Raising a Little Pharisee

Pharisee. The average evangelical Christian almost cringes at the very sound of the word. No one likes to be called a Pharisee. Why is that?

Pharisees were known to keep the Law of God fastidiously. While the Phariseeaverage Christian hasn’t even read the entire Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), Pharisees would have had the entire Pentateuch committed to memory—word-for-word!

But because they were so careful to keep the Law and because they were so interested in outward expressions of holiness, the Pharisees would often look down on those who weren’t quite as “spiritual” as they were. Consider the prayer of the Pharisee in Luke 18,

“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’”
Luke 18:11–12

Jesus had some harsh words for Pharisees (see, for example, his seven “woes” in Matthew 23). The Pharisees were often hypocrites. They thought they were better than others because they were so meticulous in keeping the Law. But they were themselves spiritually blind. They didn’t see that even they, like everyone else, were in desperate need of God’s grace.

While the institution of “official” Pharisee-ism no longer exists, the church is nevertheless full of many modern day Pharisees. So, how did the church get so many modern day Pharisees? In large part, the church culture has done a good job of raising them.

So, how does one go about raising a modern day Pharisee? Let me suggest four ways in which you can encourage your children to grow up to be Pharisees.

First, many Christian parents focus on externals rather than internals. We raise our children not to act like those “other children” who “have no manners or upbringing.” In so doing we focus our attention as parents on controlling the external behaviors of our children rather than focusing on our child’s heart—which is what ultimately controls our behavior.

This works fairly well as long as our children are in our homes and under our thumbs, but when our children leave the nest, their true heart begins to show. Paul Tripp writes of the “principle of inescapable influence: Whatever rules the heart will exercise inescapable influence over the person’s life and behavior” [Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002), 68, italics in original].

Tripp writes,

“This is what happens to the teenager who goes through the teen years fairly well under the careful love, instruction, and oversight of Christian parents, only to go off to college and completely forsake his faith. I would suggest that in most cases he has not forsaken his faith. In reality, his faith was the faith of his parents; he simply lived within its limits while he was still at home. When he went away to school and those restraints were removed, his true heart was revealed. He had not internalized the faith. He had not entrusted himself to Christ in a life-transforming way. He did the ‘Christian’ things he was required to do at home, but his actions did not flow from a heart of worship. In the college culture, he had nothing to anchor him, and the true thoughts and motives of his heart led him away from God. College was not the cause of the problem. It was simply the place where his true heart was revealed. The real problem was that faith never took root in his heart. As a result, his words, choices, and actions did not reveal a heart for God. Good behavior lasted for a while, but it proved to be temporary because it was not rooted in the heart.”
(Tripp, Instruments, 64)

A failure to trust in Christ in a life-transforming way can cause a child to abandon the faith of their childhood, as Tripp writes here, but it can also cause them to hold on to merely the externals of the faith (i.e., external behaviors) with having a true heart change. This latter problem is characteristic of the Pharisee.

If we want to avoid raising little Pharisees, we need to focus our attention on our child’s heart.

Second, some Christian parents also find their identity in their children and in how their children behave. This point is closely related to the first, but it is different. Here the parent desires to be considered a “good parent.” The parent either wittingly or unwittingly is seeking the parenting approval of others. Instead of finding her identity in Christ, she finds it in how her children are judged by those around her.

“My, my, aren’t Mrs. Smith’s children so well-behaved?”

“You’re children are so precious. They are always so well-behaved.”

These comments feed her sense of self-worth and so she focuses all the more to make sure her child is well-behaved. The parenting emphasis is increasingly on the external behaviors and never on the heart.

It’s not on the heart because heart attitudes are so much harder to see. The dad who receives his self-worth from how well he parents rarely hears, “Your child’s heart attitude is so Christ-like.” So, he focuses on the externals and he raises a little Pharisee.

If we want to avoid raising little Pharisees, parents need to find their identity in Christ, not in how well their children perform.

Third, parents often teach their children to compare themselves to other children. This is done in any number of ways—through athletic prowess, through academic achievement, through moral obedience.

“At least my child doesn’t drink and do drugs . . .” (see previous post). And so children are taught to look down on those children who have made “significant” moral failures. Some sins are counted as worse than other sins.

Remember the prayer of the Pharisee in Luke 18? “I thank you that I am not like other men . . .”

And so drinking, drugs, and sexual promiscuity are “worse” than ungratefulness, selfishness, and pride. Pharisee-ism is so insidious that we even teach our children to be “proud” that they aren’t like those other children. And then somehow we are shocked that we’ve raised a little Pharisee.

If we teach our children that some sins are “worse” than other sins, we’ve taken a large step in raising a little Pharisee.

Finally, some parents actually teach their children to become Pharisees by withholding love and affection from children whose behavior doesn’t measure up to mom’s or dad’s (often Pharisaical) standards.

It doesn’t take little Megan long to learn, “Dad only shows me affection when I’m a good little girl.” Megan, in turn, begins to perceive her self-worth from her external behavior and a little Pharisee has been born.

Being a parent isn’t for cowards. It’s hard work and sleepless nights. But we don’t want to raise “little Pharisees” who do the right things but whose hearts are far from the Lord. So, find your identity in Christ and focus on your heart and your child’s heart and you’ll go a long way toward stunting the Pharisee in your child.

To His Glory,


At Least My Kids Don’t . . .

Have you ever had a conversation with a Christian parent whose child has gone somewhat astray? In an apparent attempt to assuage the guilt for feeling bad about the child’s otherwikids drinking smokingse nefarious choices, the parent will sometimes say, “At least my child doesn’t do drugs,” or “At least my child doesn’t sleep around,” “At least my child doesn’t smoke or drink,” or something to that effect.

 But that always leaves me scratching my head a bit. At what point did the measure of successful Christian parenting become, “At least my child doesn’t do drugs”? When did we lower our standards?

As the father of four (ages 10, 12, 16, & 18) I am well aware of the difficulties of parenting—parenting isn’t for cowards! It is hard work. I am grateful for a godly wife who has been enormously influential in the raising of our children.

I am also aware that we don’t get to pick our children and that otherwise godly parents can still sometimes have children who go wayward. We must remember that “train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov 22:6 ESV) is a proverb and not a universal promise.

But, as a culture, we’ve lost our way. We’ve lowered our standards. How have we lowered our standards? Let me suggest three closely related items.

First, we’ve lowered our standards when we feel it’s more important to our child’s friend than it is to be our child’s parent. This is all too common in our culture. Parents who evidently want to re-live their “glory days” do whatever is necessary so that their 15-year-old will think they’re cool—or at least so that their 15-year-old’s friends will think they’re cool!

Let’s be honest. It’s important to have a good relationship with your children, and I hope that your child(ren)’s friends feel comfortable coming over to your home. But this doesn’t mean that you have to get a fresh tattoo and a body piercing so that a 15-year-old will think that you’re hip!

Your children have enough friends. What they need from you is for you to be their parent. They need you to love them unconditionally—even during the awkward years of adolescence as they learn to find their own voice in this world. They need you to be an example of what it is to follow Christ. They need to hear and see from you, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1 ESV).

Second, we sacrifice our children on a variety of pagan altars. Let me suggest two such altars—work and materialism.

Work is good. Work existed prior to the Fall, and it’s good for a child to see her dad work hard to earn an income to support the family. But workaholism isn’t a good thing. Workaholism is idolatry. Workaholism is idolatry because we either find our identity in our work—instead of in Christ—or because we feel it’s necessary to work to provide the results we desire instead of trusting God to provide the results he desires. This isn’t an argument to be slothful. No, we should work and we should work hard, but we needn’t sacrifice our families on the altar of the workplace.

When was the last time you took time to rest from work? The Sabbath principle of rest was instituted for our sakes (Mark 2:27).

And to what end do we work? We work so that our children can have more “stuff” than we had. This is bowing at the altar of materialism. Yes, this is also an idol. We work to afford fancy vacations. We work to live a certain lifestyle. We work so that our 8-year-old can have a smart phone! Really?! What 8-year-old needs a smart phone?! Why don’t we work at being parents? Our children need their parents more than they need stuff.

Third, we’ve lowered our standards when we forget what the primary role of a parent is. The primary role of the parent is to “bring [our children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).

We’ve become so caught up in being our child’s friend that we’ve forgotten that our primary job is to disciple our children in the faith. Your child’s discipleship is your primary responsibility. It isn’t the primary responsibility of the pastor or youth pastor or children’s pastor. Mom and Dad, it’s your job.

The church is there to aide you in this process. The church should help you in this process, but the church can’t do it for you. You have a far greater impact on your child than any youth pastor will ever have, and your children will learn from your example—whether good or bad.

If you only attend church when you feel like it, then don’t be surprised when your child only attends church when he feels like—if at all!

If you disrespect your church leaders by “having them for lunch” (I’m speaking metaphorically here), then don’t be surprised when your child has no respect for the church or its leaders.

If you use foul language and watch promiscuous movies . . . I’m sure you’re getting the idea by now.

It’s the job of mom and dad to point their children to Jesus. It’s the job of mom and dad to point their children to the gospel. This is where we find our hope. We ultimately only “point” our children to the God who loved us all enough to send his only Son. And when we point our children to God, we allow him to shape their hearts and to draw them to himself.

Join me next time when we ask the question, “Have we raised a good, little Pharisee?”

For his glory,
Pastor Brian

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
Deuteronomy 6:4–7