Old-fashioned Pharisees with a Modern-day Makeover

You and I are just normal folk: we struggle to make lasting friendships. But we also know people who casually stroll into a room of strangers, and leave with a dozen new friends, three lunch dates, and a personal introduction to someone’s dear old grandmother. We wish we were more like them: delightful and enchanting.

Last summer I read a BBC article entitled, Tricks to Make Yourself Effortlessly Charming. It rightly pointed out that all human beings long for someone to show interest in them. To do so, the article suggested a set of techniques. First:

Imagine the other person is a character in [a movie] flick … You’ll find yourself observing and showing genuine interest in their mannerisms and personality.

If that doesn’t work, the article instructed us to “fake” interest, and it offered a suggestion:

Focus on the different colors in their irises. By maintaining that level of eye contact, it will give the impression of interest.

If all else fails, it suggested a trio of facial expressions:

The three major things to do are: … a quick up and down movement of the eyebrow that lasts about a sixth of a second, a slight head tilt, and a smile.

That is all we need to forge deep, lasting friendships: either pretend other people are someone they aren’t, or pretend we are someone we aren’t. It’s quite easy: just pretense and deceit.

Shallow, Ugly, and Pretty Pharisees

That BBC article paints a picture of shallow, modern pharisaism, concerned only with externals.

Scripture paints a repulsive picture of the original Pharisees: Their rigid, outward rules wouldn’t let Jesus heal the on the Sabbath, and they relished the stoning of anyone caught in sexual sin. We think, “What an ugly, hateful people.” (If only they would tilt their heads and smile.)

On a retreat last year, a man said to me, “The whole of the gospel can be summed up this way: Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.”

We are distracted when we focus on avoiding repulsive behavior. Because we can be pharisaical just as easily by focusing on good behavior. Loving God and loving our neighbor is attractive. We’d like to be around a person like that. But we forget: those commands were from the Old Testament law. They are good and right, but they aren’t the gospel.

To preach these commandments as the gospel is just practicing pharisaism with a makeover. Spiritual hypocrisy (pharisaism) is like a shadow—deepest and sharpest closest to the light.

What Do We Most Need?

The evil nature of the Pharisees wasn’t the ugliness of their behavior, it was their independence from God through a focus on externals. Jesus told these legalists to wash the inside of the cup and the outside would be just fine.

We’ve all tried to wash the outside of the cup, from the shallow tips of charm to wise tips on healthy marriages, even to trying with all our being to love God and our neighbors. And nothing of lasting, inner change was produced. We are working from the outside in.

Jesus says the solution we most need is for Jesus himself to live his own life through ours, that his spirit would make a home in our hearts. That is the inner cleansing that we need, to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), to live a life hidden in Christ.

It’s a deep, personal, and intimate, life changing, and genuine relationship with him. No more mock smiles, fake friends, or false selves.


PS: We constantly ask ourselves, “Is this all there is?” Oh, we may not ask it consciously, but all our outward cleansing (whether shallow, ugly, or pretty) is our inner desire to find something more in the life of Christianity.

May I suggest something? Our real need is greater intimacy with God. Watch this video and consider buying, Hearing God in Conversation, a book on nurturing Intimate Theology with God.

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What do YOU think?

4 thoughts on “Old-fashioned Pharisees with a Modern-day Makeover

  1. How? What does this look and feel like and how do I know I’m doing this?

    “Jesus says the solution we most need is for Jesus himself to live his own life through ours, that his spirit would make a home in our hearts. That is the inner cleansing that we need, to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), to live a life hidden in Christ.”

    • Hi Brittney,

      Thanks for a great question. I’m not sure I have a great answer!

      When my wife and I get into arguments, and when the cause is my fault (which is at least half the time, probably MOST of the time 🙁 ), I sometimes just “stick to my guns” even though I know I am in the wrong. It’s a kind of stubborn, willful, pride; just something. I even know it, if I would just sit still long enough to honestly think.

      I think living “independent of God” or a “focus on externals” is similar. If I would just sit still a bit, I would admit it. But instead, I rush and defend myself.

      When we wait for the Spirit of God (who IS living in us), there is a slight letting go of our plans. John Newton called this, “breaking our schemes of earthly joy.” There is a way we realize that we are in the exact place God wants us, even (or especially) when it seems the hardest.

      I don’t mean we are fully peaceful with it (Jesus sweat drops of blood; it’s okay if we sweat drops of saltwater, or tears). I just mean there is a letting go of the reigns, or a getting off of the throne.

      Does that help?


  2. People go for this solution because of fear. They are afraid of rejection (of course some just want to be the center of attention). If you pretend to be someone you are not and you get rejected, then it does not hurt so much, cause this was not the real you they rejected. It is a wall between people. But love and light don’t go through a wall…

    • Hi Chris,

      I never thought of the self-defense mechanism: “If we aren’t ourselves, then the reject isn’t a rejection of us.” Great observation.

      But, of course, if we aren’t ourselves, we can’t be loved either.