EHS: The Problem of Emotionally Unhealthy Spirituality Matthew 23:25-28
4/12/2018 4:36:31 AM
April 8, 2018
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Matthew 23:25-28
I want you to imagine a good person. Imagine a person who is always doing good things. Imagine that this person loves God. They go to worship every week. They pray several times a day. They read scripture, memorizing long passages of it. They give 10% of all they have to God. They are very careful not to say anything wrong or offensive. They watch their words and their behaviour closely, ensuring they do not do or say anything that might be offensive to God. They follow all the rules very closely. In fact, they not only follow the rules, they make sure they don’t even come close to the edge of the rules!
What do you think of this person? What do you think God thinks of this person? Do you admire this person?
As you hold in your mind the image of this very good person, very devout, God-loving person, who is faithful in all they do, I want you to realize that in Jesus’ day this person is a Pharisee! Why do I say that? Because I want us to understand that the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were the religiously serious group. They were devout. They read scripture all the time, memorizing long passages of it. They were good people. They followed all the rules. They loved God. They prayed regularly and frequently. They never did anything to break God’s laws, and that includes all those hundreds of laws in the Old Testament that make our eyes glaze over today. The Pharisees were the godly, good party. They loved God deeply and did everything in their power to be righteous, to be on good terms with God.
Yet today we think of the Pharisees as the bad guys! In the Gospels, the Pharisees are often put forward as the enemies of Jesus. Many of them were hostile to Jesus, but a few, at least, did come to Christ, like Nicodemus.
I also want us to appreciate the Pharisees because they did all the things God asked of them. They read their Bibles daily. They had long, regular quiet times. They never missed worship (church, you could say). They gave generously. They were involved in all the committees. They did all the right things. But they still were not on good terms with God. In fact, they had it all so backwards that when they met God in person, in Jesus, they not only didn’t recognize him, but they rejected him and worked with their enemies, the Romans and the Sadducees, to have Jesus executed! On the outside, the Pharisees had it all together. They looked amazing. Of all the people, they must be on good terms with God!
Today, we have many people who follow all the rules. They read their Bible daily. They can quote it at length. They pray regularly. They never miss church. They give 10% to the church. From the outside, they look like they have it all together. They look like, of all people, they must be right with God. But on the inside, they’re a mess. They do not represent Jesus well. Maybe they use scripture to put others down. Maybe they are nice and calm out in public, but in private they are angry people. Perhaps they give 10%, but do it grudgingly, or for the tax rebate, or to make sure the church leaders know it’s them who is giving!
If this can be true of the people who look the best, of the people who read their Bibles regularly, who are devoted to their quiet times, who seem to have it all together, what about the rest of us? If our discipleship teaches us that being a better Christian means reading our Bibles more, praying more, attending church more, giving more and serving more, but these people are already doing these things, what’s happening? They’re doing all these things, but they’re not actually being transformed. They’re not happy people. They’re not the people we want to spend time with. They’re not the people who make a pastor’s life easier. They’re the difficult people. They’re the judgmental people. They’re the contrary people. So what gives?
Let’s turn to our text today, taken from Matthew. In Matthew, Jesus begins his public ministry with the Sermon on the Mount, which opens with the 9 Beatitudes, “Blessed are the ….” Here, at the end of his public ministry, Jesus closes with 7 Woes, “Woe to you….” [Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew 13-28, p. 442]
What It Says
So what is going on here? What does this text tell us? These verses, as I mentioned, are part of 7 statements beginning with “Woe to you…” addressed to teachers of the law and Pharisees. The teachers of the law were also called the Scribes. The seventh is addressed to the entire generation. These are all expansions on verse 12, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” [Bruner, p. 442] The teachers of the law and the Pharisees were almost universally guilty of exalting themselves. Here Jesus warns them that they are going to be humiliated if they do not change their hearts.
On the whole, these 7 woes are warnings against false teaching, false practice and false security. The two we read are about false emphases and false exteriors. [Bruner, p. 442] In each case, Jesus calls the teachers of the law and the Pharisees “hypocrites.” The Greek word for hypocrite means “actors.” The scribes and Pharisees are performing for an audience. All of their care in religious matters was not about God, but about looking good. [RT France, Matthew, p. 131]
In this first case, the issue surrounded ceremonial washing of dishes. In Leviticus 11:33, God did say that the inside of a dish must be washed. If something unclean touches the inside of a dish, the dish becomes unclean. Remember, in the OT, clean and unclean can be thought of as holy and unholy.
The Pharisees, in their zeal for God, made sure they always used clean dishes. In fact, they made sure that if something unclean touched the outside of a dish they would wash it, just in case! But Jesus says they are hypocrites, actors, putting on a show because what they fill the cup with is greed and self-indulgence. The word for greed is the word for “plunder.” The cup was carefully cleaned to be holy, but what was put inside it was gotten by unholy means. [Bruner, p. 451]
The irony is that the Pharisees didn’t even feel any shame over how they obtained the plunder they put in their dishes. They actually saw their wealth as a gift from God and a sign that they must be righteous-in a good relationship with God. Jesus says, “Clean up what you’re putting in your dishes, and how you put it there, and the cups will be clean!” The Pharisees followed the letter of the law with precision, but they didn’t get the spirit of the law.
The second “woe” from Jesus has to do with tombs. Once a year, the tombs around Jerusalem were either painted white, or covered with white plaster. They did this so that pilgrims, coming to visit Jerusalem for religious festivals, wouldn’t accidentally touch a tomb. Tombs were unclean. If a pilgrim touched one, he would become unclean. If he didn’t know, he might inadvertently take that uncleanliness into the Temple and contaminate lots of things there!
Jesus says, “You are white on the outside, clean and pristine, but you are filled with unclean death!” The Scribes and Pharisees, as we have seen, were great at putting on an outward show, but on the inside they were unclean, unholy. On the outside, they look holy and like they’re righteous, but on the inside there is rebellion against God, sinful desires and motives.
What It Means
These statements from Jesus are about the difference between outer appearances and inner reality. They are about the inner life and external life of the godly person. On the outside, the Scribes and Pharisees looked amazing. They did everything right. But on the inside, they were not submitting to God. The Scribes and Pharisees put on a good show, but inside, sin abounded.
At issue was religious observance on the one hand, and inner turmoil around greed and disproportionate desire on the other. The Pharisees followed the rules perfectly, respectfully and zealously. But they didn’t let the law penetrate into their heart. They knew the law inside out and backwards. They followed it very well. But they also used their intimate knowledge of the Law to avoid following the consequences of the Law if they didn’t want to. They learned how to manipulate the Law for their own ends and their own desires.
They followed the law in the actions, but they didn’t allow the law to shape their character. The Law cannot change our hearts! It can only show us where sin is.
Our hearts, remember, are more than just our feelings. In the ancient world, in the Bible, “heart” refers to the thoughts, feelings, will, desires, preferences and imagination. The heart is not just our feelings, but the core of our character. The Law cannot change our character. It cannot change our desires. It cannot change our will or our imagination. It can only affect the outer actions we perform, it cannot affect the inner workings of who we are.
Following the rules, going through the outer motions, cannot change our will, purify our desires or purify our imaginations.
When our hearts are changed by the work of the Spirit, we will want to read God’s Word to know more about him. We will want to pray because that is how we communicate with God, hear from him and go to him in times of need. We will want to serve and be generous with our time, finances and energy because we are motivated by what God has been doing in us. But we can also do all these things purely out of duty, or for praise from people. We can do the right thing for the wrong reasons, with the wrong motives, and they have no effect.
Often we confuse the cause of something with the effects. We see the effects of God’s work on a person- that they are excited about the Bible, serving, praying, etc. We think those things are the cause, when they are, in fact, the effect of God’s work. These are means by which God works in our hearts, but God must first be at work in our heart.
When I was at McMaster, my roommate was doing a PhD in the religious studies department, not the Divinity College. While some of his professors were devout believers, not all were. If I recall correctly, one or more of the profs in the department were actually atheists. And yet they know the Bible better than I do! So reading the Bible, even memorizing it, does not mean you are right with God in your heart.
The question boils down to our attitude when we use the tools God has given us. Is our attitude one of submission to God, desiring to hear from him, opening our heart, mind, will, etc to God to work in while we do them? Or are we doing these things so that people will see us? Or because we think we have to? Or because we think God will reward us? This is emotionally unhealthy spirituality.
Emotionally unhealthy spiritual practices include things like using religious activity to hide from God. Often we get so busy doing religious things we don’t listen to God, we don’t stop to hear from God. Instead, we do our own thing in God’s name thinking it’s what God wants.
Centuries ago, a Christian professor and writer, John Owen, wrote a series of books on dealing with sin. In that series, he talked about dealing with affliction- bad things that happen to us that are not the obvious consequences of our sin. One thing he says is that sometimes God sends tough times our way in order to get our attention. We are so busy doing our own thing, God has to allow us to undergo difficulties, affliction, so that we will stop and go to God. In our wrestling with God, we submit to him for fully and allow him to shine a light on other parts of our heart. Often, through affliction, we allow God to work in a part of our heart that we would not normally allow him into because we are trying to overcome affliction!
So one sign of emotionally unhealthy spirituality is being so full of Christian activity that we don’t actually listen to God! We are putting all our energy into activity instead of working on the hard stuff in our character, our will, our desires, thoughts and imagination.
Another sign of unhealth can be seen in our prayer life. How often are our prayers about what we want instead of what God wants? Is our prayer life about asking God to do for us, or to do in us? Do we ask God to move in our world, or do we submit to God in our prayer life? Do we submit to God in our prayer life? Do we submit to God at all? (We don’t like to submit to anybody in our culture!)
A third sign of unhealthy spirituality is using Scripture or theology to defend unhealthy views, fears, habits or patterns. We hide behind fragments of Scripture, individual verses, to defend unhealthy things in our life. This is what the Pharisees were so good at! Extreme examples include things like abuse. There are some people whose parents physically abused them, but defended it with the verse “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Or women who are physically abused by husbands who hide behind “wives submit to your husbands.”
But we don’t have to think of extreme examples like this. More subtle examples are things like holding particular theological views, not because you’ve carefully thought them through in light of all of scripture, but because it protects prejudices you hold about certain people. Maybe you are frequently offending people, or people don’t like you, but instead of examining your behaviour, you hide behind verses about followers of Christ being persecuted and hated because they love Jesus. These are misuses of Scripture and are emotionally unhealthy.
An even more common example of emotionally unhealthy spirituality is denying or supressing difficult emotions. Many Christians believe feelings like anger, sadness, grief of fear are sinful in and of themselves. They refer to verses like, “In your anger do not sin,” or “fear not!” and think that to feel these things is sinful. But
that’s not what Scripture teaches at all! When we feel these things, they are often warning signs that something is wrong. They function like smoke alarms. They are not sinful themselves. Often God uses them to get our attention. The problem only arises when we allow these difficult feelings to overwhelm our faith in God, our relationship with him or drive us from him.
What to Do?
So what are we to do? This is where Emotionally Healthy Spirituality comes in. Maybe you don’t see any of these signs in your own life. Maybe you do. But are you happy as a Christian? Do you have abundant life? Does your relationship with Christ shape every aspect of your life? Does it shape your family life, your work life, your social life?
The first step is to learn how to be with God instead of just doing for God. God wants you to serve and do out of your relationship with Him. God is not interested in you doing for him, though, if you’re not first with him. God’s more interested in a relationship with you than what you can do for him.
This is how we learn to be rooted and established in love. God wants our whole life to be built on the foundation of his love for us. That means taking time to stop and rest in God’s love. Our ability to love others comes from God. We need to rest in that love, to recharge our experience of that love if we are to show it to others and let that love shape our character.
One way we will learn to rest in God over the coming weeks is learning how to take a Sabbath- a day of rest to delight in God and to just let God look after stuff for us. Another way is the daily office- adding a few minutes of silent contemplation to the beginning and end of our devotional time. Why? To let God speak to us, to just enjoy being with God, to hear from God and rest in him.
Another aspect of Sabbath rest is slowing down to let God be in control. We usually carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. By taking one day in seven, and not working or scurrying around, just delighting in God and his world for a day, we affirm that God is actually in control. We believe God can do more in that day than we can. We affirm that God is actually the one at work in us the other six days.
These are just a few of the concepts involved in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. We are going to be examining these over the coming weeks both on Sunday morning and Thursday evenings. At the core of EHS is the concept that most of who we are lies beneath the surface. Like an iceberg, 90% of which lies below the surface of the water, most of who we are lies beneath the surface. EHS gives us some steps to allowing God to enter and work in that hidden, inner part of who we are, like our will, like our desires and our imagination.
Jesus wants access to the hidden 90%. He wants to transform that mass of who we are that lies hidden beneath the surface that everybody sees. This takes time, however. It takes submission on our part. God is a gentleman. He won’t do in us what we do not allow. He is waiting for our cooperation. EHS is a step in the right direction. First, we must recognize the problem- that we do not allow God to reshape the deep parts of who we are. Second, we must turn to God. We must adjust our life’s trajectory to be headed straight to God, recognizing these parts of who we are must be changed by his Spirit. Third, we must submit to the work he is doing in us. We must submit to his direction. Submit to his Spirit. Submit to his cleansing work, even when it is difficult and uncomfortable. Amen
EHS: The Problem of Emotionally Unhealthy Spirituality Matthew 23:25-28
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