The Lord God is sitting in heaven one day when a scientist says, “God, we don’t need you anymore. We have finally figured out a way to create life out of nothing. In other words, we can now do what you did in the beginning.”
“Oh, is that so? Explain…” replies the Lord God. “Well,” says the scientist, “we can take dirt and form it into the likeness of you and breathe life into it, thus creating a human.” “Well, that’s very interesting,” continues the Lord God. “Show me.”
So the scientist bends down to the earth and starts to mold the soil into human shape. “No, no, no…” interrupts God, “You go get your own dirt.”
It’s not just scientists who think they’ve got it all figured out. We’ve all got some of that in us. It must be an occupational hazard when it comes to being human.
Now of course at times we do know what we’re talking about. But one of the major ways we keep ourselves locked in and God locked out is to believe we know it all. If you’ve got it all figured out then you hardly need anyone else. I don’t know if you know anyone like that but there’s gotta be more than just me around here like that….
There’s not much the Lord can do with someone who has yet to find anyone smarter, anyone wiser, anyone more athletic, better looking, more successful. But you know, it’s tiring always to be on the top of your game, always to be a winner when compared to others.
Of course it’s one thing to actually know what you’re talking about, which certainly has some value. It’s a different thing to behave like you know what’s going on and yet be mistaken time and again.
The truth is there are several ways in which we look at things incorrectly and they in turn lead us to believe we’ve got it all figured out.
The first one is called actor-observer bias, which you may be familiar with in your driving life. It goes something like this: “I cut in front of you because I needed to, you cut in front of me because you’re a jerk.” Sound familiar? What about: “Your child acted up because she’s a brat; mine acted up because he’s tired.”
A person suffering from actor-observer bias tends to conclude that other people’s actions are influenced mainly by their character, not the
situation. People with this type of bias also assume the opposite of themselves: “I’m not rude, it’s just that I wasn’t feeling well that day.”
Even when we act just like someone else who we criticize, we don’t see our behavior in the same light.
This is pretty close to illusory superiority, where we overestimate our positive qualities and underestimate our negative ones.
But the real biggie is the illusion of control, where we believe we have control over things that are not in our control. Parents usually rely on this one to explain how good they are as parents, as in “my child eats well because of the style I feed her,” rather than “my child eats well because she has a natural willingness to try new things.”
But this can work for anyone. You know, when someone gets a lucky break or happens to be in the right place at the right time and then takes all the credit for him or herself.
Why do we do this? Because if we’re not in control then who is? If we’re not winning then we must be losing. And losing doesn’t feel good. It reminds us of when we were young and everyone else was so big and things would happen to us that made us feel very sad or even worse. And now we that are bigger we are going to keep control so those things don’t happen to us anymore. So we are going to be winners, and we are going to be in control, and we are better than others and we are going to get what we deserve.
I know. It doesn’t feel good to lose.
One of my top four favorite Jesus stories is the one we just read. It’s about a winner and a loser. Someone who knew he was in control and someone who had realized he wasn’t. Someone who thought he was God’s gift to God and someone who had taken a close look and finally seen what he didn’t like. And confessed it.
But just so we don’t get too poor of an idea of a Pharisee, and in the spirit of turning things upside down, which Jesus was so incredibly good at, I want to tell you the truth about the Pharisees.
And the truth is Pharisees were pillars of the community. They were the moral and spiritual guardians of their people. And, OK, they might have been a bit stiff-lipped and starchy, as we see them repeatedly interfering in Jesus’ parties, concerned that he’s eating and/or drinking too much and always partying with the wrong sort of people) but, in their defense, they were people who stood for something!
They stood for purity. They stood for faithfulness. They stood for strong churches and strong families, and they were people who were willing to do whatever was necessary to see that their community held together!
If you’re not familiar with the history of the Pharisees… After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C., Israel as a nation was in meltdown! Not only were the people of Israel displaced and shipped off to Iraq as refugees, but from a faith perspective, they no longer had anywhere to worship! Their temple had been destroyed!
Up to that point, all their worship had centered around the sacrificial system of the temple. When the temple was destroyed, that whole system of worship was destroyed with it! This of course could have been the end of Jewish people and religion. They might have been assimilated like so many other people back then were. But some people were determined to hold the nation together. The Pharisees developed a pattern of worship that centered not around sacrifice, but around the book of the Law – our Old Testament.
These people built synagogues, taught Scripture, and helped to maintain a distinctive spiritual identity for their people. It was how Jews did not become assimilated by the Babylonians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans.
And so, when the Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector,” he is simply telling the truth. He’s not like many others. And he certainly was nothing like the tax-collector, a collaborator with the Roman, one of the wretched individuals who had seen in the tragic occupation of his people an opportunity to make money!
But the thing is for all this he still sounds smug. And what’s actually even worse is that in Jesus’ story his character of smugness toward other “lesser” people carries over to his attitude toward God so that he even prays smugly.
And that’s the thing. It’s not easy to be one way with people and then a different way with God. We’re sort of built to be consistent. If we’re a know-it-all with others, we’re going to be smug before God. If we’re humble toward people then we will have that same spirit before the Lord. If we know we’re not in control of our lives as much as many people try to convince themselves they are then we can pray asking God to be in control, and trusting the Lord with our lives.
When I went to the University of Iowa there was a couple who showed up each spring to preach on campus outside. They had a following of students who went to a certain church or two. The husband and wife team spent three days on the Pentacrest telling the students they were doomed to hell because of their lifestyle and because they hadn’t accepted Jesus as their personal savior. The crowds could grow quite large and vocal, as you might imagine.
Someone I had known as a freshman became a born again believer and used to try to convince me to become like him. The problem for me was not exactly his beliefs, though that certainly didn’t ring quite right to me. But it was how everything was said, and how they came across to the rest of us.
It was almost impossible not to get the strong sense they thought they were better than anyone and everyone who didn’t agree with them. Even though they were trying so hard to sound like they believed it was all God’s grace, that they were saved by grace through faith, and not of their doing, it still came across as Christian snobbery. The flat out sense of superiority was thick in the air around him and followed him like a cloud.
I used to get into conversations with this guy and ask him one question in particular from the Gospels that is basically impossible to answer. I realize now how I wasn’t really trying to shoot down his faith as much as I was trying to shoot a whole in the balloon he used to carry him above the rest of us. I was trying to bring him down to earth where the rest of us dwell. That strong smell of smugness was the thing I had the biggest problem with.
Of course perhaps I was being smug by believing this was my job and I had the right or responsibility to do this….
From the outside the Pharisee and tax collector seem very different. They are not. On the inside they’re both in need of God. The difference is the tax collector knows this while the Pharisee doesn’t.
The tax collector stopped trying to keep count of what others did wrong in order to build himself up. Instead he took a good hard look at his own life. He really didn’t have what he thought he had and he really wasn’t exactly how he had pictured himself.
When we’re told the tax-collector stood, bowed his head, thumped his chest and merely prayed, “God have mercy on me, a sinner,” what more could we expect from him anyway? He’s praying the only prayer he’s got!
And so he got what he came for. He got what he got because he offered God his real life, the truth, and not a scorecard that made him out to be a winner. He was done trying to keep it all together.
And when it comes to the Pharisee, good guy, hard-working religious fellow that he was, the truth is God didn’t withhold anything from him. God gave him what he asked for. But since he asked for nothing he received nothing—no grace, no strength, no healing, no forgiveness, no peace or joy. He was self-satisfied and had everything he believe he needed.
Stop keeping score of others’ losses and your wins. We watch for others’ failures and disappointments, but don’t take ours to heart. Don’t count someone else’s missteps and spiritual deficits but ignore our own. We look past the power of sin and its consequences and remember those of others against us, holding them guilty even when we ought to pardon them.
Find another way of looking at people. Drop the pretension and the judgment of what makes someone of value. After all, the good Lord doesn’t judge someone’s worth by how much they know or don’t or whether they have they’re winners in the world’s eyes. God just wants a heart open to the word, to the truth, and to mercy and kindness.