Full disclosure: I am a sinner. Sin is anything we think, say, or do that does not glorify God. All have sinned by the default of being human, as 1 John 1: 8 and 10 describe: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…If we claim we have not sinned, we make [God] out to be a liar and His word is not in us.” A multitude of sins can stain our lives and hearts, and sometimes a common theme can describe our personal sins. It might be Anger, Deceit, Violence, Materialism, Conceit…or Legalism. Ashamedly, I admit so many of my sins have fallen under the last category.
In the Christian sphere, Legalists tend to stress strict adherence to God’s laws. They hope obedience to a set of rules will grant them salvation, and they look down on people that do not follow the rules as they do (1). In the Bible, a group of people called “Pharisees” believed both God’s Law (Torah) and Oral Law were strict codes to be kept by God’s people. (A great video explaining what the Sadducees and Pharisees believed is below.) The Pharisees did not like Jesus’ new message, and they were constantly looking for ways to thwart people from hearing His Word. But Jesus often called them out for this, as in Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”
Recently, I have realized that I have acted too much like these people who were so bent on following God’s law and the laws developed by men. When I grew up in the front pew and attended Sunday School, AWANA, Vacation Bible School, and Bible camp, in addition to having Christian parents, my absorbent brain was quickly and incessantly filled with knowledge of God and the Bible. However, I became too caught up in the verses describing what I should not do rather than what I should do. My personality that strove for high achievement in school and activities did not help me be the most patient or loving person, either. During my last years of undergraduate school and time as a graduate student, I became so preoccupied with making grades and doing things “right” that I avoided people and situations that I considered unhelpful for reaching my earthly goals. Too often I looked around at the “sinners” around me and shuddered. Why should I have allowed them into my life? They did not go to church, they did not use time or money wisely, they did not… My criticisms went on and on. I justified my actions with 1 Corinthians 15:33: “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’.” But while this single pithy saying defended my choices, Jesus’ entire life contested them I was, essentially, a Pharisee: shunning the people that did not live up to my Christian “ideals.”
Jesus was criticized by the legalists of His time when He associated with people who were banned from the society of “godly” people. Yet he gathered them to His side. He talked with them, listened to them, had meals with them. On one occasion described in Matthew 9:10-12, Jesus was hanging out at the home of Matthew, a tax collector – a member of special class of sinners – having a meal with other tax collectors and sinners. Some Pharisees on the scene, shocked and appalled at this, asked Jesus’ disciples why He dared to be seen with these people. In response, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” The sins of the people were known and obvious to Jesus, but He still chose to be near them. A good doctor is not afraid of disease, and he must get close enough to see, touch, and hear his patient to prescribe treatment. But the good doctor also knows how to avoid getting the disease so he can keep on caring for his patients.
Fear of earthly failure inspired my dark moments of pride and lack of love. Rather than trusting God to protect me from worldly influences while reaching out to others, I instead focused on myself and how well I was following my religion. I now painfully regret the moments lost when I could have shared the love of God with others. I gave up potential friendships and the chance to tell others about Jesus because of my legalistic ways. During my transient life as a student, I had the this mentality: “I just need to focus on my work for two years and then I’ll move on. There’s no point in making relationships that will be broken sooner than later.” I thank God that, after six months at my current job, my boss pointed out my less than sociable ways. I admit it: I cried. I realized I was not acting like a true Christian – someone Jesus would want to claim as a friend. Since then, I have made more efforts to be inclusive, patient, and loving. True, I still have said or done the wrong thing at times, but I have more often chosen to say and do what God what want. And, wonderfully, despite my spotted past, Jesus still wants me to be His friend! Even though we are all sinners, “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Jesus will have anyone with a sincere heart – tax collectors, Pharisees, and front pew kids who know a little too much for their own good.
Photo credit: http://cedricstudio.com/tag/jesus/