Latter-day Pharisees: How Cultural Perfectionism Distracts Us from the Essence of the Gospel

18 Apr

When I was a kid, I remember reading in the scriptures that “no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of God” (Alma 40:26). I was terrified that I’d arrive at the fabled “Pearly Gates” and St. Peter would look at the record of my life and say, “Hey, I’m really sorry, but there were a couple of sins that slipped through the cracks which you didn’t repent for — so go to hell.”

Thankfully, I’ve since come to understand and appreciate the atonement of Jesus Christ and its crucial role in our salvation. Christ is not simply a cheerleader on the sidelines who makes up the little amount we lack at the end of our lives. His sinless sacrifice is absolutely essential to our salvation “for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

In the October 2017 LDS General Conference, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland discussed how the lofty ideals of the sermon on the mount can leave us feeling discouraged. The final commandment in that scripture passage seems unattainable. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

Elder Holland states: “With that concluding imperative, we want to go back to bed and pull the covers over our head. Such celestial goals seem beyond our reach. Yet surely the Lord would never give us a commandment He knew we could not keep. Jesus did not intend His sermon on this subject to be a verbal hammer for battering us about our shortcomings. No, I believe He intended it to be a tribute to who and what God the Eternal Father is and what we can achieve with Him in eternity.”

Latter-day Saints are given many commandments, rules, counsel and guidance that can often be overwhelming and discouraging. The gap between who we are and who we know we should be is often wide.

President Russell M. Nelson taught: “My heart goes out to conscientious Saints, who, because of their shortcomings, allow feelings of depression to rob them of happiness in life. We all need to remember: men are that they might have joy — not guilt trips!”

My goal now is not to focus on being sinless since that’s impossible in this mortal life, but to focus instead on “healthy striving” for improvement.

The Pharisee Trap

Now that we’ve addressed the discouragement that comes from seeking perfection without the merits of Christ to exalt us, let’s explore another dangerous trap — the tendency to focus on outward appearances instead of the core of the gospel, which is loving and serving God and others.

When I study the words of Jesus in the New Testament, I find that the group the Lord is most prone to criticize isn’t the publicans and sinners, who were outwardly the most wicked. No, his harshest words were directed to the most “righteous” group — the religious zealots. The scribes and Pharisees were ostensibly the most righteous group in ancient Israel. They were VERY careful to follow all the commandments and yet the Lord called them out: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto ​​​whited​ ​​​sepulchers​, which indeed appear ​​​beautiful​ outward, but are within full of dead ​men’s​ bones, and of all ​​​uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).

Ouch! Jesus called these men hypocrites and insisted that their outward perfection did not match their inner corruption. Sometimes the word “hypocrite” is used incorrectly. It does NOT mean someone who strives to live the commandments all the time but occasionally falls short. It means someone who professes outward beliefs contrary to his true inner self.

Consider this chilling scripture in Matthew 7:21-23 which I believe applies to many outwardly pious people in every religion: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”

I worry that despite all my cultural righteousness, I may not be developing an intimacy with the divine — that I may not really recognize Him if I haven’t really taken the time to know Him.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar in the Catholic Church, wrote: “The most common temptation for all of us is to use belonging to the right group and practicing its proper rituals as a substitute for any personal or life-changing encounter with the Divine.”

Do we get so caught up in the outward expressions of our faith that we neglect the inner transformation that God requires? “And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit” (3 Nephi 9:20).

Brent Top, Dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University, recently wrote: “Generally speaking, Latter-day Saints are an obedient and sincere people. In our desire to be faithful in all things, however, we may have created a culture that at some times and in some ways can unwittingly put too much emphasis on our outward conformity and in turn creates unrealistic and even false standards of righteousness. While we must of necessity measure some things by discernible behavior, we may see that behavior as the end in itself and forget that it is the means to an end—an inner being molded into the image of Christ. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, we may put a lot of social pressure on each other to manifest openly measurable good works—the more measurable, the better.

We should remember the wise adage that commandments are stars to guide us and not sticks with which to beat ourselves. Church programs can also create rigid expectations if not administered with love, flexibility, and sensitivity. The inspired programs that were intended to lead us to salvation are the very things that sometimes discourage, overwhelm, and seemingly condemn us because of their constant requirements.”

Brother Top concludes: “People and their needs are more important than programs and their demands.”

Do we assume that someone who is clean shaven and wearing a white shirt to church is more righteous than the man with a beard and a colored shirt? Do we clean the church, do our ministering visits, research our ancestors, build up our food storage, work on scouting or personal progress advancements with a heart filled with love and a desire to glorify God or are we just going through the motions? Are we overly concerned about having our good works be seen of men?

Ricard Ostler, a former YSA bishop, recently suggested that judging clouds our vision and obscures our ability to see others as precious sons and daughters of God. He wrote:

“Do we have thoughts like: Is that skirt to high? Is that a double pierced ear? Why is he home from his mission early? Why is she in that political party? Is he acting on his same-sex attraction? I wonder why he didn’t take the sacrament? Why didn’t her marriage work? Why doesn’t he date? Why is she working outside the home? Why is he not wearing a white shirt? Why does she have tattoos? Doesn’t she know her body is a temple? Why hasn’t his mission call come yet? Why didn’t he serve a mission? Why did he march in that cause?  When reading a wedding invitation focusing on if is a temple marriage and not being able to equally celebrate both types of marriages? Why do they go skiing on Sunday every other week? Why haven’t they had kids yet? What is going on with that Bishopric member with a goatee?”

Mother Teresa said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

In our quest for eventual perfection, it is crucial to strive to see ourselves and others as God sees us. That is what the ancient Pharisees failed to do, but it is something we MUST do. We need to develop more compassion for ourselves and others in this journey to become more like Christ.

One of my favorite scriptures is Moroni 10:32: “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him.” Note, Moroni says that we can be perfected “IN HIM” not through our own merits. He then pleads: “Love God with all your might, mind and strength, then … by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ.” Again, he says perfect IN CHRIST.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of hope. We hope that one day, through the merits of our Redeemer, we can be made whole, complete, finished — all synonyms for the New Testament’s usage of the word “perfect.” Let us avoid the discouragement that comes with unrealistic expectations of ourselves. Let us avoid the trap of the Pharisees by not allowing judgement of others and cultural perfectionism to distract us from the essence of the gospel — loving unconditionally and serving unselfishly.

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Posted by on April 18, 2018 in Spirituality


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