July 5, 2014

The Pharisee So Far I See

Robert Burns, the Scottish poet wrote:

“O, wad some Power the giftie gie usDr Starner02 (A)
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion.”

Translation minus the Scottish brogue:

“O, would some power the gift He give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion.”

The Pharisees have gotten a lot of bad press over the years. In the Gospels Jesus repeatedly calls them to account. In spite of this appropriate and targeted criticism, we moderns will do well to refrain from pointing a judgmental, accusatory finger at them. Otherwise, we will find ourselves acting much like they did. So rather than railing against them, perhaps we should even thank them. “Thank them?” you say?  “How so?”

Stereotypes do not arise ex nihilo. They are usually generated by a substantial pool of underlying empirical evidence. In other words, they emerge from discernible patterns of behavior. The danger, of course, is the failure to recognize the existence of any (and sometimes many!) exceptions to what is often only a very broad general rule, and to assume that all members of a particular group share ALL the character traits and behavioral patterns of that group.

Were all Pharisees “bad” Pharisees? Of course not. Nevertheless, Jesus’ frequent and stern rebukes of the Pharisees stand as evidence that many of these “religious” folks had a wrong understanding of their relationship with God, and, for that matter, a wrong understanding of God Himself.

Although Jesus at least (only?) once charged the Sadducees with incorrect doctrine (resurrection of the dead, Mark 12:24 and parallels), he never criticized the Pharisees for doctrinal error. New Testament Scholar, Craig Blomberg, describes the Pharisees as the “conservative evangelical pastors of their day.” Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees was neither their doctrine nor their conduct (religious practices), but their posture. By “posture” I do not mean strictly physical posture (sitting down, standing up, or lying down). I mean an approach or attitude toward something or someone, and more pointedly, a pose that is intended to give a false impression.

The human psyche is complex. Understanding why we do the things we do is not always a simple matter. I suspect that like many of us, many of the Pharisees were not consciously aware of the disconnect between their preaching and their true beliefs. This is precisely why Jesus issued them a wake-up call. We can say we believe certain things, but our posture may reveal a radically different story.

For example, we can say we believe that God is a loving, kind, merciful, caring heavenly Father, but if our posture, our approach to him, our way of interacting with him, is the type used when interacting with a harsh, condemning, judgmental, vindictive critical parent, it is quite apparent that we don’t really “believe” what we claim to believe. This breach of integrity is harmful on both sides of this equation. It is harmful to the hypocrite, and it is harmful to those who witness the hypocrite’s hypocrisy.

I have been privileged to hear leading Christian psychologist, Dr. Richard Dobbins, speak in many and various venues over the years. Invariably, somewhere in his presentation he offers this life principle: “We don’t live with the events of our past; we live with the story we tell ourselves about the events of our past.” Our interpretation of certain life experiences may be entirely wrong, but it will still affect the way we posture ourselves for the rest of our lives—in very negative and destructive ways.

The good news is that we are not doomed. We can confront and counteract this wrongheaded self-delusion. Recognition is the first step. It is painful and shameful, but it is critical to the healing process. Next, through prayer and quiet meditation, we must open our heart to the “spiritual searchlight” of the Holy Spirit to identify those experiences we have not processed properly (note: we may also engage godly, competent friends and/or professional counselors to help in this area). Third, we must reprogram our mind to process all life experiences in a proper, godly way (Romans 12:2).

For those who are saying, “Yes, but how?” here are a few suggestions: private, daily devotional prayer and Bible reading will restore integrity between what we say we believe and what we really believe! BUT POSTURE IS CRITICAL! We must be willing to admit our error and be willing to change our posture toward God and people in light of the truth we now recognize. PROBLEM: The Bible is not a magic book. If you read it through the distorted lenses of your prior wrongheaded assumptions about the nature of God, or of His will and purposes, you will merely use the Bible to “rubberstamp” your self-deception. SOLUTION: seek out churches that offer competent interpreters and expositors of God’s word, communities of faith that will challenge and hone your theological understanding. Avail yourself of resources that will help you properly interpret the Scriptures apply them to your life.

Pastor Mark Ford, founder of The Love Akron Network, recently wrote a tribute letter to Dr. Dobbins after his mentor’s death (“Tribute To A Hero”). In it he said this: “You helped me to change my view of God from an angry parent to a loving Father ‘who loves me so much he can’t take His eyes off of me.’” This is the truth. Any other view of God is sinful, shameful, and self-destructive.

Perhaps the reason that I have such disdain for the Pharisees is that they show me all too clearly what I don’t like about myself. In truth, the Pharisee I see is . . . me. Since recognition is the first step to healing, I figure I owe them a debt of gratitude. And that’s a memo!


  1. Douglas Olena - July 22, 2014 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    Great piece Rob. Lois and I have always contended that the Pharisees are an analog to the modern evangelicals. It is tiring listening to the “us v. them” mentality of some modern pulpits, the un-selfcritical excoriation of a rival group. They miss the point to Jesus’ remarks.

    But I think you’ve struck the right chord here. Heal us O Lord and we shall be healed.


    • Rob Starner - July 22, 2014 at 2:35 pm - Reply

      Thanks so much for the feedback, Doug. When life is proceeding along like a bed of roses (RARE INDEED!) I tend to think of myself as a pretty decent chap. However, when the pressures of life loom large, I recognize how far from God’s IDEAL Rob I really am. “Oh to Grace, how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!” Blessings, Friend!

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