[Jesus said] "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life" (John 5:39-40 NASB).

The Pharisees made it their job to study and know the Scriptures in order to gain the upper hand on the things of God and keep the rest of the people in the dark. For the Pharisees, the Scriptures had ceased to be a form of revelation. "Manipulation" better describes their use of the sacred texts. By them they engineered and justified their own righteousness, and by them they controlled others. (John Fischer, quoted in "The New Rebellion Handbook", pp. 152-153.)

I have long been interested in religious discussion. A lot of it is extremely good, encouraging, corrective, and helpful. A lot of it is bologna — especially discussions in which the goal is for each of the participants to prove the other wrong about something. Sometimes even that kind of discussion can be good, but often it degenerates into little more than spiritual manipulation.

This can be a terrifying way to approach God.
We pick on the Pharisees because they are easy targets. A man named Nicodemus proved that not all Pharisees were spiritual manipulators. But as a group, they were susceptible to the charge laid in the quote above by John Fischer. They started out with admirable intentions, but somewhere along the line, they began to justify their own flawed lives while expertly condemning others. The result was that nobody was getting closer to God.

Jesus told the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). I love that story. Luke tells us why Jesus told the story. "He told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt" (Luke 18:9). That's a very important introduction, because it explains the purpose of the parable. How could a Pharisee draw closer to God if he trusted himself to already be righteous? How could a Pharisee help anybody else draw closer to God, if all he did was condemn them, or insist they become like himself? Neither of those options has a good result.

Interestingly, the only way a person can draw close to God is by not trusting himself or herself. A person cannot start out thinking she is or he is right or that his or her behavior is perfect. Each person has got to be open to the very real truth that he or she is not righteous at all. Even people who have studied and learned God's word should be very cautious about thinking they are too "right."

But, this can be a terrifying way to approach God. For many people, it terrifies them to think about appearing before God with less than a perfect record. Yet God already knows about their less-than-stellar record. He knows about their sins. Getting close to God, really getting close to God, begins the moment one acknowledges what God already knows and understands that the One they fear is the One with the answer to their sins. Humble, sorrowful, repentant, confessing people get a quick and loving response by God. Haughty, stubborn, sin-denying people who are quick to condemn others get trouble from God. One trusts God. The other doesn't. Which are you?