Have you recognized your own inner pharisee?

I’m a lover of the future. Some live for tradition; my heart beats for the what-ifs and what’s-to-comes in life. So when I found myself using all my mental strength to analyze my future status of my current positions of leadership, I thought it was just part of my personality. Then God interrupted, via Nancy Ortberg.

Ortberg’s book, Looking for God, closes with a chapter on recognizing the sins we consider minor, that God certainly does not:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Matthew 23:25.

Ortberg says, “At least [Jesus] could have accused them of some A-list sins. You know, the ones I could never commit…I could convince myself that Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees had absolutely nothing to do with me.” I nod my head along as I read, my inner Pharisee taking over, preferring to look away—or at others—whenever a verse starts with “woe.” Yet when Ortberg points out how close to home this verse should hit, how well acquainted she is with greed and self-indulgence, I was taken. Perhaps the landscape of my heart needed a good scrubbing.

Here are three questions I asked myself about the relevance of this “Woe”:

1. Am I playing the actress in any sphere of my life?
The Greek word for hypocrite comes from the same word we use for actor. The nature of acting requires manipulating emotions, wearing masks, and playing roles. It is difficult for me to know when I am actually putting myself aside to get the job done, or when I’m putting on my prettiest spiritual mask to go and lead. Oftentimes, the proof is in the stability of my attitude over time. When I flip from saint to storm cloud as I walk through my front door, I pause. This is not leading like Jesus, because I’m not living with integrity.

2. What am I greedy about?
Well, says my inner Miss Pharisee, here’s one I can easily check off the list. Greed has never been a problem for me…if this verse is referring to material things. But another look at the definition for greed gives me pause. The synonyms of greed include grasping, selfish, insatiable, covetous, and anxious. With an expanded understanding of Jesus’ words, I’m convicted of my grasping and insatiable need for praise or promoting my own agenda for selfish gain. I recognize that I covet the success of others or mask my anxiety about the future by calling it “self-analysis.”

3. Am I self-indulgent?
Perhaps my mental gymnastics about the future are better termed self-indulgence—an interior playground that lacks restraint. My thought life often skews in this direction, a little place in my mind reserved for my private pity parties and hissy fits, places where I allow myself to remain childish in all the wrong ways.

I spoke with a mother from my son’s school yesterday. We had never met, but needed to pull together some plans for an upcoming event. I was grumpy and complained to her about “children hanging all over me all day.” When I hung up, I found myself pausing. Perhaps it was the Holy Spirit who admonished me: What if this woman, this stranger, struggled with infertility, desired a house full of children, and only had one. How do you think she would feel in this conversation? I realized what an incredible lack of self-restraint I exhibit. Yes, authenticity is a good thing. But so is a humble awareness of my own influence upon others. There are times for airing one’s heart and receiving encouragement. But there are also times to show restraint.

Reversing The Woe
Ortberg concludes her thoughts on Jesus’ words: “whenever I sense the inside and outside don’t match, I know it’s time to dive deep into my heart and line up its darkness with the glorious nature of God.” Like a sword through the soul, God’s correction kills off my inner Pharisee and creates room for real change.

The opposite of greed is generosity. The opposite of self-indulgence is self-control, that all-important fruit of the Spirit’s work. In words and in thoughts, I want to be one who “cleans the inside of the cup,” invites God into my private moments, and allows him to bring the correction I need.

So, how about you: Have you recognized your own inner Pharisee?


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