In a previous article, I confessed that I’m a modern-day Pharisee.
In the time of Jesus, Pharisees were religious leaders who separated themselves from the culture of the day and focused on understanding and strictly observing the Law. While Pharisees were respected by most, they were self-righteous; valuing legalism over relationships.
Jesus called them “hypocrites” (Matthew 15:7), “blind guides” (Matthew 15:14), and “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27), and he said that tax collectors and prostitutes who repented and believed would go to heaven before the Pharisees (Matthew 21:28-32).
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Jesus wants us to see the difference in what’s good and what’s self-righteous.
I didn’t set out to become a Pharisee. But I’ve always been adept at following the rules, and I like hearing myself described as a “good guy.” Over many years of striving to do the right thing – to do what I thought that God wanted – I gradually became a self-righteous religious guy. A Pharisee.
I started to follow the Pharisee playbook:
- Define the Standard
- Stay Righteous
- Be the Judge
- Hang with Your Peeps
- Pick Your Battles
- Use the Straw Man
- Never Admit You May Be Wrong
But I’m sick of the Pharisee life. I want out. And I’m getting out. Of course, as any good counselor will tell you, the first step is admitting that you have a problem.
Here are the other steps I’m taking. And, if you’re with me on this road to recovery, you can take these seven steps, too:
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1. Get to the Root
The root of the Pharisee lifestyle is pride. According to C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity, pride is the worst sin, the “essential vice, the utmost evil”. He continues: “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”
I can try my best not to follow the Pharisee playbook. And I might have some success…for a while. If I don’t address my pride, however, then I’ll go back to being a Pharisee eventually. Or I’ll commit even worse sins, because the root of all sins is pride.
Of course, overcoming pride is not easy. It’s a seductive sin, and the devil has mastered whispering things in our ears that appeal to our pride. I need to wrestle with why my pride is such a powerful influence on my actions. I start by questioning my motives.
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2. Question Your Motives
There’s nothing inherently wrong with pointing out someone else’s sins. In fact, Jesus gave us instructions on how to do that:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
Note these things in the passage:
Your brother (or Christian friend) has sinned against you, directly. His sinful actions have hurt you.
When you first go to your brother, you do it face-to-face, in private. You get other people involved only if your brother refuses to repent of his actions.
- Your goal is restoration. You want to restore your relationship with your brother and also restore his relationship with others, because he likely has been hurting others in the same way that he hurt you.
But that’s not how a Pharisee deals with someone else’s sins. Instead, the Pharisee code is more like this:
If someone does or says something that is wrong, then expose this to as many people as possible, ideally on social media. Point out why he is wrong (citing the Bible), and refute all of his attempts to defend himself. If he refuses to admit fault or change his views, then sever your ties with him. Be sure to use him as an example of the type of person that good Christians should oppose.
A Pharisee typically doesn’t act because he was hurt directly by the “sinner.”
And a Pharisee doesn’t pull someone aside for a private chat and a little coaching.
That’s because a Pharisee’s goal is not restoring a brother. Instead, his motives are selfish: he wants to build himself up by tearing someone else down.
To leave the Pharisee life, I have to retrain myself to pause before I act. And when I pause, I must examine my motives. Am I really trying to help someone else, or am I trying to make myself look better?
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3. Consider the Impact
I also need to consider the potential impact of my actions.
When I pull my brother aside and have a private conversation with him, my actions impact just one person: him. When I confront him on social media or in another public forum, my actions are exposed to countless people, many of whom don’t know him and don’t know me. All that they may know about me is what I say or post on this particular issue.
Oh, and that I’m a Christian.
To many observers, my words and actions will be seen not as those of one person but as those of a Christian. Or as those of Christians. All Christians. Everywhere.
Christians. They’re such hypocrites, aren’t they?
Rather than running the risk of misrepresenting the views of 2,000 years of Christians – and of God Himself – it’s best if I talk to my brother in private, if he has sinned against me directly in a way that warrants a conversation. Otherwise, it probably is best if I don’t speak at all…
…unless it’s to ask some questions.
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4. Seek to Understand
When I’m in Pharisee mode, I’m always itching to speak my mind. Whether someone has asked me a question or made a statement with which I disagree, my first instinct is to respond, right away. The faster I do it, the smarter I look.
The smartest person to walk the planet was Jesus. For three years, he spent a great deal of his time teaching. When someone asked Jesus a question or made a statement with which Jesus disagreed, Jesus often responded not by teaching but by asking a question. The Gospels record over 100 questions that Jesus asked.
Why did Jesus ask so many questions? He had many reasons, including these:
- Help his audience better understand the answer that was to come.
- Broaden or narrow a topic to bring clarity to the teaching.
- Avoid a trap that the Pharisees and other religious leaders were trying to set for him.
Jesus didn’t need to ask questions to gain a better understanding of the person or people with whom he was speaking, because he already knew them very well…better than they knew themselves.
I don’t have that ability. I usually don’t know people very well at all. But when I respond quickly, I act like I do know them well or, worse, like I don’t care enough to get to know them.
On my road to recovery from being a Pharisee, I need to seek to understand – not just questions and issues, but people. Especially people with whom I disagree. After all, as Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
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5. Be Humble
By drawing attention to the mistakes, weaknesses, and flaws of others, a Pharisee hides his own mistakes, weaknesses, and flaws. Motivated by pride, he builds himself up by tearing others down.
To leave the Pharisee life, I need to act in humility, not pride, and follow Paul’s directive in Philippians:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)
Why? Because that’s what Jesus did:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
It’s tough for a prideful person to act in humility. The “cold turkey” approach that works best for me is this: I take my mistakes, weaknesses, and flaws and, rather than trying to hide them, I lead with them. Not in a public forum, but among men whom I trust. When I do that, I find that the men respond not by shaming me or humiliating me but by raising me up and, often, confessing their own transgressions as well.
It’s amazing. And it energizes my run away from the Pharisee life.
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6. Get a Buddy
Pride is the fuel for the Pharisee life. And pride is addictive. So kicking the Pharisee life is similar to stopping any other addictive behavior: it’s difficult. Really difficult. And you probably can’t do it alone.
Get someone to help. The churchy term for this is an accountability partner. The regular term for it is a friend. A real friend. He’s someone you trust. Someone who has your best interest at heart. Someone who, when you tell him that you screwed up again, will not walk away, but will pray with you, kick you in the tail, and encourage you to get back in the game.
You need that buddy. And, somewhere down the road, that buddy will need you.
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7. Give Thanks
The Pharisee life seems like a great way to live. You’re always right. You have lots of adoring fans on social media. There’s always a battle to be fought and an opponent to defeat.
But it’s empty on the inside. It creates what Jesus described as “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:27b)
I didn’t become a Pharisee overnight, and the path out of the Pharisee life may be a long one. My pride is a strong force, and it’s going to drag me back into Pharisaical actions sometimes.
But I’m on the road to recovery. And, for that, I can give thanks. Every day.
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.