Many people imagine God as some kind of cosmic faultfinder. They see him as a stern judge who is obsessed with their every defect, and is perpetually annoyed with them because they are not as perfect as the Adam he created. To counterbalance this image of stern disapproval, Pharisees—both ancient and modern—have devised countless self-imposed rules and restrictions. Their quest for divine approval leads to pride in what they do or avoid doing, and smugness about tithing down to a sprig of mint or a bit of cummin.” Not only do they take issue concerning small matters, but they also feel the need to instruct others to follow their example to the letter. Such people think that true godliness demands their services as ophthalmic surgeons and fruit inspectors. They are constantly trying to remove splinters from poor sinners’ eyes and assessing the quantity and quality of the harvest in the lives of others.

The saddest thing about such Pharisees is not their self-righteousness, but their distorted notion of God. They see him as being cold and stern—severe and grim. And they themselves become like the God of their imagination—severe and unloving.

Fortunately God is not like that at all. He is perfect in himself, but he is not a perfectionist toward us. A. W. Tozer, 20th-century spokesman for the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, once said, “How good it would be if we could learn that God is easy to live with. He remembers our frame and knows that we are dust. He may sometimes chasten us, it is true, but even this he does with a smile, the proud, tender smile of a father who is bursting with pleasure over an imperfect but promising son who is coming every day to look more and more like the one whose child he is.”

Of course the entire concept of God as our loving Heavenly Father is predicated upon our relationship to him. According to Scripture, God is the Creator of all, but not the Father of all. Faith in Christ makes us his children. To us who believe, God is the perfect Father—and because he is perfect, he knows that we, his children, are still growing. While often our behavior may leave much to be desired, and at times we may seem to lack progress or even suffer defeats and setbacks, he remains patient.

As the perfect Father, God looks at us who are in Christ and beholds the countenance of his perfect Son. He knows that one day in heaven we will be like him. And because of that perfect sonship he has begun to form in us, he can be patient; he can be merciful.

Nevertheless, because he is the perfect Father, there are times when God must chasten an erring child. But even that bit of correction, grievous as it sometimes is, proves to us that we are indeed his children. I never cease to take comfort in the passage that says, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth…for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” (Hebrews 12:6-7).

It is a sad parent-child relationship that is based only on fear without love. However, there is a healthy and appropriate “fear” that entails proper respect. In that sense, we ought to “fear” our earthly parents and God, our Heavenly Father. The Scriptures teach that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” To insure a productive relationship with our Heavenly Father, we ought to maintain a holy reverence and respect and try to please him by doing well. Nevertheless, our relationship with the Heavenly Father is based on love. Thankfully, however, it is based not on our love for him, but on his love for us the love that sent Yeshua to the cross for our sins. Again, the Bible says it better than I ever could: “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

I love God, and I hope that you do too. I love him not just because he commands us to love him. The command, in and of itself, would be ineffectual without the knowledge that God is loving. God is merciful; he cares for me. He knows my every weakness; he knows how often I fail him. Yet he forgives and upholds me, and he draws me closer. I love him because I am discovering more and more that he is utterly worthy of my love.

The Pharisees of Yeshua’s day, and the Pharisees of our time as well, tried and are trying so hard to be righteous that they miss the mark. Not only do they fail to please God, but they also incur and confer misery in the wake of their agonizing efforts. To quote A. W. Tozer once again, he summed up this kind of right gone wrong when he wrote:

There are areas in our lives where in our effort to be right we may go wrong, so wrong as to lead to spiritual deformity. To be specific let me name a few:

1. When in our determination to be bold we become brazen.

2. When in our desire to be frank we become rude.

3. When in our effort to be watchful we become suspicious.

4. When we mean to be conscientious and become overscrupulous.

“Spiritual deformity”—I can think of no better description for the Pharisees, ancient and present. I do pity the poor Pharisees of today. In their misguided zeal they tend to replace their freedom in Christ with shackles of human design. Surely they must lack joy. They “know” more rules than God ever gave, but they don’t know the heart of the Giver. If they did know, they could relax instead of wringing their hearts to squeeze out a drop or two of righteousness.