Throughout the New Testament, Jesus has many interesting responses to the actions and attitudes of the Pharisees. We often take the wickedness of these religious zealots for granted – but the kicker is that they didn’t know that they were the bad guys! They believed that they were really walking with God, informed by His word and in line with His Law. They failed to see that somewhere their spiritual trajectory was off. As a result, they were so far away from God that Jesus pronounced the harshest words of His ministry against them.

Pharisee-ism still exists today, and Jesus still pronounces harsh words against it. He says that many will do great things in his name but will be cast away because he never knew them (Mt. 7:22-23). It’s uncomfortable to think about, but we can fall into the same trap. It’s easy to let our spiritual trajectory slip without even realizing it.

Fortunately, it’s also easy to recognize missteps and correct course. There are four definitive character traits that should mark Christ’s Church, and we can check ourselves against each one.

LOVE

More than any other trait in the New Testament, love marks the Church. Jesus said that people will know that we are his disciples by our love (Jn. 13:35). Loving others is the one and only command that Jesus gave his disciples. There are two places where Scripture says that God’s people can be “worthless”. One is the great ‘love’ passage, 1 Cor. 13;1-3. It describes a person who is “off the charts” with spiritual discipline, but unloving. The passage concludes that without love, such a person is nothing. Let’s face it, love is not the first descriptor the world uses for the church. Here’s the stark reality based on Jesus’ own words: if “love” is not the knee-jerk response that people use to describe us, then they can’t say that we are Christians.

Many Christians have replaced love with piety. Piety focuses on eliminating sin in one’s life. We would rather work at being godly than being loving. We justify our piety by saying we should “hate the sin, but love the sinner,” which really means that we want to go on record to announce our disgust for a particular sin – and it’s never one that we struggle with personally. But piety makes us intolerant and judgmental, and causes us to define both ourselves and others by sin. When we replace love with piety, our spiritual trajectory is off.

GOODNESS

Growing up, I never heard a sermon on being good. I think it’s because we are afraid that people will confuse good works as a means of salvation. But next to love, goodness is the second most dominating trait identifying God’s people. Ephesians 2:10 tells us that we have been created for good work. Our goodness also results in God being glorified (Mt. 5:16; I Pet. 2:12).  The second place where God’s people can make themselves worthless is when we are not good. Jesus states that goodness makes us salt and light. Light that’s hidden under a bushel or salt that loses its flavor is worthless (Mt. 5:13-16).

But sometimes our trajectory gets off because we would rather be right than good. We believe we have cornered the market on truth and therefore have the authority to stand as its last bastions. We forget that the Holy Spirit leads all men into truth. Let’s be clear, I am not anti-truth, but it has overwhelmingly replaced goodness as a trait which points gloriously to God.

Micah 5:8 says that God has shown us good, resulting in our seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. I illustrate this in my novel, The Crest, through a character named Caden, a young college guy with a mentor who is a warrior. Caden is given a sword that he can never use and is confused – he’s ready to go after bad guys, but he can’t use his sword against them? The mentor explains that loving mercy constraints wielding the sword because someone always dies when the sword is used, and that’s not good. Caden thus questions how he can be a warrior. The mentor responds by saying that Caden must always step into dark places with the authority of the king, be merciful toward all even the bad guys, and then humbly allow the King to bring about the results. Caden learns that doing the ‘right’ thing is not always the good thing – and the same is true for me and you.

WISDOM

God’s people should be the wisest people on the planet. In both Testaments, wisdom is so definitive that we’re encouraged to ask for it (James 1:5-6). We are to love God with our minds; the Holy Spirit continuously renews our minds; and, God writes his laws on our minds. Paul tells us that Christ in us is the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor. 1:23-24). But although we’re marked with wisdom, it still needs to be exercised. Proverbs describes the work it takes to be wise. We need to seek wisdom like silver or gold, court it like a desirable lover; and, make it our relentless ambition to acquire it.

Wisdom requires a lot of mind gymnastics. Our trajectory gets off because, oftentimes, we’d rather be told what to think than taught how to think “theologically” for ourselves. As Paul explains, we have become complacent with milk when we should desire meat (1 Cor. 3:2).

The cognitive dissonance that comes with pursuing wisdom makes us uncomfortable, and we become quick to label anything that doesn’t fit our theological template as heresy. As an example, when’s the last time you heard a sermon on a topic you haven’t heard a dozen times since high school? For the Pharisees, scripture became so rote that they couldn’t even recognize God in their midst. When we prefer familiar comfort over wisdom, our spiritual trajectory is in jeopardy.

FREEDOM

Freedom is the reckless abandon of everything to hold on to the eternal. Faith is the exercise of freedom. Many people reject Christianity because God’s people are often the most anal, judgmental, fearful people on earth. I know that’s hard to accept, but take a step back and look around. Pretend that you’re not a Christian, and what do you see? Christ didn’t just free us from the bondage and consequences of sin but also from fear and worry (2 Tim. 1:6; Ps. 23); from needing to win God’s favor (1 Cor. 10: 23-33); from having to be strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10); from want (Lk. 12:22-32); and, from mundane living (Isa. 40:28-31).

Nonetheless, our trajectory gets off in two ways. First, we are often vengeful and would rather see someone pay for their sin than accept that Jesus paid it all. When we take this approach, we become fearful rather than free. This was the syndrome of the prodigal’s older brother. Even though he lived in the freedom of the Father’s house he loathed the grace bestowed on his brother because he believed that there should have been recompense.  Second, we would rather be safe than sorry. This was the problem of the Judaizers in the early church. They couldn’t embrace freedom in Christ and thought it safer to embrace the law and Christ. But living ‘safely’ doesn’t mark us as free. When we clutch the temporal instead of the eternal, our spiritual trajectory gets off at the cost of our freedom.

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