Confessions of a Modern Pharisee
How I learned to abide in Christ
When I finished seminary and moved into ministry, I had a taste for the ascetic. I desired to disciple others into similar levels of devotion and commitment. I delighted in Scriptures that called for “taking up my cross,” “strict training” or “throwing off everything that hinders.”
Needless to say, I had high expectations for myself and for others. High expectations are not necessarily a bad thing. Devotion and discipline are commendable. Yet my efforts were unsustainable, unfruitful and often unloving.
My expectation was that everyone would be energized around a “well-balanced life” that included generous times of Scripture reading and prayer, alongside meaningful engagement in a church. In addition, I expected participation in a small group, serving in the community, evangelism everywhere from the workplace to airplanes, accountability, fasting, journaling and Scripture-memory.
I worked hard at being a good disciple and pastor but was not trusting in His sanctifying grace.
Yet I failed to question whether any of these things were helping me become the person God wanted me to be: more loving, more trusting, more joyful or—more importantly—the kind of person who obeys God’s commands easily.
I get tired just remembering all of it.
Confronting my inner Pharisee
Five years ago I was reading Matthew 11 from The Message, by Eugene Peterson. His translation described “learn[ing] the unforced rhythms of grace.” My way of life was almost entirely forced. I worked hard at being a good disciple and pastor and wondered what this expression might really mean for me. It struck me that while I had received God’s saving grace, I was not trusting in His sanctifying grace to work through me.
Now I focus on entering God’s truth rather than conquering it through study.
I was like a branch consumed with trying to “bear the fruit” rather than learning to “remain” and see God’s power and Spirit at work in me. I had to break free from measuring my life by my disciplines and practices; otherwise I would just value and do exactly what the Pharisees valued and did, both in activity and graceless spirit.
It didn’t mean that I left all spiritual disciplines behind; rather, I understood that it was God I should seek, not perfection in disciplines. The disciplines could be varied and creative as part of a larger process of training in Christlikeness. They were not ends in themselves.
I began noticing God’s pursuit of me instead of focusing so much on my pursuit of Him. Different verses captured my attention—ones that focus less on my effort and more on God’s goodness:
“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
“Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:31).
“He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers” (Psalm 1:3).
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
My way of life still includes reading Scripture, but now I focus on entering God’s truth rather than conquering it through study. Instead of working through large passages and going to commentaries and notes to imagine what I can teach others, I slowly read each word from only a few verses and invite God to show me what I ought to notice or meditate on for my life with Him.
I have a new “heartset” in my faith. It rests, it waits, it listens, it trusts and it receives love.
In prayer I focus on quiet and on listening rather than listing praises or requests. In small-group time I focus on being present to learn in God’s community rather than hoping to impress others with remarkable insight. My neighbors and my friends are not projects I have to win to Christ through strategic moves and invitations to Sunday services. Rather, I make myself available; I visit them and seek to be loving toward them.
To be clear, my life then was not rigid and evil, and my life now is not entirely peace-filled and resting. But overall I have a new “heartset” in my faith. It rests, it waits, it listens, it trusts and it receives love. It is present to God in new and creative ways. It is established around discovering and inventing creative adventures with God.
I fight hurry by letting someone else in line ahead of me.
Specifically, I pursue three creative approaches to living an abiding life with God:
Slowing: I was struck by Dallas Willard’s instructions to John Ortberg to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”1 He described hurry as counter to spiritual formation. So I am slowing down my life in order to create margin and space for God—all the while trusting that God’s call on me will be accomplished best while I am fully present with Him.
Therefore, I read slowly. I contemplate. I leave a little earlier for an appointment and don’t schedule back-to-back appointments. I pause to pray between activities, or before phone calls, conversations or emails. I fight hurry by letting someone else in line ahead of me. I become available to visitors by not seeing them as interruptions.
Seeking: God is always at work around me, so I seek Him with a holy expectancy, hoping to recognize the potential significance of any conversation. I pray to be a vessel of God’s grace moving in and through the world.
Asking questions of God helps me tend to my soul throughout the day.
Therefore, moment-by-moment, I ask God what I should say or do in response to a comment or observation. Also, when talking, I try to not craft my response in my head when I need to be listening. I look at inconvenient circumstances as invitations to trust His care and protection. Connections between conversations and longings from members of the congregation become the “bread crumbs” guiding me to what God is doing and prompting in our midst. When making a hospital visit or entering someone’s grief, I look for where God elevates these routine moments to sacred and supernatural infusions of grace.
Reflecting: Busy days can bring a lack of reflection. There is great value in finding time to be silent and still. Rather than filling empty time with mindless surfing or media, I dedicate some of it to asking how my day with God went. Simple, daily questions allow me to make small adjustments and to harvest what God shows me:
Where was I growing, learning or seeing God in action today? What did I discover about Him? When did I feel closest to God and most in alignment with His character and His ways? By contrast, when did I feel distracted, selfish or independent of God? What sorts of things should I do more of, or less of?
The questions serve as reminders to be mindful of God and my relationship with Him. They help me avoid falling into lifeless routines but rather tend to my soul throughout the day. As I see patterns in the places where I feel closest to Him, I develop a rhythm of being revitalized and rejuvenated.
Moving toward a life of presence with God has freed me from my ingrained tendencies toward action, achievement, comparison and seeking to win. After all, what could it possibly mean to win at “abiding”? As ridiculous as it sounds, I confess, I was dedicated to trying like a Pharisee. I prefer the freedom of training to be like Jesus in quietness and love. I prefer the fruit as well.
The author recommends several helpful resources: Soul Keeping, by John Ortberg; Renovation of the Heart, by Dallas Willard; and Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Calhoun.
1 Soul Keeping, by John Ortberg, p. 20. ↩
Jamie Morrison has an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is associate pastor at the Village Church EFC in Lincolnshire, Illinois.