I have been reading Jerry Bridges’ The Disciplines of Grace, a wonderful book that takes a deep looking at God’s role and the Christian’s role in the pursuit of holiness. Chapter two, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” is all about the need for a humble realization of our own sinfulness and the need for a grateful acceptance of God’s grace. Bridges says that these are two significant needs among committed Christians. However, Christians tend toward one of two opposite attitudes.
The first is a relentless sense of guilt due to unmet expectations in living the Christian life. People characterized by this mode of thinking frequently dwell on their besetting sins or on their failure to witness to their neighbors or to live up to numerous other challenges of the Christian life that are so often laid upon them.
The other attitude is one of varying degrees of self-satisfaction with one’s Christian life.
We can drift into this attitude because we are convinced we believe the right doctrines, we read the right Christian books, we practice the right disciplines of a committed Christian life, or we are actively involved in some aspect of Christian ministry and are not just “pew sitters” in the church.
I know people who live in each of those camps and, in fact, have bounced back and forth between them too many times.
Bridges turns to Luke 18:9-14 and the well-known story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, a story that compares and contrasts religious hypocrisy and true humility. The Pharisee was outwardly religious, doing and saying all the right things, but the tax collector was truly broken by his sinfulness. It was the tax collector who went home justified.
Bridges gives a bit of an “ouch” moment when he says, “We usually approach this story with the sense of approval that comes from reading about other people instead of ourselves.” He wants us to see that this story applies not only to unbelievers, but also to believers. After all, Jesus told the story to those who were confident in their own righteousness and that is something we are not immune to. “The sin of the Pharisee can become the sin of the most orthodox and committed Christian.”