From Pharisee to un-Pharisee—is there a place for recycled Pharisees? As a church child, “Pharisee” was a bad word (‘Cause a Pharisee’s not fair, you see?). But I have come to a newer, deeper awareness of the people-pleasing, want-to-do-it-right, want-to-do-it-my-way, of the Jewish political group known as the Pharisees.
Perhaps the most well-known Pharisee in the Christian world is the Apostle Paul. As an adult, he left the pretense of obedience, he was called out from the outward living of the law. In his conversion, He saw the Lord and was taught by God Himself what it meant to live as an un-Pharisee. (But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Gal. 1:15-17). The re-learning did not happen overnight. It took three years. And it took three years apart from those who would pervert the teaching, apart from those he would seek to please, apart from those who would stand in judgement of his new understanding.
Paul’s whole struggle with Pharisee-ism hinged on pleasing others. It hinged on doing what he did because others were watching, others were measuring, others were talking, others were distributing power and opportunity. But now, apart from what others saw or thought or did, Paul was free to live the gospel, to speak the gospel, to solicit on behalf of the gospel.
After reading the book, Pleasing People, by Lou Priolo, my whole world was set on end. Through the revelation of the Word, the Holy Spirit convicted me that many, so many, of my behaviors were dependent on the praise of man. In fact, much of life in the church today--the reason many Christians seek to be “nice” people--is for the personal benefit to self. This benefit comes in the form of positive strokes, compliments, reciprocal treatment, and additional opportunities.
Think about it. If, on Sunday morning you go out of your way to hold the door for the elderly, handicapped, and small children will you not receive many kind words and gestures? Perhaps someone might even take an extra glance and comment on your behavior to others. Before long, the pastor will approach you and recommend you for a position as a greeter or usher. You have begun to climb the rungs of church acceptance. You find yourself steaming and polishing your invisible I-am-someone-important button.
So after feeling the weight of conviction about my own desire to please others over and above pleasing God, I confessed my sin and prayed for repentance. Quite honestly, I do not like to repent. I do not often want to repent. But repentance is God’s big prerequisite. There is nothing left to do but ask. “Please, Lord, give me a heart of repentance. I want to keep pleasing myself. I want to keep doing what is comfortable and easy. I don’t want me to change, but You do.” And, even now, as I write, I find myself struggling with the desire to please you—the reader—rather than God Himself.
As a result, in the spirit of repentance, when I come to a door at church I stop and ask, “Is there someone I can love by holding this door?” Instead of asking, “Who will see me hold the door? Maybe it will be someone new… maybe it will be someone important….maybe the pastor (or deacon or elder) will walk by and see my holding the door….” And in living in Pharisee awareness I have discovered the opposite of Pharisee-ism. Un-Pharisee-ism says, “I don’t want to love that person. And, if I cannot love in sincerity, I will not serve at all.” Slam. Boom.
After struggling three years with my desire to please others, I find myself wondering if there should be a return to Pharisee behavior? I feel stuck in a no-man’s land of not pleasing others because I do not want to be a slave to the law. But when I do not live to please others, the magnet to please self pulls much more strongly and I find that selfishness and sin seem to increase. The struggle has become stronger, the desire to please self has morphed. It justifies itself because I am avoiding the pleasing-others pattern I have lived for so long. In the pain of putting myself ahead of others, I wonder if perhaps it would be better to return to simply “doing what is right” no matter what? Thank God for Paul’s continued argument in favor of grace. ("If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" Gal. 2:17-21).
In other words, no, there is no place for living by law (pleasing God and others through my deeds) on one hand and living by grace (realizing that God is the only One who pleases Himself, and I am fully depending on Jesus Christ for that work) on the other hand.
As I continue to skim Paul’s letter to the Galatians, I see repeated descriptions of children—and with the descriptions comes peace and comfort. He cites one child who is born under law and another who is born under grace. There is a child born under obligation and another born under promise. In each case, the child is born (duh!—or, more nicely said, “Think about it.”). A child that has just been born is a baby. It is not a fully functioning adult until it achieves that status through time and experience. In the same way, as a newly born un-Pharisee, I am re-learning the ropes of grace. Up to this point, I have lived a life of faith as it was revealed to me and understood through God’s Word, by His Spirit—fruitful, productive, loving and serving, but with a hidden component. Now I am learning a deeper, less-me, way to live by faith. It is as if God removed His hand from the bottom of my bicycle seat. He is running beside me, enabling and equipping me, but there is a very real sense of imbalance and fear and anxiety as I peddle down the road. I have been recycled.
As I wobble and swerve, I hear His voice, “This is the way, walk in it. I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.” And I respond, “ The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?” (Isaiah 20:31, Hebrews 13:5-6).