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 average 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.’”
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].
“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,