Did you notice? The Pharisee has started his prayer with a “thank you,” just as many praise psalms do. Seems like a good start, right? You’re thanking God for his blessings and goodness. This guy, however, identifies himself as the blessing. “Thank you, God, for the miracle of me.” To heighten the effect, he rounds up the usual suspects from the local hall of villainy, comparing his righteousness to their wrongeousness.
Of course, we ourselves would never pray anything like that, right? Again I feel compelled to point out that once we’ve said that or thought that, we’ve just convicted ourselves. This thing is kind of a trap, isn’t it?
That’s a big issue with pride versus humility. Fake humility expresses itself in a pride that is obvious to everyone but the speaker. The Bible says, “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Matt. 12:34). Ultimately our words betray us, no matter how much we guard them.
What are the verbal symptoms of a prideful heart? How can you tell if an internal Pharisee is about to flow out of your mouth?
You may be a Pharisee if ...
• you catch yourself saying, “You aren’t going to talk like that to me!”
Pride makes us defensive and unwilling to hear criticism or correction. What we’re saying here is, “I’m immune from that kind of advice.” It’s also assuming a hierarchy in which we outrank the other person. We’re taken aback that anyone would offer correction. We respond in an insulted, arrogant tone, and sometimes, if we’re not too far gone, we think, Where did that come from?
If there are no people in your life who offer you loving feedback and criticism, it’s not because you’ve grown beyond it. I hope this isn’t news to you. You might be thinking, Nobody offers me advice because they can’t find anything to criticize. I can assure you the truth is closer to this: nobody offers you advice because they know it’s not going to end well if they do.
• you catch yourself saying, “I’m not going to be the one to apologize.”
Proverbs tells us, “Pride only leads to arguments” (13:10 NCV). The proud are magnetically attracted to conflict. And when the proud get into a squabble, it can become epic because the hardest thing in the world would be for them to apologize. That requires humility.
Some words and phrases just won’t come out of the prideful mouth. “I was wrong. Please forgive me,” for example. It’s agonizing because it feels like defeat, and proud people are obsessive about being undefeated in arguments, class discussions, political conversations, and family disputes. And proud people love to make their point on the Internet.
The few, the proud (unfortunately the proud are not few) will wait out the worst disagreements without apologizing. They can hold out for decades, kind of hoping it all blows over. “I was wrong” or “that was my fault” are out of the question. On the very, very rare occasion one of the proud apologizes, he’ll qualify it: “I’m sorry—but ...” Qualified apologies never seem to work.
• you catch yourself saying, “It’s not fair.”
The question here is, how do we define fair? If I feel I’m more deserving than everybody around me, a lot of things are going to seem unfair. Why did she get that raise? Why does he get to live in such a big house? Why did they make him an elder at church? Why is everybody always saying nice things about her?
Here’s a clue: if you have a hard time celebrating with others in their successes or victories, you’re probably suffering from a case of pride. And if you lack gratitude for the good things in your life, it’s the same problem.
If you think you’re all-deserving, why should you feel thankful for anything? You’ve got it coming to you. If you tend to feel entitled, if you’re never quite content with the way credit is doled out, if you’re overly concerned that everybody knows your accomplishments—you just might be a Pharisee.
• you catch yourself whispering, “Did you hear about ...” Pharisees love the latest gossip. It tends to put other people in their proper place, and it underlines how superior they themselves are. We can always find a tax collector or two in the room. Other people and their antics are convenient steps for us to climb on our journey to the top of the human heap.
• you catch yourself saying, “I don’t need any- body’s help.” Notice how the Pharisee in the parable never asks for God’s help? “Just checking in, God—it’s all under control.” He wants God to know he’s got checkmarks in all the right boxes—his giving, his fasting. God really couldn’t get along without him.
Pride keeps us from realizing how desperately we need God.
What are your prayers like? If they are filled with complaining and self-justification, then you just might have a pride issue, and this parable is for you.
• you catch yourself saying, “It’s not me; it’s you.”
That sounds like the mirror image of one of the classic breakup lines, but in this case it’s a function of the twenty-twenty vision Pharisees have in detecting the flaws of others. Yet they seem to cast no reflection in mirrors. The Bible points out that pride is blinding. You can’t see the pride in your life because of ... well, because of the pride in your life.
Last week I was driving my kids to school. My nine- year-old son asked me a good one. “Dad,” he said, “why do you always talk to the other drivers? You know they can’t hear you.”
But of course he could. And I thought about the things he could hear me saying. What he didn’t hear was a dad speaking words of life and encouragement to the community of fellow travelers; a dad taking responsibility or apologizing for his own bad moves behind the wheel.
It’s always the other guy ... or gal, as is often the case.† See what I’m doing here? Besides digging myself a hole, I’m pointing out that it’s someone else’s problem, not mine, and not even my gender. We can see it in other people, and we know what they should do differently, but we have a hard time recognizing it in ourselves.‡ What my son did hear was a dad who was confident of his own righteous driving and looked down on the driving of others—a Pharisee on wheels.
My windshield magnifies the highway hijinks of others. I have big windows on every side of the car, and they show every vehicle out there but my own. I have a tiny little mirror that shows me.
You may be a Pharisee if ...
• you catch yourself celebrating someone else’s failure.
• you obsess over the opinions of others.
• you’re utterly convinced that your own opinion is the only right one, that your efforts deserve the most credit, that your tastes are the correct ones, that you’re the one who should be talking, that everyone else should be listening.
There just might be a tiny but very persuasive Pharisee inside you somewhere.
Join the crowd. Pride is the ultimate issue of the human condition—not just one of the “deadly sins” but the mother of them all. The Pharisee keeps getting in, no matter how often you shoo him out. The problem is that we feed him, we let him grow, we let him give the public prayer, and pretty soon he’s running the show. It takes constant vigilance, and if you do a good job of that, you might now have another topic for pride.
Why is your inner Pharisee so powerful?
Pharisees Get Things Done
The key to understanding your inner Pharisee is that he is all about performance. That’s, of course, the part of us that others see: what we actually do. We tend to focus on appearances. It’s basic human nature, and the Pharisee is the master of that. If he can make life into a righteousness tournament, that’s a game he can win because he knows the rules the way some people know 1927 Yankees baseball statistics.
So he stresses religion based on following the rules and getting things done. Fasting and then blogging about it. Giving big bucks and making the signature on the check extra-large. Giving a “testimony.” Pharisees love giving a testimony almost as much as they love the Internet. When your identity is wrapped around what others think about you, your faith has to be something that happens in plain sight, so nobody misses a single pious act.
In Matthew 23:5, Jesus is talking about spiritual leaders of this type. He says, “Everything they do is done for other people to see.” That’s the best definition I know of the Pharisee life. One of the central themes of Jesus’s sermon is that God looks on the heart, the true measure of who we are. Performance is too easy to fake.
Here’s the great danger of performance-based faith. Once we begin to receive those rounds of public applause for all our wonderful accomplishments, we start to believe the charade. We replace the heart with the hands.
Bible-time Pharisees were so good with rules and pious acts that they became legends in their own minds. Yet it wasn’t real. The Messiah stood before them, invisible to their eyes. The needs of the hungry and the sick, all around them, didn’t register. The things they cared about didn’t intersect with the things God cares about.
People loved and admired the Pharisees, so the Pharisees loved and admired themselves. They bought their own hype and missed the greatest miracle in human history.
Kyle Idleman is the teaching pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY, the fifth largest church in America. The bestselling author of the award-winning book Not a Fan and AHA is a frequent speaker at conferences and events around the world. Idleman and his wife have four children.
Publication date: October 7, 2015