One of the fundamental truths of spiritual growth is that we can only experience it in relationship with Jesus Christ. This is because spiritual growth can only occur in the context of experiencing righteousness, and in order to experience righteousness, we must have a relationship with Jesus. This is perhaps best illustrated in the life of the Pharisees, religious leaders of Jesus’ day.
The Pharisees are perfect examples of religious lives gone bad. They were part of the Jewish religious establishment in the 1st century. Jesus called them blind guides (Matthew 23:16) and said that they traveled over land and sea to win converts, and then would make their converts twice as much “sons of hell” as they were (Matthew 23:15). I’m not sure how well I would take to being called a “son of hell.” Those are strong words. Clearly, Jesus was not a Pharisee fan! On the surface, we might think that he would be. After all, he was Jewish, and they were Jewish religious leaders.
In addition to being Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees were also incredibly dedicated to practicing spiritual disciplines. They gave a tenth of what they earned to the Temple, prayed often, recited Scripture, and even had a lot of it memorized. I think their spiritual discipline would probably put mine to shame.
But there was a problem. Jesus said the Pharisees neglected the more important matters of the law. Perhaps they did follow many of the rules and regulations of the Bible, but they failed to practice things like justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). Jesus said they cleaned the outside of their cup and dish, but inside they were full of greed and self-indulgence (Matthew 23:25). This means on the outside they appeared righteous, but on the inside they were full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Matthew 23:28). His counsel to them was simple: Clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean (Matthew 23:25).
The basic problem with the Pharisees is that even though they were tremendously dedicated to practicing spiritual disciplines, these things had no value in their lives because they did not have a true relationship with God. The outside looked wonderful, but the inside was empty.
Today it is just as easy to go to church, pray, give some money, do some of the right things, but on the inside feel something is not right. It is easy to feel disconnected from God. This reminds me of a familiar quote I saw the other day which read, “Going to church makes you no more a Christian than sitting in a garage makes you a car.” It is crazy how true that really is. We can walk into church, maintain a positive attitude, and act connected. The question is, can we achieve spiritual growth on the inside? Yes, we definitely can. But it all starts in relationship with Jesus.