She stepped up to the stage, bent over her guitar case and took her place on the stool in front of the microphone. Clearing her throat as she averted her glance towards the floor, she said, “You’ll have to excuse me, I’m a little nervous.” From the first strum, I sat captivated. Her voice was flawless and lilting in all the right ways. She held her guitar with an ease that told me this was her solace and her passion. I felt my tears welling up as I watched her tell a story with her music. Every so often throughout the performance her voice would crack just the tiniest bit and she would shake her head ever so slightly as if to say,
“Not good enough.”
When the recital was over, I made my way over to her and said, “I just wanted to tell you how beautiful your voice is and how moved I was – almost moved to tears – by the gift you have in your music. Thank you for blessing us with it. Oh, and one more thing. I saw you shake your head at yourself on several occasions as you played. You don’t have to do that. You are amazing. Please don’t ever shake your head at yourself.” I was near tears again as I walked away from her – her mother standing behind her, silently mouthing, “Thank you,” to me. It was a message she wanted to give to her daughter, but at this age they don’t always want to hear it from mom.
I felt like crying because as I was telling her, I was telling myself. I felt her pain of her self-rejection as I affirmed, “you don’t have to shake your head at yourself.” I knew what it feels like to be shot down by critics. I understand the all too familiar feeling that comes from internalizing those voices until they sound like your own. Perfectionism is poison. Jesus called it leaven – the yeast that goes through the whole loaf that we are to avoid like the plague.
You don’t have to believe the lie:
Not. good. enough.
I know that message and maybe you do too: “Here’s the mark, and you missed it.” Just whose mark is it that we are trying so hard to meet? Why is this mark always just beyond our reach? Even when we achieve what it is that we thought would make us happy or gain us approval, it is as though a new mark takes its place and on we go, jumping ever higher, but never quite satisfied with our own performance. All the while we are missing out on the biggest piece of the picture: abiding in love. Then comes the greatest injury of all – we transfer our perfectionism onto God.
This week I’ve been pondering the Pharisees. Wherever we see Jesus interacting with them, we see them questioning Him (either directly or indirectly). He responds by either turning the tables on them so that they are left unable to corner Him, or by calling them out, exposing their sins. In no other encounters do we see Jesus in direct conversation rebuking people, saying, “Woe to you.” He met many who would seem to warrant condemnation and rebuke – harlots, thieves, drunks and the adultress. What was it about this group of religious leaders that caused Him to speak out so often and so severely?
What is the sin of the Pharisee? Basically, as I have searched through scripture this past week, I’m seeing the pattern of their lives –
- Beautiful and put together on the outside, while covering sin on the inside;
- making a public show of their religious practices while neglecting their own inner life with God (abiding, love, mercy and humility);
- Heaping rules on people rather than extending hope;
- Preaching works righteousness rather than grace and dependence.
The Pharisee elevated himself based on his own works and then laid out a spiritual “to do” list for others. In so doing, he blotted out any need for God. It’s the tower of Babel all over again … “I’ll work my way to heaven.”
Jesus made a statement about the Pharisees once to his disciples. He said, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Here are the pillars of the faith – the Pharisees – those looked up to as holding the keys to the kingdom. We are told that we have to be even more righteous than them. At first glance it might seem that Jesus is asking us to do even more … if the widow tithed her little mite which was all she had, I start to think I have to give even more sacrificially than her. When is it enough? How can I be sure?
We can try to perform for Jesus, hoping against hope that our giving, serving and doing is good enough. Secretly, in the recesses of our hearts, we know it is not. So we push ourselves to do more. A mentality based on earning will turn us into religious workaholics – and sister, I’ve been there.
Into this frenetic striving Jesus breathes peace. What does it mean to be more righteous than a Pharisee? Jesus shows us, and it boils down to two simple aspects of life with Him. Above all else our righteousness must not consist of actions divorced from our heart. Our inner and outer lives must come together so that all our works are fruit which fall from the tree of our abiding, rooted in faith and nourished by grace and love.
Our works are fruit. They do not earn us one thing. They never have and they never will.
Consider Eph 2:8-10
For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the free gift of God, not as a result of works, than no one can boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
Yes, we work. He planned for us to work. Rather than producing salvation or sanctification, our works are a response to a relationship. They are a reflection and extension of our abiding relationship, revealing His work in us. Any other work is empty and will burn off like chaff. Why? Because God wants YOU, not your works. We might be satisfied keeping Him at arms length while we do all the good deeds of the faith, but He knows we need more than a job to do and a standard to live up to. We need Him.
Secondly, we remember that our righteousness is not our own. On the cross, Jesus made the great exchange. He took every sin we committed or will commit and every sin committed against us upon Himself and gave us His perfect righteousness in trade. I’m not just preaching to the choir here. I am reminding myself and you of the essence of the good news of freedom. It’s a done deal. He did it already. That righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees, it’s yours – free of charge to you, at full cost to Him, because of His great love with which He still loves you as you are right now. Just take a bath in that truth. Can you soak down into it until your soul gets all pruney with the goodness of it? If it isn’t in your bones, it’s got further to go. Let the gospel get into the deepest parts of your heart. You are beloved – as is. You are righteous now – in Him. No works will achieve your heart’s desire – just faith and grace filled with love.
We all have our own inner Pharisee – that voice telling us to jump a little higher, to make the outside look good and never, never let them see us sweat. We may try to check off the boxes on our own religious to-do list (praying in the morning, at meals, making sure we go to Bible Study, giving to the needy, be a godly wife and friend and on it goes). All those things are wonderful, but if they aren’t fruit, they are burdens which do nothing but separate us from God. God aims to release us from these burdens and transition us from trying to “be good enough” to the place where we know in the depths of our soul that we are His beloved.
We didn’t earn it and we can’t lose it.
We can strive to earn the gift or we can open it, savor it, and like a little child, look up from this lavish provision and ask with all joy, “For me?”
This week as you go through your life, notice the voice telling you, “You need to lose weight,” “Don’t let them see you struggle,” “You ought to say, ‘yes’ to that,” “You aren’t special” … and silence your Pharisee. Jesus is always in the business of shutting down the Pharisees. He speaks peace and grace where they speak law and works.
Hear Him saying, “Woe to you, you blind guides, you empty, whitewashed tombs”
… and then hear instead His beaconing invitation,
“Come unto Me, Abide, You are already My beloved.“
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