When I was in my twenties I would have described myself as a "good" Christian girl - I regularly attended church, this included going twice on Sundays, went to Prayer Meetings and mid-week Bible Studies. I also served at church in various ways, agreeing to do some things which were not even my calling, but doing them from a sense of duty. Without realising it, my Christian life was more about the law (rules) and less about the grace of God.
Although I was not fully aware of it, I was very judgemental and critical towards my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I expected a high standard from them (the same standard I had set for myself) and expected them to live as I did. I know now that I had a heart like a Pharisee (a religious leader from the time of Jesus).
So what changed me? God, in his grace and mercy, changed me. He did this through my long-term illness of M.E. When you live with a debilitating illness which drains you of energy and strength and stops you from living as you have been, you have time on your hands. There was little else I could do than rest and think, so God finally had my attention.
God showed me how I was like the older brother in the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32). He revealed to me what was in my heart. The judgemental and critical attitude I had unknowingly harboured. He showed me I had no right to judge others.
During the time I was almost totally housebound I realised that if other Christians were to judge me with the same standard I had judged them, I would come up wanting: I wasn't regularly attending church or involved in serving within my church. They could have easily judged me on what I was/was not doing, whilst not knowing or understanding what was actually going on in my life. They could have been totally unaware of my circumstances. It was exactly how I had been. I had judged and criticised without being aware of what was actually going on in peoples' lives.
How wrong I had been! How like a Pharisee I had been with my judgemental attitude and my rules and regulations of how I believed a "good" Christian should live.
When talking to the Pharisees, Jesus said to them, "You Pharisees are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and wickedness! 40 Fools! Didn’t God make the inside as well as the outside?" Luke 11:39-40 (NLT) To paraphrase it, "God made you, inside and out. He knows what you're like on the inside. You may be taking care to act as a Christian on the outside, but you're failing to take care of what's in your heart, such as your attitudes and motives."
A few verses later Jesus says "What sorrow awaits you Pharisees! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore justice and the love of God. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things." Luke 11:42 (NLT). Once again, this could be : "You are careful to make sure when you are at church that you are using the right kind of language for a Christian, and contributing your money each week, but whilst doing these things don't neglect what's really important, such as loving God and loving others." (You can read more of what Jesus said about the Pharisees in Luke 11:37-52.)
God was so gracious to me when he revealed the true state of my heart. He wasn't angry or condemnatory towards me. He continued to be loving in his approach to me at a time when I was vulnerable. From revealing my sin to me, he then led me to repentance and experiencing his complete forgiveness. How grateful I am that God does not treat me as I treat others, or even as I deserve - that's mercy!
And oh, I so want to be more like him! To show others grace and mercy, love and compassion.
God has been working in me during my ill health. He has changed me. He has made me more sensitive towards the needs of others. He's made me more ready to offer comfort to those who are hurting. He's made me more aware of the hurt that people are carrying. That they are often going through far more in their own personal life than they would want to tell others about. Now I am able to extend God's grace and mercy to others because I have received it first from him. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 "3 All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. 4 He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us." (NLT)
It's not easy to admit my failings, my sin. I like to present the image that I am a "good" Christian girl, that I never get it wrong and that I'm a worthy example. That's my pride talking - another attitude of a Pharisee. God is still working on me! Still working on my pride.
God has taught me over time that my definition of a "good" Christian is just wrong. He doesn't want my life to be all about rules, regulations and legalism, relying on my own human efforts, attending one church meeting after another, busy doing things he's not called me to. My Christian life is actually all about a relationship with him, giving myself to him, loving him, spending time in his presence and becoming more like his son, Jesus Christ. Everything else springs from making my relationship with him a priority.
The book of Galatians teaches us that we are no longer bound by the law (as the Jews were in the Old Testament) instead we can experience the freedom of God's grace at work in us as we put our faith in Christ. We are made righteous, not by the things we do, but by accepting Christ in faith and receiving his righteousness. Paul says this in Galatians 3:2-3 "Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. 3 How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?" (NLT)
In an earlier chapter Paul says this about himself: "19 For when I tried to keep the law, it condemned me. So I died to the law—I stopped trying to meet all its requirements—so that I might live for God. 20 My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die." Galatians 2:19-21 (NLT)
God has done some amazing work on my heart, but there's still more to do. You see, every so often the Pharisee in me raises his ugly head. But I am, I think, learning to recognise him sooner. The sooner I recognise him, the quicker I can then deal with him. The wonderful truth is that I don't have to do this on my own, God is always right beside me, giving me the power to overcome. All I need to do, all you need to do, is ask him for help and in his grace he provides it.
To Think About:
Do you recognise a Pharisee in you? Are you trying to live this Christian life in your own ability rather than relying on the grace of God?
How has God got your attention in the past and revealed to you your wrong attitudes, motives or actions?
If God is revealing to you a wrong attitude, motive or action, what will you do now he has revealed it to you?
You may want to take the time this week to read The Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32) or Paul's letter to the Galatians.