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How many times have you come to the new year resolving to do better? How long did your “doing better” last? Have you ever tried to be obedient all the time without ever failing?
To be obedient all the time is to be perfect all the time, and that is not possible. So how do you strive for obedience while not succumbing to the trap of perfectionism?
Perhaps you have given up on being perfect. Or maybe you haven’t given up because you’re a striving perfectionist. The kind of obedience the Lord desires from us is complete obedience, which is more than external conformity to religious rules.
The so-called holy people in the New Testament were the Pharisees. They had holiness down to a system. Then Jesus came along and blew up their externalism by calling them out. (Read Matthew 23) It was clear that there was a disconnect between their hearts and their behaviors (Matthew 23:27-28).
Jesus says our obedience must go deeper than the Pharisees. He’s talking about an obedience that transforms the heart.
For I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).
How much easier would it be if we could only pretend to be holy rather than be holy? This temptation is why you must be careful with your critiques and observations about the Pharisees. To critique them as though you or I are different from them would be misguided. The Pharisees are one of the best reflections in biblical history of who we are and how we struggle.
We can certainly learn from them while hoping not to fall into the traps that had caught them. Here are four of those things we can learn.
Our first call to action to keep from falling into the trap of the Pharisees is to listen to the Word of the Lord. There is so much noise in our world that we can be so easily distracted.
Our culture has created a perpetual noise machine that churns out high volumes of anti-God messages day and night. It takes a lot of intentionality and practice to hear the Word of the Lord.
Social media is the culture’s latest buzz perpetuater that distracts us from exercising our minds by the Word of God. This lack of biblical exercise leads to spiritual dullness, which is the warning from the Hebrew writer.
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:12-14).
Without the daily heavy lifting of biblical exercise, our powers of discernment do not become trained to distinguish between good and evil. Social media is one of those current distractions that keep us from this kind of exercise.
Spiritual exertion is required if you want to be perfect (James 1:22). Of course, the rebuttal is that nobody spent more time in God’s Word than the Pharisees, which is right, but I must ask anyway:
Whenever the truth of the Lord is pressed out of our lives, regardless of how it is pressed out, there will be a proportional adverse reaction from the Lord. We learn about this in Romans, where Paul talked about the side-effect that happens to us when we press (or suppress) God’s Word out of our lives. He said it this way:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth (Romans 1:18).
There are unalterable laws in our universe. (1) What goes up must come down. (2) Freedom requires boundaries. (3) Sin equals punishment.
We were not allowed to be part of the divine tribunal when the Trinity established the laws of the universe. The creation–you and me–do not have that kind of privilege when interacting with the Creator (Job 38:4).
Without unalterable laws, our world would be chaotic. We see that in our culture today. The anti-God presuppositions of our culture say we can do anything we want to do, and you cannot judge the lawbreakers for their actions.
This mess is not how things are supposed to be. Our job should be simple: accept God’s rules, one of which is that if we push His truth out of our lives, there will be an appropriate, wrathful counter-response from Him; that is a universal law.
We will never be free as long as we pick and choose how we want to live. None of us can live outside the Lord’s teaching and expect no negative consequences for our transgressions.
While it would be easy to continue this chapter by talking about the atrocities in our culture, it would be a better use of our time to reflect upon how we are similar to our culture’s penchant for suppressing the truth. Here are three examples.
Saul, as an example, pressed the truth out of his life, and because of his disobedience, he experienced wrathful consequences from the Lord (1 Samuel 15:1-35). He made four mistakes.
How about you?
The expectations of the Word of the Lord are deeper and broader than any of us can fully comprehend, which makes it a natural temptation to compare our lists of obedient practices to the lists of other people. Who has not done that?
Though we may deplore legalism, which is a list-keeping, fear-based culture, we can be so easily duped into believing our obedience is better. It is more comfortable to be pleased with ourselves than to be happy with others because of our longing to be right in our own eyes (Proverbs 21:2).
Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding (2 Corinthians 10:12).
If we truly understand how we’re no different from the next person when it comes to being imperfect—none of us have arrived—then our hearts should be softened to pity other people rather than comparing ourselves to them as though we’re better than them.
This kind of broken dad, who struggles with anger, will be quicker to address his anger with his son rather than immediately jumping on his child. The frustrated wife, who is self-righteously comparing herself to her husband, will first repent of her failures—the first step in resolving their marriage problems (James 2:10).
It is a perverted process to disregard your faults (Matthew 7:3-5) while attempting to help restore another person with flaws (Galatians 6:1). Self-aware broken people are the most effective when it comes to restoring other broken people (Luke 18:11).
The filter through which the humble person sees others is through the growing reality that he is the foremost sinner (1 Timothy 1:15).
Maybe you have read this far and thought, “Oh my…perfection is hard. I fail in so many areas of my life that I’m discouraged. I can never do this.”
If that is how you’re thinking, you’re in the perfect place. But if you think you need to work harder, you have not arrived at the starting blocks of progressive sanctification. The Pharisees never learned the impossibleness of perfection. They always tried harder.
I’m not suggesting you disregard anything that I’ve said thus far, but I am suggesting that you calibrate everything that has been noted by the gospel wrench. We should always strive for holiness, but we must strive realistically: We will never be perfect in this life. There are two dangerous ditches you can fall into:
We live in a relationship with the Lord, which means we have a role to play; we’re not fatalistic robots. That role is somewhere between (1) I will never be perfect while living in this body of death and (2) I must cooperate with the Lord as He transforms me into Christlikeness.
One of the benefits and beauties of realizing you can never be perfect is that your hopelessness should point you to a better source to attain perfection.
There was a man who was able to do better than Saul, better than the Pharisees, better than me, and better than you. His name is Jesus. He is the only person who perfectly obeyed the Father in all ways (Mark 1:11).
His gospel works uniquely qualify Him to step into our place, receive the wrath for our disobedience, and become the perfect sacrifice, which gives us access to and relationship with the Father. Jesus chose to do these things for us because none of us can do these things for ourselves.
Our striving for holiness comes after we have gained access to the Father through the works of Christ, not before, as though our practices are a means to gain access to God.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).