There is a life we want that is whole, strong, pure, and fruitful. It is a life rooted deep in well-nurtured soil. A life that rises beyond the world’s pettiness, stretching its limbs to heaven, giving shade and blessing to others in its reach.
Deep down, everyone wants to live the whole and happy life of Psalm 1: “… like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.” In contrast, we often experience a stunted, withered kind of life. Though we’ve learned to fake it, we don’t feel like whole people. Why?
Jesus tells his disciples, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). The scribes and Pharisees sought righteousness, no doubt. The problem was that the only righteousness they could produce was an external, and therefore only a seeming, righteousness.
Jesus teaches that external righteousness is only half the cake without a corresponding internal righteousness. Consider his words on adultery:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
The point here (as Dr. Pennington showed us) is not that lust is just as bad as adultery; no, committing sexual immorality with another person is worse than only wishing it! The point is, however, that, even if we hold back from adultery, lusting by itself is evil.
To have external virtue while retaining inner vice is the definition of hypocrisy. Hypocrites are people whose actions look good, but whose inner motives are bad.
Jesus describes hypocrites with horrifying imagery: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27). Notice the “woe” at the beginning of this verse; Jesus is signaling our attention to recognize that hypocrisy is the opposite of the good life.
To live the good life, we must exceed outward righteousness and attain wholeness: “You therefore must be whole [teleios], as your heavenly Father is whole [teleios]” (Matt. 5:48). As Dr. Pennington lamented, a widespread misreading of this verse has troubled many people; the Greek word teleios, meaning “whole” or “complete,” has often been mistranslated as “perfect,” causing readers to miss Christ’s intended application.
Rather than intending people to strive for perfection (leading to either despair or legalism), Jesus tells us to seek a whole life, in which our deeds match our desires.
3 Practices to Become More Whole
Living a more whole, happy life is possible.
Yet, because of the continued presence of sin, we will always have to struggle for wholeness through faith. We need to trust in Jesus. Becoming more whole requires us to believe the gospel, i.e., that Jesus, who was whole, died for us, in order to transfer his wholeness to us.
In this faith, we can fight hypocrisy and seek wholeness with specific practices. In Matthew 6, Jesus instructs us about three:
- Giving in Secret. “When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do …. do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” (Matt. 6:2, 4a).
- Praying in Secret. “[The hypocrites] love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others….But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” (Matt. 6:5-6a).
- Fasting in Secret. “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others … But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Consider what happens when you give, pray, fast, or do any other spiritually-colored deed in secret. What is the result of not letting “your left hand know what your right hand is doing”?
The answer is that you start seeing and savoring God, rather than people’s praise. If God takes more and more of your heart’s affections, your spiritual deeds will sync up more and more with your heart’s motives. That’s wholeness.
We asked Dr. Pennington to share one practice that’s helped him grow in human flourishing. He described a habit of going to his “inner office” and kneeling to pray by aid of a psalm. (See Matt. 6:5-6, and Rule of Life #1 and #2.)
What’s stopping you from making a habit of seeking the Father in secret? What’s keeping you from becoming more whole?
We suggest you pick one of the three practices described above and do it today.
Shoulder to Shoulder,
The 3:14 Team
This post was an attempt to answer, in part, what we learned from our recent 3:14 Leader Training Seminar with Dr. Jonathan Pennington, who led us to reflect on the subject of human flourishing in the teaching of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Our next Leader Training Seminar on Dec. 10 will host Dr. Matt Harmon, who will teach us how to interpret and teach the New Testament epistles. Sign up at: http://tinyurl.com/314MattHarmon.