How To Spot A Pharisee

A Pharisee is one who is rarely in need.

They are the opposite of “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). They are the very definition of “full of it” or “full of themselves”. They seem to believe that they are doing God and the world a favor as they read the Word and pursue “holiness.” They are doing pretty well (or so they think), which is unfortunate because Jesus said that He came for the sick (Mark 2:7).

It’s easy to be turned off by this kind of person — and hard to spot this kind of person within us.

Pharisees have had a negative impact on the world because their way to God is a lie — self-righteousness will never get us to God. Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life worth having (John 14:6). Most of us have probably been trained to sniff out this lie. After all, the Pharisees are typically depicted as the “bad guys.”

There is another negative impact that the Pharisees have had on this world: a sneakier lie has entered in their wake. Our distaste for the Pharisee and all his self-righteous ways sometimes spills over into the whole concept of pursuing holiness. We might not want to admit it, but just as our noses turn-up at the thought of a Pharisee, our noses turn-up at the thought of running after holiness.

But Jesus still calls us to be perfect (Matthew 5:48). And we are still encouraged through the Word to “make every effort” to be holy (1 Peter 1:5-8).

We’ve already seen that it’s good to live in the tension of resolve and dependence — and we know that now that we can live with a sincere desire for holiness without picking up foolish attempts at self-sufficiency.

Psalm 119 continues with these themes by showing us that the true way to run after holiness is to first realize our great need.

Deal generously with your servant so that I may live
Then I will keep your Word.
Psalm 119:17

I just love how David keeps placing these bold declarations right next to cries of dependence! It’s just so real — and so right.

We are in great need of the generosity of God. Without it we wouldn’t even be able to live! Our hearts are beating and breath is going in and out of our lungs because God is generous to us. But surely we know by now that His generosity goes far beyond that! God is so overwhelmingly generous to us that He gave His Son, Jesus, to give us eternal life. We were dead without Him. No amount of “pursuing holiness” is going to give us the life that we need — the salvation that we need. That’s what the Pharisees don’t get.

Before we can even start pursuing holiness, we have to realize that we are in great need of the generosity of God.

We don’t pursue holiness — read our Bibles, strive to obey, spend time in prayer — in order to earn anything from God. And by “pursuing holiness” we aren’t doing God any favors. Pursuing holiness is an opportunity to pursue the best life possible. It’s an opportunity to be become all that we were made to be. It’s an opportunity to push back against the curse of sin that tried to kill us. And it’s an opportunity that simply isn’t possible without the generosity of God first.

The opportunity to “keep His Word” is only possible because God is generous to us. There is no “keeping His Word” apart from His generosity. There is no other way. Jesus, the greatest display of God’s generosity towards us, is the only way.

David understood that. Even in his crazy fan-girl delight, even in his deep longings, David knew that the only way to obtain the treasure of holiness — the only way to keep the treasure of God’s Word in his heart and in his life — was to first cry out for the generosity of God.

David was in great need.

And really we all are, whether we realize it or not. You and I will never obtain holiness by puffing ourselves up. That doesn’t mean that holiness isn’t desirable or a good thing to try and obtain with all the energy that we can muster; it just simply means that we shouldn’t strive after the fake stuff. Fake holiness is like all fake things: cheap. It’s an illusion. It’s simply playing pretend. If we want the real thing (which is totally worth having!), then we’ve got to cry out for and lean into the generosity of God.

The more a man prizes holiness and the more earnestly he strives after it, the more he will be driven to God for help.
– Charles Spurgeon

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