Got Poked in the Eye by Accidental Pharisees

In our journey with God, sometimes it takes years for something to go from being merely head knowledge, to being heart change.  And consequently, life change. A few weeks ago I agreed to do a book review, not knowing how God was going to use that book to turn on a light bulb.

Five years ago God began to reveal a deep seeded pride in my heart that was affecting the way I looked at my brothers and sisters in Christ.  Once I saw the ugliness of the sin, I became desperate to change, yet I could not take what God was teaching me on an intellectual level…and make it real in my heart.

In other words, I could see the problem and work on the outward manifestations; I just didn’t know how to change the inner attitudes.

And then along came  Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of Overzealous Faith by Larry Osborne.

I think the best way for you to get a glimpse of the kind of impact this book has–is simply to share a few choice quotes.  (It was very hard to put this book down, although I wavered between loving it and hating it at times.)

“The journey to becoming an accidental Pharisee usually starts out innocently enough.  It’s often triggered by an eye-opening event.

Sometimes it’s a mission trip, a conference, or a powerful new book.  Sometimes it’s a small group experience that makes everything else feel like you’ve just been playing church.  Or perhaps a new Bible teacher who opens your eyes to things you’ve never seen before.

So you step out in faith.  You make some big changes.  You clean up areas of sin and compromise.  You add new spiritual disciplines as you excitedly race off toward the front of the following-Jesus line.

But as you press forward, it’s inevitable that you begin to notice that some people lag behind.  And it’s at this point that your personal pursuit of holiness can morph into something dangerous: a deepening sense of frustration with those who don’t share your passionate pursuit of holiness.

This is the critical juncture.

If you allow your frustration to turn to disgust and disdain for people you’ve left behind, you’ll end up on a dangerous detour.  Instead of becoming more like Jesus, you’ll become more like His archenemies, the Pharisees of old, looking down on others, confident in your own righteousness.”

Stab me in the gut.  How many times have I done that?  Too many to count.  Later on he talks about the curse of comparison:

“Spiritual comparisons are particularly silly.  We don’t always know the full story.  All we see is the outside.  There’s no way to see the heart.  This means that a lot of our conclusions about people are flat-out wrong.

Our spiritual comparisons are also incredibly biased.  We have an amazing ability to compare things in a way that causes us to come out on top.  And when we come out on top, it’s hard not to look down on people who don’t measure up.

It’s at this point that pride becomes particularly dangerous.

Unfortunately, many of us fail to grasp how dangerous pride is.  We know we shouldn’t look down on others but we tend to see it as a small sin.  It’s not the kind of thing you go to prison for; it falls somewhere between failing to floss and driving too fast.  It’s something to work on.  But no big deal.  Even if we admit to periodic bouts with pride, what most of us mean is, “It’s tough staying humble when I’m so much better than everyone else.”

Now brace yourself, because here is where the real confusion and entrapment comes in.  In comparing black-and-white commands of Scripture vs. areas of freedom, Osborne writes:

“But we do have freedom in many other areas.  And it’s this freedom that can drive the fledgling legalist within all of us crazy.  Once the Holy Spirit places a clear call on our life to do something (or not do it), it’s hard for most of us to fathom why everyone else didn’t get the same memo.

The same thing happens with Scriptures and issues we’ve studied carefully.  If we’ve meticulously researched an issue, thought deeply about it, prayed about it, and believe God has revealed something to us, most of us will assume that everyone else who is led of the Spirit and intellectually honest with the text will come to the same conclusion.  We can’t imagine God being pleased with two opposing applications of one Scripture.

Yet as shocking as it may be to some of us, one Scripture can have two opposing applications.  Far more often than most of us realize.  And coming to grips with this fact can be incredibly difficult. Which explains why we so often vilify, denigrate, and separate from brothers and sisters with whom God is well pleased, over issues that He doesn’t consider all that important.”

Osborne then draws the reader’s attention to several examples of this happening in the New Testament to drive home his point.

Later on in the book, he addresses how we ought to deal with one another when the time DOES come to critique, rebuke, or exhort one another:

“The first thing to notice about Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthian church is the way he starts out.  He begins with praise.

…we seldom speak directly to those in need of correction.  I find it interesting that the apostle Paul never wrote any letters that criticized OTHER churches.  Instead, all of his corrective were written to the church needing the critique.  Most of our criticisms are voiced to one another about someone else….we fire away at the weak, the struggling, and the Corinth-like churches in a way that does nothing to help them change but does plenty to puff us up with an abundance of self-congratulatory pride.

….Paul….treated them as fellow saints with whom God was not yet finished….  He spoke the truth in love….Paul wrote with a broken heart.  He felt great distress.  He shed many tears.  He loved the Corinthians as if they were his own children.  Yet many of the harsh critics that I hear and read today seem to have far more disgust than tears.  I’d never characterize them as compassionate or loving.  Their critiques feel more like venting of pent-up frustrations than a brokenhearted call to repentance.  These people don’t appear to love the weak. They’re angry at the weak.”

He describes three temptations when we survey the landscape of unhealthy churches and unhealthy Christians:

“The first is to think that the sins and failings of today are something new and rare….People who believe it become despairing and cynical, blind to what God is doing in the present, while building monuments to what He did in the past.

The second is to lash out in anger and disgust.  Like James and John, we can wish for fire from heaven upon those who reject Jesus.  But Jesus didn’t rebuke the Samaritans who rejected Him; He rebuked James and John for their anger and harsh response.

The third is to attempt to help out Jesus by yanking out all the weeks that we see growing up among the wheat.  Jesus said not to do this.  We inevitably pull up wheat with the weeds.  He said He’d take care of it when He came back.

All three of these temptations play to the best of motives, a desire to defend God’s glory and purify His church.  Bit if we fall for any one of them, we’ll neither defend His glory nor purify His church.  Instead we’ll take a giant step toward becoming less like Jesus and more like a Pharisee—”

He goes on to address subjects like, “Why Evangelists, Missionaries, and Bible Teachers Make Us Feel Guilty.”  And “The Money Police.”  Yeah.  More slicing right to the core.

If you read this book, and I think every Christian could benefit from it, be prepared to have your pet beliefs stepped on a bit if they are out of balance or causing you to have disdain for your brothers and sisters in Christ.  I suppose those parts of the book will be different for all of us, but I assure you, when you read them, you’ll be tempted to think, “What a HORRIBLE book!  This book encourages Christians to have an “anything goes” mentality!  Why, folks will just TAKE ADVANTAGE of God’s grace after reading this book!”

You will be tempted to throw the book away.


He wraps it up this way:

“Now, obviously I’m not saying that we can live like hell and call ourselves disciples.  The Bible is quite clear.  If we genuinely know God and love Him, we will keep His commandments.  But I am saying that our definitions of what it means to be a genuine Christ follower must include room for the weak and the struggling, the frightened and the failing, in order to remain aligned with Jesus rather than with the Pharisees of old.

Following Jesus is not a race to see who can be the most radical, sacrificial, knowledgeable, or quickest to burn out.  It’s not a contest to see who’s willing to take the hardest road.  That’s asceticism, not discipleship.

For the gospel to remain the gospel, grace and mercy have to remain front and center.  When the radicalness of my commitment the intensity of my zeal, or the extent of my personal sacrifices become the means to receive or maintain God’s acceptance and approval, the good news of the gospel is no longer good news to anyone except those of us who excel.

Make no mistake.  My warnings about the dangers of an over-zealous faith are not meant as a defense of soft and easy Christianity.  They are simply a plea that we remain true to the heart of the gospel, offering rest, hope, and salvation to the weary and heavy laden.

None of us live a truly righteous life.  Even the best of us—even those at the front of the following-Jesus line—fall far short of the righteousness needed to stand before our God.  That’s what makes grace so amazing.  That’s what makes the arrogance of today’s accidental Pharisees so sad.

There is nothing praiseworthy in a feel-good, lukewarm, consumer Christianity that never asks us to change or do anything.  It makes Jesus gag.  But we must never forget that there is also nothing praiseworthy in a spiritual zeal that looks down on others or sublimates Jesus’ grace and mercy in order to emphasize our radical obedience and sacrifice.  That too makes Jesus gag.

Our hope is not in what we do for God.  Our hope is in what God has done for us.  That’s the gospel.  That’s discipleship in a nutshell.  And that’s what keeps people like you and me from becoming accidental Pharisees.”

Accidental Pharisees unexpectedly ended up being the “book of the year” for me in 2012.  The following short film beautifully illustrates why.  God has finally gotten through to me…letting me know I am free to enjoy His good gifts without having to work to earn His love and favor.  (Please note: you’ll have to click through to the blog to view the short film if you are reading this in an email.)

Heavenly Identity from The Branch Corvallis on Vimeo.

Natalie Klejwa is a Wemmick, loved by the Woodcarver, wife of 22 years to Joe, and mother to 9 Wemmicks ages 2-20. She is a business owner (Apple Valley Natural Soap), founder and administrator of the Visionary Womanhood blog, publisher and contributing author of Three Decades of Fertility, You Can Do it Too! 25 Families Share Their Stories, and The Heart of Simplicity: Foundations for Christian Homemaking.

You can hear her being interviewed on Kevin Swanson's Generations with Vision radio program.

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8 thoughts on “Got Poked in the Eye by Accidental Pharisees

  1. Thank you, Natalie, for sharing this book here! As one who spent 1-1/2 years struggling through many deep afflictions while still loving God and trusting Him (imperfectly), the message of this book makes me say…”Amen.” Having been on the receiving end of the words and actions of several Pharisaical Christians as well as some who loved and encouraged, I can say that the difference is incredible. Jesus was gracious with the struggling, but had very strong rebukes for the Pharisees. We believe that God draws and reveals Himself to others in salvation. We cannot force a choice to follow and love Him in another person. So also, the convictions and choices of others beyond salvation need to be also laid at Jesus’ feet, entrusting that He is big enough to guide and direct others in all things.

  2. Natalie,

    Thanks so much for being a part of the Accidental Pharisees book review blog tour. It’s been so exciting to see all of the different ways the book has been impacting people as I’ve read through all of the reviews. I know you’re widely read and I truly respect your opinions when it comes to Christian books, so I wanted to offer my heartfelt thanks for naming Accidental Pharisees as your “book of the year” for 2012. I know it was up against some pretty stiff competition.

    Looking forward to working with you on future blog tours.

    Shaun Tabatt
    Cross Focused Reviews

  3. I actually just wrote something similar about this on my blog as I’m reading Jerry Bridges’ “Transforming Grace”. These issues of grace, legalism and freedom in Christ are things that God has been really changing my heart about. It’s been gutting, hard but so freeing! I wrote a post on this, not just because I’m struggling with it myself, but because it’s so prevelent in our blogosphere and it’s really saddened me.

    Thank you for this post!