My Story: From Pharisee to Empathy

In this episode:

This is my story of pursuing biblical truth but getting sidetracked by legalism and pride along the way. Discover how God revealed my heart condition to me and began his process of transforming me into a more compassionate and graceful human.


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Inspired Life

I started speaking for women’s groups and showing garage-sale decorating ideas and then I would tie in a message about how God turns our trash to treasure and turns ashes into something beautiful (Isaiah 61:3).Eventually I turned that into my first book and then more book ideas came later. But there’s a part of my journey I don’t always talk about.

I’d like to talk about how I can relate to the Pharisees in the New Testament and about how God woke me up to realize how much like them I was.

Having grown up in the church, I knew that we couldn’t earn our salvation. And we couldn’t earn God’s love. And yet I became so focused on following the rules and being a “good Christian” that my actions demonstrated a fear that if I messed up, God wouldn’t love me anymore.

I had been teaching Bible studies and Sunday School, leading the worship team at church, speaking for women’s events, and writing devotionals. Yes, I had given my life to Christ and loved him. But I had a lot of head knowledge about the Bible and a love for Christ that didn’t include a deep love for people who didn’t know Jesus.

When I was in college, I was part of a campus ministry and we would go from dorm to dorm, knocking on doors and sharing a little booklet with the gospel message in it. I led dorm Bible studies and was discipled by a staff leader who was a strong godly influence for me.

But looking back, I could see that my mindset wasn’t right. There was a sense of pride and religiosity that flavored my motives. I couldn’t see it then, but I’m sure it left a bitter taste for many of the non-Christians I met. Preaching at people is not the same as sharing the love of Jesus.

Later, I read a Scripture that I’d read before, but it affected me in a different way.

Jesus said,

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:9–14)

It opened my eyes to the truth that I was like that Pharisee and it gave me a sick feeling. I had thanked God that I wasn’t like those other students who got drunk every weekend, or the ones who lived with their boyfriends. I had carried it into my adulthood and was happy if church was full of Christians and the “messy” people stayed on the fringes.

It’s important to note that the Pharisees were religious zealots who thought they were doing something good for God by upholding the laws and placing them on people like a heavy weight. They were misguided, and wrong, but they thought they were honoring God with their actions.

There are many church people who think they are doing the right thing by putting people’s sins on display and keeping messy people out of the church. I’m not about bashing people or pointing fingers. But I long for the universal church to welcome broken people and for the church to be a safe place to find healing and forgiveness. I’m sad that there are so many people out there who have been wounded by the church instead of taking refuge in it.

The sin of being a Pharisee (a religious hypocrite) is just as awful as any sin of someone who never followed Christ. It’s something we don’t talk about as much in churches because it’s painful to admit it.

Life, Repurposed

A lot changed when I realized that I was ruled by legalism and that I was a Pharisee. Like the apostle Paul, God set me on a different path and pointed me in a new direction. Instead of being afraid to hang out with people who aren’t believers, I feel perfectly comfortable going to lunch with someone and getting to know them.

Another thing that changed is that I’m not part of the church fellowship that I was once part of. Not because I have any animosity toward the people there, but because it was too difficult to escape that flavor of legalism. I’ve never left a church before that or been a church hopper. But over 6 years ago, God called my husband and me to leave there. First, I stepped down as a worship leader and Bible teacher and took a sabbatical to seek God for direction. Ultimately, he nudged us to go to a different church.

My writing has changed. My speaking has changed. God breaks my heart for people who are broken. The old spice comes back sometimes in my thinking and I ask God to remove it and replace it with love and grace. I wish I could go back and undo some of my actions from my younger years.

It’s been difficult too. Some of my friends think of me as “liberal” or “watered down,” and I don’t fit in that circle anymore. It’s sort of lonely. Author Dick Staub wrote: “When we are faithfully following Jesus, we will be too Christian for our pagan friends and too pagan for our Christian friends.”

There are some ways to tell if the bitter spice of legalism is hiding in your heart. For example:

  • You think everyone around you needs a wakeup call.
  • You’re worried about messy people contaminating your church fellowship.
  • You think the solution to most problems is more rules.
  • You can justify your own attitudes even if they don’t align with the principles of love and grace demonstrated by Jesus.
  • You don’t have much mercy for people who struggle and are weak, and you have a rebuke ready at all times.
  • You think it would be compromising if you didn’t uphold the letter of the law when it comes to anything faith related.
  • You value Bible knowledge but application isn’t as important.

When we take a moment to ask God if we have the mindset of a Pharisee, he will show us the true condition of our hearts. And he will begin the process of changing us if we invite him to do some renovating.

Recommended Resources

Pharisectomy: How to Joyfully Remove Your Inner Pharisee and other Religiously Transmitted Diseases by Peter Haas

From the back cover:

With an entertaining blend of social-scientist-meets-sage, Peter Haas provides a penetrating look at our faith that just might reveal our own "hidden Pharisees." Through a series of autopsies, Haas bypasses the cheap "church-make-over solutions" and cuts straight to our deepest need: a Pharisectomy.

Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of Overzealous Faith by Larry Osborne

Quote: “The bottom line is that as long as my only image of a Pharisee is that of a spiritual loser and a perennial enemy of Jesus, I’ll never recognize the clear and present danger in my own life. I’ll never realize that it’s often a very short and subtle journey from being zealous for God and being unintentionally opposed to God.”

From the back cover:

Zealous faith can have a dangerous, dark side. While recent calls for radical Christians have challenged many to be more passionate about their faith, the down side can be a budding arrogance and self-righteousness that “accidentally” sneaks into our outlook.

In Accidental Pharisees, bestselling author Larry Osborne diagnoses nine of the most common traps that can ensnare Christians on the road to a deeper life of faith. Rejecting attempts to turn the call to follow Christ into a new form of legalism, he shows readers how to avoid the temptations of pride, exclusivity, legalism, and hypocrisy,

Larry reminds us that attempts to fan the flames of full-on discipleship and call people to Christlikeness should be rooted in love and humility. Christians stirred by calls to radical discipleship, but unsure how to respond, will be challenged and encouraged to develop a truly Christlike zeal for God.


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Michelle Rayburn is the author of The Repurposed and Upcycled Life: When God Turns Trash to Treasure, as well as a small group Bible study to accompany the book. Learn more about these and her other books here. A sample chapter of the book and Bible study are available for free download.

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Posted in Articles, Faith and Inspiration, Podcast Episodes.