Matthew 23:25-26 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”
We once owned a bag that stayed with us for many years. It was a laptop bag that was black with pink straps. The straps were made of leather, and it was well padded throughout to ensure the security of the technologies that it transported. It looked very cute and effeminate. It’s appearance said, “I am a bag that efficiently, yet elegantly conveys a laptop computer and its related accessories. I am rugged but I am also pretty and delicate.” However, for many years, we had ceased to use it for this purpose. As our life and job situations changed, we had no daily need for such a piece of luggage. So it was demoted to just being a storage unit, albeit an organized and neat one, in our house. It held our old unused laptop and a few other forgotten bheld ontonto items we weren’t sure if we would need one day.
The other day, my wife was cleaning our house and moved this bag. In doing this she realized that touching the strap incited a platoon of giant red ants to hurriedly scuttle up her arm. Racing the bag out onto our porch she managed to get it unzipped. There proceeded to flood out of this posh bag a torrent of scurrying, frenzied ants in thick hordes. The zipper had never closed all the way, as it was designed to not look too efficient, and it was through this orifice that the ants had gained entry and built an enormous and horrible nest. All items but the laptop were discarded and the bag was so completely filthy on the inside with all the dirt the ants had brought in along with pieces of their fallen comrades as well as whole cadavers of others that the bag itself was also sentenced to the garbage.
I believe this experience suits very well as an illustration for something I have been thinking about a lot lately. What got me started thinking about this was a song by Casting Crowns. In a song on their album Thrive, Mark Hall is singing about what being a Christian is emphatically not. He says, “…it’s not about saying magic prayers and new behavior. It’s all about your heart, He’ll meet you where you are….” Upon first hearing this statement, framed as it is in its setting of hopelessly enjoyable hooky riffs, I felt greatly stirred in my affections. I initially had a sense of encouragement, release, and hope. My emotions can be characterized in this way, “Jesus truly desires of me an inward, invisible change in my heart (or affections). I will never reach a point in which I behave rightly all the time in this life. But my right behavior is not the main point. The point of my salvation (among other things) is that I be transformed internally in such a way that it makes itself visible, or known by my behaviors externally.” Being a Christian is emphatically not about magic prayer and new behavior. I cannot improve on Mark Hall’s statement. And I certainly can’t improve on how he sang it either.
What does it matter if I discipline myself in all my mannerisms, habits, choices, preferences, language, attitudes, and physical appearance if on the inside I still indulge in vanity, self-focus, self-indulgence, self-love, self-esteem, giving myself strokes and pats for what a good guy I am, self-analysis, and calculating how what I say and do will make people esteem me more? In my understanding of Jesus’ treatment of the Pharisees in the Bible it appears that this is how they were. They were painstakingly, meticulously religious. They invented new laws to add to the already extensive and thorough Jewish law that already existed to keep themselves extra “holy”. In their day, they were regarded as the wisest and most respected of religious sages. But in the above scripture, Jesus says they are like a bowl that is clean on the outside but is still dirty on the inside.
As I put that Casting Crowns song on repeat and read the above scripture a few days ago, my initial flood of encouragement changed to a significant conviction and then to a sober enlightenment. I am religious. I am like the Pharisees. I desire to be thought of as patient clever, insightful, secure, strong, kind, and thoughtful. But the cat is out of the bag as soon as soon as the heat or the pressure is turned up on me. I get irritated, annoyed, cranky, and generally unpleasant to be around. But by the Grace of God, I haven’t dwelt on that for very long. Thank you, Jesus. The Holy Spirit, in His goodness, has done me a great favor. He has shone his sanctified flashlight on this malignant growth in my heart so I that I could see it for what it is and do something about it. Or rather, submit myself to the one who can do something about it.
I don’t need to be focused or fixated on my behaviors. I need to be focused on Jesus. I don’t need to be concerned with how I look to other people on the outside. I need to be more alert to monitoring what is going on in my secret thoughts that no one sees. I don’t need to be sweating how many chapters I am going to read in the Bible today or this week. I need to be desperate to meet with Jesus and to have true intimate communion and relationship with him. I don’t need to be preoccupied with how I am going to behave with a person in my life that is difficult for me to love. I need to be preoccupied with how my pride is what keeps me from loving that person and turning away from hateful secret thoughts about them. And the thing is, I don’t think I’m alone in this.
I feel pretty sure, from my experience in life and interactions with fellow humans, that a lot of other people deal with this. It’s called sin. Pride. Self-love. Self-absorption and self-exaltation. The cure is Jesus. More of Him. More intimacy with Him. The cure is a greater understanding of the fact that my greatest need is to imitate him more. His humility. His lowliness. His self-denial. His other-centeredness.
So would you join with me in this? Let’s examine the inside of our hearts and not be content with any ugly thing we find there. Talk to Jesus and confess and kill that sin. Let’s ask God to examine us on the inside and to show us any hateful way in us so that we will truly be clean on the outside. Don’t let your heart languish in a corner for years without looking inside it. You might find a huge ant nest.
Jason Faircloth currently teaches 3rd grade at the Manantial School in Puerto Escondido. Jason and his wife, Kate, and son, Abraham, have lived in Puerto Escondido for almost 4 years now serving with Global Education Ministries.