It’s always fun to get mail, until it isn’t.
On Wednesday I was heading out to prepare to lead music for our church’s Christmas Eve service, when my wife handed me a letter that had just arrived in the mail. On the envelope was a name and address I didn’t recognize. As I opened the letter, I speculated with great excitement that it might be a holiday greeting from a reader; perhaps a Christmas gift or some token of appreciation, maybe a heartfelt thank you for some meaningful ministry I’d done.
It was not.
What it was, was a two-page handwritten letter from a total stranger, notifying me of my deceptive, heretical, false teachings, and calling me to immediate repentance.
As I poured over her neatly-written, well-articluated, polite-yet-condescending jabs at my suggested lack of Biblical knowledge and sin-coddling ways, I really wanted to be angry, but what I immediately became was sorry.
I was not sorry for the writings she was criticizing, or the points she attempted to make, or even that she had taken the time to do this on Christmas week.
I was sorry for her confidence.
She spoke from a place of absolute certainty and moral superiority. She wrote with a self-assurance that assumed total correctness; as if the words she’d composed had been dictated by, (or at least skimmed and signed-off on) by the Creator Himself.
It was delivered in the kind of judgmental tone that your parents had when they corrected you as a teenager, or when an elementary teacher chastised you during recess; the one that claims to have all of the answers, to know every angle, to predict every possible argument.
She wrote to me as a religious expert who had the market cornered on the Truth, one who was here to protect it from someone who had bastardized it.
In the Bible, those people were called The Pharisees.
The Pharisees usually get a really bad rap from most pastors, preachers, and professors. In the four Biblical biographies called The Gospels, they often butted heads with Jesus, and so that’s the easy road to take when you want to preach lazy and make simple black and white moral points.
In the old western film of the Jesus story, the Pharisees are often painted as the sneering black-hatted villains; the clearly defined baddies, there as easy foils for the benevolent, white-hatted, heroic Jesus.
But the truth is, the Pharisees weren’t bad guys at all. In fact, they were some of the most faithful, wise, God-fearing people in all the Scriptures.
They were steeped in the ancient texts, zealously devoted to preserving the faith of their people (both they and Jesus were Jews), and passionate about defending God in a changing culture that seemed not to care about morality.
They were also consistently wrong.
Over and over and over in the Gospel writings, we see the Pharisees do what so many would-be gatekeepers of the Kingdom still do today. They allowed their perceived understanding, their religious pedigree, and their good intentions to lead them to a place of self-righteousness that decided they had all the answers.
They were intelligent, Biblically* knowledgeable, pious—and they missed God in their midst. They failed to see the new, incredible thing that was being done right in front of them; their heads so stuck in the letter of the law, that they lost the spirit of the lawgiver.
The problem for the Pharisees, (and for my poison pen pal), is that this kind of certainty when speaking of God is almost always a recipe for horrible failure. Thinking you’ve figured out an unfigureouttable God is very dangerous ground, especially when trying to morally look down on other people from it.
In fact, many times in the Gospel stories, Jesus is hanging with disreputable characters, healing on holy days, forgoing the religious purity practices of the day, and saying stuff that sounds like absolute heresy. All the while the Pharisees are so ticked-off and bloated with outrage, that they’re flat-out blind to all that Jesus is trying to show them about the radical scope of his love.
In what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly teaches with the phrase, “You have heard it said, but I tell you…” It’s Jesus, outlining the way he’s calling the faithful of the past, to deeper, wider, more nebulous places.
He reminds his listeners that adultery is a sexual act, but it’s also an inner lust cultivated in the mind. He condemns murder, along with an anger that would wish another dead. He speaks of a deeper love, that extends beyond simply one’s beloved, but to one’s enemies. So while he instructs about things that we do, Jesus also challenges the stuff we think and feel.
The Pharisees wanted a clearly drawn God of the do’s and don’ts. They could wrap their minds and theology around that kind of God. They could enforce that kind of black and white religion.
The tough thing for any of us who seek God and desire to do what’s right, is that we almost never assume for one second that we could possibly be the Pharisees. We never court the idea that we could be faithful, and earnest, and knowledgeable… and wrong.
I try hard to court that idea every single day. Heck, most days I don’t have to try very hard.
Sure, I may have extremely strong opinions about what I believe, and may feel like I’ve done my homework (reading, studying, praying, listening), but I strive to never let that yield a Pharisaic self-righteousness; the kind that so easily calls people I disagree with “heretical”, or the kind that would lead me to write letters or post comments that imply that I’ve figured God out.
I’m always quite willing to believe that I could be wrong.
Just as it was back then, the Pharisees never are. They always have Truth pegged. They’ve shrunken God down, until He’s become small enough to fit into the traditions, and rules, and the neat and tidy answers that they’ve decided settle things for them and for everyone.
Then Jesus comes along and up-sizes God for them.
Maybe my letter-writer is right, and maybe she isn’t. But for her, maybe isn’t even an option, and that’s what worries me about her and about so many Christians in the world today.
Faith is a wonderful thing. The seeking of Truth, the desire to discover God, and the act of translating that belief into a nuts-and-bolts of life are all precious pursuits.
I’m just not satisfied that absolute certainty is ever part of the deal.
Christian, as you seek to live out your religious convictions, be very careful if you begin to think you’ve contained God, or that you speak for Him. Before you write that letter, or post that comment, or feel that moral superiority over another; pause.
You may indeed be absolutely right, but you may also be the Pharisee; devoted and faithful, but wrong.
*The Pharisees were of course, well-versed in the Old Testament writings, which at that time comprised the Scriptures. The New Testament books had yet to be written.