Healing the Inner Pharisee

I cannot remember the name of my kindergarten teacher. I cannot remember the names of any of my first grade classmates. However, I have a very vivid memory of the only word I messed up in a first grade reading group: cupboard. I read, “Cup board.” Old Mother Hubbard would have been dismayed. In the same manner, I remember the word that brought my spelling bee prowess to an end in sixth grade: restaurant. Silly things of no importance, and yet, such memories remain and can carry a sting with them. They are sorts of things that nurture and build an inner Pharisee.

It is not unusual in confession to hear someone say that they are “judging others.” Whenever I hear this, I generally assume that the one who is being judged most harshly is the person who is confessing. The “judging” that takes place in our minds is the sound of an “inner critic,” a voice that begins early in childhood and can continue to torment us throughout our lives. It is, of course, rooted in shame, but can be a painful, even nasty voice that is harsh, unfair, and unrelenting.

We are human beings. We seek to minimize what is unpleasant and maximize the pleasurable. As such, we develop strategies in our lives to “cope.” Many of the components of what we describe as our personalities are simply the long habits of coping. Sometimes, the strategies (and so, our personalities) become our own worst enemies. The very things that once seemed to lessen pain may now be a source of pain. The force of habit, however, leaves us burdened and miserable.

The Pharisee, as depicted in the New Testament, is a failed construct, an effort to build a personality that will preserve a form of pleasure and satisfaction while holding the pain at bay. The structure provided by the rules of Pharisaic Judaism (as understood at the time) offered a world that was defined as “righteous”: do this and you will be saved. The very structures that seem to satisfy and protect also serve to enslave and torment. Have I given tithes of everything? Have I prayed three times a day? Did I pray in the right way? Did I do work on the Sabbath? And on and on.

There are many structures in this world that can be used in such a manner. Every rule, from a prayer rule to the rules of grammar, exist for our sake and not the other way around. Every rule, particularly as we confront it from within our shame, has the potential to hide us from ourselves, in which case, it drags us into darkness.

Christ scandalized the rule-bound practices of the Pharisees of His time. He overlooked their requirements for the washing of hands (which was a matter of ritual purity rather than health). His disciples plucked grains in a field on the Sabbath in order to eat. No doubt, there were many such practices not recorded in the gospels. In each case, when questioned, Christ points past the practice to the heart itself. His rule, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” pulled those around Him out of their bondage to mere morality (rules) towards the true, ontological, state of the soul.

So, what is going on here (within the world of our inner Pharisee)? The great battle is wrestling with our attempts to avoid the pain engendered by shame. We hate this emotion and will often do anything to avoid it (including making ourselves miserable in other ways). In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Publican endures the pain of his shame (particularly noted in his inability to lift up his eyes).

What does the Publican gain? We are told that he went home “justified,” which I take to mean that he went home in a right and proper state with God. There is a treasure that lies buried beneath our shame: our soul, the nakedness of the true self. We often spend the better part of our lifetime constructing a scaffolding of pretense, delusion, and imagination, largely to create a world of “safety” around the core of the self. That safety represents (for us) the absence of difficult or unbearable pain.

This is understandable. The world can be a cruel place. It is best, however, if our armor is honest. A difficulty with the armored life is its tendency not only to protect us from others but to hide us from ourselves. What we hide from ourselves, we hide also from God.

I have come to think of the shame construct within our lives as a sort of Hades. It imprisons us and holds us in a kind of prison – a life marked by an inauthentic existence. It is also the case that Christ has entered this existential Hades in order to deliver us. “I did not turn my face from the shame and the spitting.”

The crucifixion of Christ is also the revelation of the world’s shame (and the shame of each individual person). The 17th century Lutheran hymn captures something of this:

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
that we to judge thee have in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted!

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.

Dostoevsky’s character, Father Zossima, suggests a similar understanding:

“There is only one way to salvation, and that is to make yourself responsible for all men’s sins. As soon as you make yourself responsible in all sincerity for everything and for everyone, you will see at once that this is really so, and that you are in fact to blame for everyone and for all things.”

In His crucifixion, Christ makes Himself responsible for the sins of all. We cannot be crucified with Him and do less.

The sins of the world can be something of an abstraction. It is likely easier to make ourselves responsible for those sins than to stand in the flames of our personal shame. When we “bear our shame,” whether in a setting such as confession, in the security of a therapeutic conversation, within the intimacy of a trusted relationship, or even as we stand alone before God and pray, we experience pain. Our face burns, we avert our eyes, tears may come as well. But just beyond and beneath that burning lies the truth. These tears, this pain, is Christ in us. It is little wonder that His first words of greeting in the resurrection are, “Peace be with you.” In this we hear:

“The very thing that you dreaded has taken place and I am still with you. Now we are home, together this day in Paradise. Now we stand in the Garden. You are naked and now unashamed.”

It is in that experience that we begin to see the truth of ourselves, and even to understand the mystery of the soul as the mirror of God. We need hide no more.

44 comments:

  1. Fr. Freeman,
    I have read your blog for several years now and have been blessed and challenged. This morning before reading your blog I was reading 1John 1:8-2:-6. As I was reading my final thought was there are situations I find myself in where I do not know what love looks like in the situation, so I probably fall back into my self protective ways, like a Pharisee (after reading your blog), rather than embracing the shame of my inadequacy and confess, “I do not know how to love you right now.” Does real shame lie in an inadequacy to be fully loving toward the Lord and others? Does any of this make sense?

  2. Thank you for this beautiful article. If you don’t mind me asking, where does this quote come from?

    “The very thing that you dreaded has taken place and I am still with you. Now we are home, together this day in Paradise. Now we stand in the Garden. You are naked and now unashamed.”

  3. Over the course of time in which I cared for my dying grandmother and parents, I encountered the Orthodox Church. At a retreat you spoke at least briefly of shame. I had never heard shame mentioned before except in the old phrase, “Shame on you,” so commonly used when I was a child. When caring for the dying, one is faced daily with the remembrance of death and shame can take over as we replay the tapes of our our lives. This is an intriguing concept. I would be happy if you would continue to expand on the topic. I’m interested in how embarrassment ties in and “inferiority complex” as well. Thank you and Glory to God.

  4. Father, my son is suffering from a deep shame that continues to be inflicted on him and others in a similar situation. Because of it and antecedent shame, he sees no mercy or love anywhere. Those that know him know the situation as it has come to dominate his life and all relationships.

    How does one address such a condition.

  5. Currently reading and discussing with an online book club, Till We Have Faces by C S Lewis. Thank you Father for this deepens my understanding even more.

  6. Michael,
    With patience – and with “safety.” Is there any way for him to leave the situation that continues to inflict shame on him? Has he sought therapy? Situations that inflict shame often need boundaries to be set – some way for a person to be protected. We cannot likely be healed from toxic shame unless we are safe and protected.

  7. Bill,

    I’m not certain shame lies in an inadequacy to love God. It, perhaps, lies in how we think of ourselves as unable to be loved by God (and others) or, perhaps, of our unworthiness to be loved at all. Regardless of the form it takes, it degrades our communion with others and God. It closes us to any other and leaves us alone.

    Father will undoubtedly speak more, and wiser, on your question.

    As for love, I have been thinking that the first question I need to ask myself, when confronted by another, is “how do I love this person?”. Very often, it means I remain in silence as I do not know.

  8. Bill,
    Love, in its perfection, “endures all things.” Thus, the failures in our love certainly contribute to our failures in dealing with shame. But, when we think of shame (our own and that of others) we must remember that we are dealing with the very weakest place in the whole of our makeup. It is the essence of vulnerability. The Lord extends incredible meekness and gentleness with us in these matters.

    From Genesis forward, we see a constant drive in God’s dealings with us to cover our shame – from the animal skins in Genesis, to later clothing us with the righteousness of Christ.

    So, of course our love is inadequate. But Christ has united Himself to our shame. This is key. Shame is not just some terrible thing that we should want to be done with asap. Thing of 2 Cor. 5:21 “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
    This is such an astounding verse. It doesn’t just say that Christ took our sin away, or that He destroyed sin. It says God made Him to “be sin.” So, even in my sin and my shame – I have union with Him. God enters Hades.

    This is a great mystery.

  9. I weep as this is the first time in my life I feel compassion for the Pharisee–and my Pharisee within.

  10. “It says God made Him to “be sin.” So, even in my sin and my shame – I have union with Him.”
    This is something to meditate on.
    There are some places that I think I need to first come out from, then I will find God.
    Thomas Hopko says “When you fall, get up immediately and start over.”
    My mind says “When you fall, wait until you feel better about yourself, then start over.”

  11. Jordan,
    I think that what I have suggested is a deeply “mystical” approach (quite ontological). It is rooted in understanding that Christ came for us, rather than us going to Him. If I do not find Him in my sin, how would I ever know Him. And this can be expanded. For example:

    This morning, during my prayers, I was aware of my usual “brain fog.” It’s a combination of my usual ADHD, and of the general fatigue that comes with my age and the medications I take for my heart condition. Yesterday, I was quite frustrated about it and somewhat moody as a result. Today, I understood that Christ has united Himself to my fog and that I can know Him – in the fog. So, today, I have been deeply blessed in the fogginess of my brain and nearly ecstatic over the awareness of Christ’s presence precisely in that affliction.

    It’s an understanding with wide application. It is Christ crucified.

  12. Father,
    Your personal example of how the Lord’s presence can be found in what one would normally rush to interpret as His absence – the fogginess affliction – is invaluable.
    I couldn’t help but remember a saint of our time, tomorrow in fact is his first-ever feast: Saint Ephraim of Katounakia. He, himself, was deeply afflicted with such things until, despite his many ecstatic encounters of God in the Uncreated Light over the years (which had left a permanent ‘brightness’ on his countenance we all noticed upon seeing him as a frail old man), towards the very end of his life in his continuous outward deterioration he lost his sight too (and couldn’t eat either) and would, on the one hand, cry about this because he couldn’t see his beloved icons etc, but, on the other hand, would promptly glorify God for it, and for any other affliction, knowing full well that Christ is “inside of it”, it is another opportunity for further, closer union with Him. May we have his holy intercessions!

  13. I have found the practices of mindfulness to be helpful as a skill in noticing what is happening, and remaining present while it is happening. By “it” I mean the experiences, thoughts, and feelings that trip me up… usually self-consciousness, anxiety, procrastination, and insomnia. I have found that these skills really dovetail with my desire to turn and be open to God, to find God in the midst of my experience.
    The ontological approach is comforting, that is to know that even my failures will deliver me to God’s arms.

  14. Dear Michael,
    If we are in such a state, we are probably suffering. But if we experience such thoughts, our capacity to recognize their presence might offer an opportunity to reflect that we are holding a two edged sword that will inflict wounds on our own soul.

    The question is how do we put down such a sword? With prayer and God’s grace no doubt. But just being able to recognize that we hold such thoughts and with a modicum of self reflection question the validity of such thoughts , is a big first step toward our healing.

  15. I just listened to Jessica Hooten Wilson’s presentations on Laurus from the Eighth Day 2020 Symposium and I found her comments on the book very enlightening to this article. This is especially true of how she emphasizes that living out the grace of God is so very messy! But, in the end, it results in a mercy received that is salvific.

    So much of living life requires not only patience but also long-suffering.

  16. Father, not to be combative but if I really am in full judgement mode is it not rather difficult to move toward repentance? I do not feel safe going from Pharisee to penitent.

    Also, I am perplexed by your statement that we must take responsibility for others sins like Jesus. I find it safer not to do that or I tend to go all “judgement day”. Could you please clarify.

  17. Thank you P. Stephen for your humble testimony, the experience of the presence of the Lord that you share with us is so precious and alive that I feel a lot of understanding and joy. Glory to God !

    Dino, at the Métochion of Simonas Petra (France) this morning, we celebrated (Matins and Divine Liturgy) for the first time Saint Ephrem of Katounakia with veneration of a relic of the saint (a vertebra). I can tell you that his presence breathed indescribably in the church and that a deep force full of Hope invaded me … I discover more and more the incredibly alive reality of the deceased through their relics. Everything is crossed with Life and Light when God gives his grace, in a way so spontaneous and unpredictable, even to me, really full of difficult sinful thoughts … So anything can come at any moment, what a wonder ! Glory to God !

  18. Hélène,
    What a blessing!
    Father Theotokis over there was particularly close to the Saint. If he ever spoke to you about him you would surely leave with fire in your heart.

  19. Yes, Dino, I know what you’re talking about with P.Theotokis, but I won’t say more here.
    Only to say also, that a deep repentance with tears arises surprisingly before the dilation of the heart and the new forces of Life … this during the Divine Liturgy, in the presence of Saint Ephrem …

  20. Michael,
    No doubt, when in the throes of a “full judgment mode” it would be hard to suddenly move toward repentance. The easiest thing that I can imagine doing in such a case is standing before the icon of Christ (of His crucifixion or the Extreme Humility).

    On taking on the sins of others – it is allowing ourselves to be identified with them. For example, when we extend mercy to someone, there is (properly) an empathy and understanding that is taking place. It is, to use another image, to see someone struggling to carry something and to step in and help them carry the load (as did St. Simon of Cyrene). St. Simon did not know it, but at that very moment he was helping to carry the weight of the sin of the whole world.

    If I am being crucified with Christ – it doesn’t mean simply dying – it is that particular crucifixion – a crucifixion that was shame-bearing and did not separate itself from sinners. But, this is a gift of grace. Don’t force it. If you ask God for it, He will give it only a little at a time. But, like everything that doesn’t make sense at first, we can put it on the shelf and let it wait for a time when we are more ready.

    I think I’m puzzled about how take responsibility for the sins of others makes you go “all judgment day.” It doesn’t mean “thinking” about the sins of others. It is an act of empathy and participation. Others out there are bearing the weight of my sin all the time (not willingly, but because my sin drags the whole world down).

  21. Michael,
    i always find great help in the concepts hidden within the parable of the man who was forgiven the countless talents debt and then looked upon the minuscule debt owed him from that neighbour.
    That authoritative concept is quite identical to many aphorisms that we often here: like “love your enemies”, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”, or “man can only hold unto the exact amount of Grace as the amount of “weight” of his neigbour he can gladly withstand”…

  22. Father, to protect myself from really acknowledging my shame it becomes quite easy to see the sins of others as the cause of my shame.

  23. Michael,
    Ah. I think that’s probably pretty common. And, in my experience, the more the shame stings, the stronger I want to push back against the perceived source (other people). For some (such as those with ADHD), there is even something called “Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria” which simply means that they are extremely sensitive to criticism (real or perceived) which means there’s a very quick trigger for shame built in. It’s little wonder that people with ADHD are much more likely to have substance abuse-addictions!

    So – (as someone with ADHD) – I understand the struggle against shame-triggers. The problem, of course, is that pushing back in anger, and such, against these outside causes, doesn’t work. It often just intensifies the shame and the pain. Attending to the shame itself (bearing even a little bit of it) is, I think, the only thing that works.

    Sometimes, attending to the shame can even defuse it somewhat, by realizing that it is not going to destroy you. It is sitting with the pain in the presence of Christ. In prayer, we can invite Christ into the shame to bear it with us (He’s actually already there). It is possible, even, to have a conversation with Him about the shame while you are sitting together inside it.

    All of these are strategies that have a way of “disarming” the extreme power of shame. I’m learning, as I’ve practiced this over the past few years, that it is effective – though it does not make the triggers go away – nor – so far – has it made me less “sensitive.” I suspect that’s a matter of wiring.

  24. Father, my recent post was not appropriate. It was off topic, poorly written, ill conceived(though all true). I bear a little shame. I am taking chemo for leukemia and often enter a brain fog without awareness. She has warned me to stay away from sharp objects and the internet after chemo. Again, my sincere apologies to you and anyone else who may have seen the post. Blessings! DP Smith

  25. I have sometimes wondered why the sadducees seemed to get off the hook of condemnation. They’re rarely participating in the meetings in which the Lord’s words are mentioned. The occasion does arise where the Lord speaks to them when they intended to entrap him, but not much more. But with the regularity of the disparagement of the Pharisees, I wonder whether there is more going on historically, or theologically? The Sadducees were a higher social class, if my memory is correct. But they don’t figure much in the Biblical narrative, it seems to me, and I sometimes wonder why.

  26. Dee,
    It’s not an area of expertise for me. But, I have understood, like you, that the Sadducees were upper class, and provided the priestly class (for the most part) as well as the administrative positions in the state and with regard to Rome. Christ seems to have dismissed them as “knowing neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” I suspect they were not much engaged in the wider daily life of Jewish society – but mostly present in Jerusalem. Interesting question.

  27. About the Pharisees vs the Sadducees… was it not the case that among the Jews the Pharisees were held in much higher esteem than the Sadducees? Moral, ascetic, and “blameless”, as St Paul says? I seem to remember hearing this somewhere, but I’m not certain. But if that’s the case, then perhaps that’s why they are mentioned often – because they are the whitewashed tombs that we all are or want to be.

  28. Salaam,
    No doubt the Pharisees saw themselves in this way. But in places I read a kind of jubilation among the crowd when Christ rebukes them, suggesting that such perceptions were more self-perceptions indicative of their theological group. I suspect also they considered themselves above the Sadducees and vice versa. As schools of thought they may have been engaged in regular arguments of debate.

    I find it interesting that Christ refers to those in the resurrection as ‘angels’ because I’ve just learned that apparently the Sadducees didn’t believe in angels either; and also interestingly, had a kind of sola scriptura approach to the written scripture.

  29. Your “cup board” story brought to mind a similar memory, one at least just as embarrassing because if I remember correctly, it happened in high school. By the time I was a sophomore, I was two years ahead in English. An honor, I suppose, but being two years younger (and about four years shorter) than the rest of the class, I was very shy and intimidated. Our class was reading a play aloud, and the teacher gave me a major role. Nervously reading my lines, I came upon the word “pneumonia.” I’d heard the word by then, many times, and I’m sure I’d seen it in print as well, but it took me by surprise at that moment and I sputtered out something that sounded like “pin-noo-MO-nee-a.”

    This occurred in 1976. The memory still stings.

  30. Your kindergarten story is likewise very interesting to me. Some of my earliest vivid memories are of feeling shame while in kindergarten. I was extremely shy and my teacher was not good at dealing with my shyness.

    The construction of “a scaffolding of pretense, delusion, and imagination, largely to create a world of ‘safety’ around the core of the self” reminds me of the “idealized image” discussed in a series of lectures by Archimandrite Symeon Kragiopoulos. I suggest the book on these lectures entitled “Do You Know Yourself? Psychological Problems and the Spiritual Life”. I think you are discussing the same thing. The “idealized image” is when we create an image for ourselves which is impossible for us to fulfill, setting ourselves up for constant disappointment with ourselves. Is this the shame construct that you are discussing?

  31. I don’t know how well we can know ourselves actually. I believe there is a saying that what we are is an ontological reality known only by God, who knows the person we are becoming.

    But alternatively honest self reflection helps toward healing. The problem is the construction of honesty. We usually believe what we want to believe or what we are conditioned to believe.

    I had long believed that I had flunked chemistry in high school. My son dug out my old records and discovered that it wasn’t true. Then he asked me why I lied. Truth is I didn’t know it wasn’t true. But the truth brought before me provided the occasion to question myself about my self perceptions.

    Sometimes we believe we are goats when we are just funny-looking sheep.

  32. Jennifer,
    I am suggesting that much of the image we have of ourselves is a false construct – not just the idealized versions. Who and what we are is something that is “hidden” – (Col 3:3-4). The truth of who we are is something we are moving towards rather than something we already are. There’s a number of layers in all of this. I’ll be writing more about this in the next few articles.

  33. I recall reading in the book How to Read the New Testament by Fr. Etienne Charpentier, (I don’t know much about him, but I think he was a French priest who wrote on Biblical topics and who was also an archeologist. His books on the Bible – he also wrote “How to Read the Old Testament” – seem to follow the historical-critical method, as far as I can tell.) that the Sadducees were mostly political opportunists who “didn’t have enough religious vitality” to survive the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 whereas the Pharisees were actually holy men except for the one huge flaw which was that they thought that through their personal holiness and merits they had earned themselves their places in Heaven.

    Fr. Charpentier says that Jesus felt close to the Pharisees and that his constant rebukes directed towards them were due to His disappointment that they had chosen to let their holiness lead them astray, and also because they were in turn misleading the humble common folk who admired them greatly on account of their visible ascetic life.

    -NSP

  34. Father, you say you “Don’t do politics!” That is true in a limited sense. Yet modern political ideology, no matter what flavor is all about shame. It is not that far removed from the Medieval Japanese culture of ritual suicide because of shame.

    The politics of “pride” is the other side of the same coin. “I will revel in my shame. Even kill and destroy for it.”

    Of course, neither submitting to death in the name of shame nor turing shame into a weapon eradicates it.

    Only repentance and God’s mercy, i e. The Cross does that.

  35. Michael,
    I’ve heard it said that America is a shame-based culture in which it is forbidden to talk about shame. Groups, identities, and such, are often shame-based – it’s how we know we belong and it’s often why we want to belong. One reason I counsel people to avoid politics is because they will quickly become blind to their shame and captive to its forces – enthralled in the abyss of shame that is popular culture.

    We are told repeatedly by the great spiritual fathers to reckon ourselves to be dead. We would do well to be dead to these things. This is very hard.

  36. One if the reasons, largely hidden, I gravitated to the Orthodox Church was because her theology did not seem to be shame based as what I saw of RC stuff. Sacraments were required so Protestantism was not a consideration.
    Even The Cross in Orthodox depiction is not shameful but a deep repentance required for Ressurection. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. ”
    Pascha the highest holy day, reflected in everything else we do.
    The real antithesis of shame.

    Part of my journey in the Church has been the growing recognition that the theology of the Ressurection is integral to my own soul and the meaning of Matthew 9:13: “Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance”.

    Shame, as you note, always draws folks away from repentance and mercy.
    Shame may very well be the reason Satan revolted against God as pride and shame seem to be closely intertwined.

    Of course it has only taken 35 years to begin to see this. Almost half my life. I am a slow learner.

    It is not just the US which is a culture of shame. Most historically significant cultures are shame based, IMO as the quest for power always arises out of shame and a desire to avoid death, the ultimate shame.

    How hard it is to admit, without shame, that I am nothing outside God’s mercy and condescension. I came from nothing and to nothing would I return except for His mercy.
    All of that adds even more beauty and depth to Portia’s plea for mercy in The Merchant of Venice: https://poets.org/poem/merchant-venice-act-iv-scene-i-quality-mercy-not-strained

    Lord have mercy, Father bless.

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