’
Once you’ve defined what’s right and wrong, you want to be right – and stay righteous – all the time. To do this, borrow a tactic of first-century Pharisees. Perceiving that their culture was moving away from God, they worked to separate themselves from that culture. Modern-day Pharisees can do the same thing, without going Amish and unplugging from the grid entirely.
The key is to pick a handful or two of things that you feel are “wrong” with our culture. (It helps if you don’t really like these things anyway.) With a big flourish, broadcast to everyone you know, and all of your friends on social media, that you are turning your back on all of these evil influences…and they should, too. It’s a big sacrifice (well, not really), but you’re going to lead by example.
3. Pharisees are always willing to be the Judge.
A good Pharisee never misses an opportunity to judge others, even over something petty, such as how they drive. Over the years, I’ve lobbed thousands of verbal hand grenades at the “inept” drivers around me. My children have tried everything to get me to stop:
- Reasoning with me: “Dad, they can’t hear you.”
- Chiding me: “Dad, you’re being ridiculous.”
- Pleading with me: “Please stop!”
To appease my kids, I learned to do much of my judging under my breath. But I still judge. The only decent drivers are the ones who drive like me. The rest? Idiots and maniacs. And don’t get me started on the ones who are on their phones!
Judging other drivers may not seem like a big deal. But, for a Pharisee, it becomes practice for judging anyone, at any time, in any situation. And, when you judge, always be sure to follow these simple rules:
- Instantly turn observations into conclusions about people’s motives.
- Make sure that the conclusions are negative. (Why did he cut you off? Did he not see you? No, he saw you. He’s just a jerk.)
- Always remember that, if you were the other guy, then you would have done it differently. Because you’re better.
4. Pharisees only hang with their peeps.
It can take a lot of your precious time and energy to argue with and, ideally, persuade those who disagree with you. To avoid wearing yourself out, and to stay in a decent mood, you want to hang out with the right crowd: enlightened folks who not only agree with you on just about everything but also have your back when you have to go toe-to-toe with someone who needs an education.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, finding your peeps could take months or even years. You’d have to engage people in long conversations to find out if they agreed with you on issues and if you could trust them to stand with you when the chips are down.
Fortunately, today we have social media, where the vast majority of participants broadcast their positions on issues for everyone to see. When someone disagrees with you, even after you’ve shown him the error of his ways, you can block him or unfriend him. And, if you’re a Pharisee, you should; otherwise, someone might get the wrong idea about what you really believe.
5. Pharisees hide their own battles and pick others.
Do you struggle with porn? Alcohol? Gambling? Greed? Whatever your weaknesses are, you need to hide them. Discussing them could make you defensive and weaken your standing as a moral leader.
To stay on the offensive, go after other people’s weaknesses that you don’t share, and position those weaknesses as negatively as you can. For example, if you don’t struggle with same-sex attractions, then you can make gays and anyone who supports gay rights your top target.
Have those Bible verses ready to support your contention that, not only are they not Christians, but their goal is to water down and undermine the Christian faith.
6. Pharisees generalize, using the ‘ Straw Man’ instead of direct engagement.
In the past, the best way to win an argument was to present a more compelling intellectual case than your opponent. Those days are long gone. In this social media age, you’re less interested in defeating your opponent than in persuading the dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people who are watching you from the sidelines. To do that, you need to engage people’s emotions and rally them to your side.
Responding to each of your opponent’s arguments takes too much time, and observers are going to lose interest quickly. Rather than engaging your opponent directly, battle a straw man instead.
By generalizing about your opponent and turning him into a caricature, you can dispense with him quickly. And if you pick the right meme with which to do it, you’ll get lots of likes and maybe even some friend requests.
7. Pharisees never admit they may be wrong.
A Pharisee has to be right. Every time. If you find yourself at risk of losing an argument, then either change the subject or attack your opponent’s character. The latter may cost you some friends, but leaders have to make sacrifices. Besides, it’s easier to build and maintain relationships with people who agree with you.
It’s great to be a Pharisee.
Actually, it’s not. It stinks.
In my next article, I’ll tell you what I’m doing to leave the Pharisee life.
Chris Bolinger is the author of Daily Strength for Men, a 365-day daily devotional published by BroadStreet Publishing, and available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Christian Book Distributors, DailyStrengthForMen.com, and other retailers.
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