By Charles C. Grimm
Back in 2005 when I was preparing to graduate with an English degree, I wanted to continue into graduate school, but I also wanted to do something new. I had been speaking with several nonprofit organizations, and I had even gotten fairly far into the application processes with more than one of them, possibly to go abroad. At this point I had no clue how to make a decision. I determined that I would fast as part of my decision-making process, as I had read in the Bible that many before me had gotten insight by directing their attention away from the physical and onto the spiritual through fasting.
The word spiritual is loaded for me. I grew up in a private Christian school from the time I was 4, and because my personality is such that I enjoy following rules, I learned early how to appear spiritual. By my teen years I participated in preaching competitions, led prayer groups at school, and missed no chance to let people know about my daily Bible reading. I was polite to most people, sometimes stood up for people who seemed not to have anyone else standing for them, and was conscientious about my studies. My hair was kept neat, my shirt was tucked in according to the rules, and my language was always tempered by what might get me a demerit. In my estimation as a high school student, all of this made me a very spiritual person.
In fact, I sensed I was such a spiritual person that I could judge things well. I could rest on my laurels, knowing that I followed rules really well—so well, in fact, that few could bring a serious charge against me. I was keenly aware of the law and even more aware of how I might be perceived as breaking it. Despite a lot of internal sins with which I struggled, I knew how I looked to other people, and that was enough to keep getting respect.
The weirdest thing about all of this, though, is that I was not completely aware I was doing it. I genuinely felt like a righteous person. I think it is no exaggeration to say that I was (and too often continue to be) a Pharisee. After leaving high school, I had several experiences that pointed out my self-righteousness and made me come to terms with how Jesus spoke about Pharisees. Much of the current evangelical rhetoric surrounding Pharisees speaks to organized religion, which is useful, but it ignores the individual—something Jesus does not ignore in the Gospels.
For example, in John 7 we see Jesus ignore comments about organized religion to speak directly about individuals’ responsibilities to judge correctly. Jesus had healed a boy on the Sabbath, which had angered many of the Jewish rulers. At the feast of booths, Jesus emerged from his time away from Judea, and he confronted a crowd about the leaders’ plans to kill him. When they ask who was trying to kill him, he replied by urging them to “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24). The rulers and the people should not have been concerned by his healing on the Sabbath; instead, they ought to have focused on his charge from God to speak God’s will, as became clear in their exchanges after this encounter (vv. 25-29).
I can relate to the crowds though, because I have often elevated rules over God’s will.
Back to my 2005 job decision—I planned to fast for a weekend, Friday to Sunday. I would break my fast at church with communion, because it seemed to be the spiritual thing to do. That Sunday, though, my friends and I had arranged to pick up an acquaintance who had asked for a ride to church. We did not know much about him, except that he had some disabilities and sometimes asked to come to church with us. In all honesty, I was often annoyed by him. He told lots of far-fetched stories and made claims that could not be true, but nobody would call him out on them. Worse yet, he didn’t behave in church like I did, and the attention he got made me nervous about how others viewed me for bringing him.
After church, my mind was on food. Because of my fast, I could not wait to go eat lunch so I could indulge in fried chicken, sides, desserts, and anything else I could get on my plate.
We had parked and were ready to cross the busy street. Just as our acquaintance with the disabilities was about to sprint across the street, I saw a car coming from the opposite direction; in a flash it skidded to a halt yet knocked him down. I got to him, and he was lying on the asphalt, scared and crying. I kneeled down next to him and he hugged me and sobbed. In that moment I realized I had not sincerely loved him. I had not seen him as anything more than a nuisance.
We took him to the hospital, and thankfully he only had some minor scrapes from the encounter. I had noticed the clock in the ER waiting room; by the time we were able to leave, we had missed lunch at the restaurant. Waiting to find out if he was OK, thinking about how he had held onto me when I got to him in the road, I had realized something: I had been judging incorrectly. I had judged this young man by his convenience to my comfort. Similarly I had judged my own plan by how holy it sounded to fast until communion. I had judged my own plans to go abroad and love as Jesus loved as a holy plan, but I had failed to love the man right in front of me until I could no longer ignore him.
I shared my realizations with my small group that night, and I asked for them to pray for me so that I could know where I was putting up a façade and where I was following Christ. I did end up going abroad to teach English, but I went away knowing more about loving those near me.
I still struggle with being a rule follower. I still struggle with whitewashing my sepulcher, and often I don’t even know that I’m doing it.
So, on behalf of a Pharisee like me, I ask you, my brothers and sisters, to judge correctly. Speak to us Pharisees just as Jesus did. Jesus urged the people to judge correctly, and he often spoke harshly to Pharisees, but he also spoke truth to Nicodemus when he came to him. Be harsh to break through the rhetoric of respect for hypocrites, but point to the one whose love we need. Don’t write us off, but bear with us when you can, rebuking and loving in turn so that we too can know the full love of Jesus.
Charles C. Grimm, a member of Woodstock City Church in Woodstock, Georgia, is a graduate teaching assistant finishing his PhD in English.