“These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” Matthew 15:8
There we were, sitting in the middle of a statewide meeting for ministry leaders when the pastor of a large church leaned over and said to me, “You know, Joe, your hair is too long for you to be able to sing in my choir!” Actually there were probably better reasons that I couldn’t sing in his church choir, but I just smiled and said, “Oh really?”
The guy, who in so many words had told me to “get a haircut,” was a household name in our denomination, was nationally sought after as a preacher, and was what every aspiring minister hoped he could become. So, given how strict he was, you can imagine how shocked I was to later hear that he abandoned his church and family to move in with a woman he had been counseling.
I want to be careful not to sound holier-than-thou, but there is an important lesson here. If we are not careful, we can conform to a bunch of rules that keep us looking good on the outside while ignoring the condition of our hearts. It’s like buying good-looking peaches only to find out that when you cut them open they are bad on the inside.
Jesus confronted this “we’re-OK-because-we-keep-our-rules” attitude when the Pharisees pointed out that the disciples were not washing their hands before they ate. It’s not like the Pharisees were worried about any kind of sanitary issue. No, they had their tunics in a twist because the disciples were breaking a tradition, that is, not following their rules. I’m sure you could have heard a pin drop when Jesus stopped them cold by saying to these keepers of man-made rules, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’” (Matthew 15:7-8). What a gut-wrenching indictment!
So in light of Jesus’ strong words on this point, how do we know when our hearts are far from God? One of the ways we know is when we see our Christianity in terms of the externals. Authentic Christianity is not about the right haircut, being at church every time the doors are opened, serving as an elder or using all of the “Christianese” lingo known to man. You can be all cleaned up on the outside while pride, jealousy, greed, and a dozen other internal demons happily feast on your heart. Let’s remember that “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
Jesus longs to have a real heart-to-heart connection with us that expresses our love to Him in heartfelt acts of devotion instead of just living a life of dutifully keeping all the rules. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13:3, “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
My pastor friend found that he ended up with nothing when his heart was far from God—no ministry, no family, no devoted relationship with God. Fortunately, he repented and ended up reconciling with his wife. He would be the first to tell you that a true love for Christ cannot be replaced by a squeaky clean record of conduct according to “the rules.” When we let the rules rule, our faith is reduced to something like grocery shopping—it’s just another thing on our list of things to do.
So the choice is yours. Your life can be all about the burdensome duties of your Christianity or about the blessings of a heart that is devoted to Jesus. And, by the way, if your heart belongs to Jesus, the rules will take care of themselves!
- Pray and ask God to give you His perspective on the man-made rules in your life. Does He want you to follow them as a sign of respect to people in authority, for the safety of others, for your own safety?
- Divide a sheet of paper into two columns. List five or six of God’s rules in one column and five or six man-made rules in the other column. How are God’s rules different from man-made rules?
- When you interact with people, are you more concerned with what’s on the outside or what’s inside? How does this compare with God’s perspective?