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Are Christians a Little Too Sanctimonious?

Dealing with the suffering and sinning parts of ourselves.

As we’ve worked with clients over the years, we’ve discovered a pretty simple truth: We’ve all suffered. We’ve all sinned. And we’ve all been a little sanctimonious at times, too. And as we’ve explored what it means to become whole, we’ve come to the conclusion that wholeness starts with approaching each of these different parts of our souls as Jesus would.

So, how do you deal with the suffering or sinning parts of you?

When Jesus walked the earth, He spent time with three kinds of people: Those suffering for reasons beyond their control, those engaging in corrupt or harmful behaviors and the religious leaders who thought they didn’t need Him. And He had His own way of connecting with the people in each category.

The Suffering: Throughout the Gospels, Jesus encountered numerous people who were suffering. He healed a woman who had been sick for twelve years after she touched His clothes (Mt. 9:20-22), a man who could not walk (Mk. 2:12), ten men with a debilitating, incurable disease known as leprosy (Lk. 17:12-16), a man who had been blind since birth (Jn. 9:6-7), and a young boy was on his deathbed (Jn. 4:50) just to name a few.

Jesus gave the sick and suffering special care. He also often gave them work to do: “Get up! Pick up your mat and go on home” (Jn. 5:8).  “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how He has had mercy on you” (Mk. 5:1-19). Jesus didn’t blame the suffering, nor did He marginalize them.  He welcomed them in and gave them a role.

The Sinning: Jesus also interacted frequently with those seen as “sinners.” These included adulterers (Jn. 8:1-11), rebels (Lk. 15), women who were divorced (Jn. 4:1-26), men who cheated and stole (Lk. 19:1;10) and some who were just known as unnamed “sinners” (Lk. 7:36-50). When the religious leaders criticized Jesus for being friends with these people, He answered, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk. 2:17).

Typically, Jesus did not have harsh words for sinners. Again, He welcomed them and helped them to change: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Lk. 7:50) and “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin” (Jn. 8:11).

But Jesus had a different approach with the sanctimonious: He accused them of being more concerned about their appearance than their character: “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Mt. 23:25).

Jesus asked the sanctimonious to take a step back. They were so immersed in trying to be perfect, they had lost sight of a key point of His teaching—to love those who were run-down or running away from God. On the other hand, with those who were suffering and those who were sinners, Jesus wasn’t harsh, nor was He enabling. He met them in their place of need and drew them near.

Practice getting curious about the parts of you that want to give up or are tempted to stray—don’t push them away. Get to know them. Invite them into Jesus’ healing light. You might be surprised how these parts of you respond to Jesus’ presence and your genuine understanding.

And as for those parts of you that seem to think they have it all together—perhaps your Inner Critic, Judge, Perfectionist, or Prideful Doer—maybe gently ask those parts of you to give you some space. Is it possible that Jesus wants access to the suffering and even the straying parts of you—the parts you don’t like? Jesus went to the margins of society—is it possible that He wants to go to the margins of your soul and shine His light?

Alison Cook, PhD and Kimberly Miller, MTh, MA are the authors of Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies. Alison and her husband are adherents in the Salvation Army Cambridge, Massachusetts Corps. Kim is a Christian counselor in Southern California where she and her husband practice radical hospitality. 

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