Reflections of a Recovering “Pharisee”

In yesterday’s and today’s Gospel readings, Jesus had some harsh words for the pharisees – “You appear to people from outside like good honest men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Mt 23:28

Poor pharisees. As unsympathetic as they are in the gospels, I identify with them. I know what it is like to strive to appear good and God-fearing. I have always strove for that, from as early as I can remember, yet I only knew the form, the externals of being good. I was well-schooled in values and the importance of good morals and I had always striven to live by the rules which dictated what “good” was. Yet somewhere in the process, I lost my identity. I came to fear disappointing others more than I desired to be genuinely good. Without my knowing, my compulsion to be good was for the sake of being accepted and loved. I was desperate to meet the mark and not be found wanting by those important to me.

Because I could only grasp the externals of “goodness,” and because it was a means for me to win love and approval, I gradually succumbed to a double-life. It was so insidious that for a long time I failed to acknowledge that I had a problem. Outwardly, I was responsible, disciplined and upright – and I sincerely was. Yet, shut out within myself was another self – a shadow self – insecure, needy, angry, and famished for love. So I fed that shadow self – by binging on dramas, movies, and, at certain seasons in my life, trashy romance novels. I didn’t realise it then, but I was hungry for something greater than the life I had, and I was hungry for love. I looked for what I longed for surreptitiously in what I thought was the “safe” world of fiction and imagination. Unbeknownst to my conscious self, my shadow self was also projecting its needs into my real world relationships. Because I knew what was socially acceptable, I subconsciously looked to fill my need for affirmation and love through legitimate relationships. But be it with family or friends, my relationships were not free because I was always fearful of being abandoned or rejected. I only knew how to “love” with grasping hands. I was filled with lust – even when I was physically chaste (which I wasn’t always) – because lust is what happens when I use another person to satiate my emptiness.

The best thing that has happened to me spiritually was when God allowed me to crash. Not just once, but a series of crashes over several years that jolted me into the realisation that this was not the life God meant for me to have – this subconscious Pelagian mindset I had that I could be good and win salvation (i.e. His love) through human effort. Those crashes were irrefutable proof that I had failed and that I was totally incapable of being holy, no matter how much I tried to be. Then, only then, was I struck by Grace. I was hit by the inconceivable fact that God loved me absolutely, passionately, in all my sinfulness. In that moment, my inner world tilted. I cannot earn God’s love. I need not earn his love. He loves me already, and it is his love that will make me good. God will make me good not so that I will become more acceptable or more worthy of his love, but purely because He is good, and his love poured into my soul cannot but make me good as well.

For too many years I had been spending my energy futilely on trying to “be good.” Instead, what I should be focusing on is learning to receive God’s love, and all that His love reveals to me and demands of me. Ultimately, this is not an easier way, for God’s love will demand everything of me. But this ‘everything’ is the same everything  that Jesus gave – total trust and a total abandonment to God’s love. God’s love demands that we give up our control, our egoism, our narrow-heartedness. It demands of us a new way of living; a new way of being. This is the Demand of Love, and it is a demand that frees and liberates. It breaks our chains of selfishness and sets us free to give our lives in love without fear; it is so powerful that it makes trembling sinners into saints and martyrs.

I have a special sympathy for fellow “pharisees.” Having been one most of my life, I can quite often spot one pretty accurately. I pray especially for those who, because of their standing in Church, feel that all the more they need to hide their inability to live the virtuous life they know they are meant to live. My heart goes out in a special way to the children in such families who grapple with the double-life they are forced to live – appearing good on the outside, but filled with anger, hurt, betrayal and sin on the inside. But I know that salvation will come to their house too, just as it has come to mine. They need only continue to seek God with all their heart, and in God’s time, they too shall be struck by Grace.

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