Maggie H. Johnson

Writer • Speaker

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Recovering Pharisee

My mama always used to say, “Given the right circumstances, anyone is capable of doing anything.” This was her way of trying to curb the pharisaical tendencies that had already begun to form in my childhood heart.

I wonder if there are other mamas like mine –  compassionate women who never give up on their babies, even when their hearts grow hardened to the gospel of grace. I wonder if these women pray incessantly – just like my mama did – that their children would encounter Jesus in a life-wrecking way. I wonder if they listen patiently to the self-righteous soap box of their offspring while simultaneously trusting that God’s love can level the most legalistic heart.

I wonder about these kinds of things, because I have to believe that there are people out there who pray for the recovering pharisees just as much as they pray for the recovering alcoholics.  We all have our addictions, my vice just wears different clothing.

Addiction is addiction is addiction. And I’m addicted to rules, to guidelines, to laws that convince me I’m better than you.

That’s why Jesus knocks the wind out of my sails when he says to Nicodemus (and to me): “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him, ” (John 3:17). I got so caught up with doing right and being better that I missed the point: Grace.


Being a pharisee might make me feel awesome for a period of time, but like most addictions, the high won’t last. I need the grace of Jesus to sober me up, to shock me back into the reality of my position before God. In his book Wild Grace, Max Lucado says, “God dispenses his goodness not with an eye dropper but with a fire hydrant. Your heart is a Dixie cup, and his grace is the Mediterranean Sea. You simply cannot contain it all. So let it bubble over. Spill out. Pour forth. And enjoy the flood.” That’s the effect of grace – unhindered, overflowing, untainted love.

When my mama cautioned, “Given the right circumstances, anyone is capable of doing anything,” what she was really saying is this: The ground is level at the foot of the cross.

This recovering pharisee is learning the bigness of God. He was too small to me before – only powerful enough to save the hard-working types, those who could pick themselves up by their bootstraps. I ignored the fact that he is also the God of the forgotten. He is God over the tired, the nothing-left-to-give types, those who can’t see a way out. He is God over the ones who just can’t catch a break, and even for those who keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again.

The ground is level at the foot of the cross, even for this recovering pharisee.

Our Communion Calling

Dusk began to settle and the streets grew quiet. A holy calm engulfed the night as God’s people took their familiar places at their familiar tables. The hustle and bustle of business was stilled – if only for a night – to remember.

We remember when Yahweh rescued us from Egypt.

We remember how the blood of the lamb covered our doorposts.

We remember how that lamb saved our lives.

But on this night, Jesus was going to start a new thing. This should come as no surprise to us now. Jesus is in the business of new. In Matthew 5, he gives a fresh perspective on the law when he references different ways to think about murder, adultery, divorce, and loving our enemies. He even tells us in Revelation 21, “See, I make all things new.”

But this was going to be more than fresh perspective. Jesus was about to provide a radical calling for the people of God. Luke 22:19 says, “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” After they had eaten the bread, Jesus did the same with the cup of wine, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

The Passover meal that once stood as a reminder of God’s provision in Egypt would now be a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice.

We remember when God rescued us from death.

We remember how the blood of Jesus covered our sin.

We remember how that Lamb saved our lives.

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We take this bread and remember his body that was broken for us. We drink from this cup and remember his blood that was poured out for us. But it’s more than just remembrance, isn’t it? Jesus had a knack for object lessons. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 or the parable of the lost coin in Luke 15, for example. I think the same thing is happening here.

This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me. // 1 Cor. 11:24

Now you are the body of Christ. // 1 Cor 12:27

This is my body, which is broken for you. Now you are the body of Christ. Do this in remembrance of me – taking this bread and drinking from this cup. But also pour yourself out for the world in the same way I have done for you, because now you are my body.

Jesus was using communion as an object lesson. He was showing us how to live as his followers. He was calling us to a life of brokenness that’s poured out for others. We remember him by taking the sacred meal, yes, but also by replicating his actions in our ordinary, everyday lives.

We are the broken and poured out body of Christ. 

Communion is our calling.

My Soap Box

Several years ago, I began praying a very specific prayer: God, make me love the things you love. That short, seemingly insignificant request quickly became a defining moment. I was prepared to love things like systematic theology, trendy worship music, and evangelism. But I was not prepared to love the poor, the victim of domestic violence, the immigrant, the orphan, or the underprivileged.

One thing is clear to me now: God cares about justice (Micah 6:8; James 1:27; Isaiah 61:8; Isaiah 1:17; Psalm 140:12; Amos 5:24; Zechariah 7:9; Deuteronomy 16:20). Apart from the underlying tenor of redemption through Jesus Christ, God’s most prevalent concern, which is repeated from Genesis to Revelation, is justice. And because God cares about justice, that means I should too (Proverbs 29:7).

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As citizens of Heaven, we operate under different standards – those of grace, compassion, and forgiveness. We are governed by principles of the Kingdom, not of culture. And we like to talk about that when it comes to alcohol, premarital sex, marriage, and other hot-button topics. But there is an unsettling silence when it comes to doing justice. In his book Generous Justice, Pastor Tim Keller says,

If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn’t live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God’s grace, but in his heart he is far from him. If he doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just.

Doing justice is the natural consequence of falling in love with Jesus. 

Not long ago some friends of ours were approached by a single mom at their church. She and her two kids could no longer afford to live in their apartment and they needed a place to stay…indefinitely. She offered to pay as much as she could in rent, but the couple wouldn’t take her money. Our friends let this family move in and live in their house free of charge.

Much to our shock and disappointment, our friends were chastised by other Christians. You’re enabling her, they would say. What if they take advantage of your generosity, they warned. They should at least have to pay your increased water bill, they protested. Our friends came to us – distraught and confused – asking for advice. Had they done the wrong thing? Were they being foolish by letting this family stay with them for free?

My response was swift: “You did the right thing. You’re showing all of us what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus.”

Then I pointed them to Isaiah 58, a passage that often feels like it was written specifically for the American church. God says, “Day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God” (v. 2). Ouch, God. As if we were a nation that does what’s right. As if we were obedient followers. The Israelites were doing the thing they thought would make God happy: Fasting. But while engrossed in their religious pursuits, they were simultaneously neglecting and mistreating the poor. So God calls them out: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter” (v. 5-7; emphasis mine)?

In Isaiah 58:10, God says to spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed. Our friends were doing just that. They were spending themselves on behalf of this sister. They were letting her stay for free so she could get back on her feet. Letting this woman live with them was not going to make them go into debt or compromise their checking account, so they chose generosity over greed. They chose faith over fear.

Doing justice is the natural consequence of falling in love with Jesus. 

Doing justice is the response to a God who rescued us when we were spiritually impoverished. We act justly because we know what it means to be in need. We pour ourselves out for those in need because Jesus poured himself out for us.

We can go to church every week as if we were devout Christians. The taste of alcohol may never cross our lips as if we wanted to do what’s right. But loving Jesus looks like doing justice.

Come Just As You Are

“Daddy, can we play that game?”

We’d played with barbies, with my plastic guns and superhero outfits, and even with my little playhouse. He would let me paint his nails and sing him songs. Daddy never said no when I asked to play, but this time was different.

This time the game was real.

The two of them had been going at it for hours. In a marital standoff, verbal assaults were flung with intention and doors were slammed for maximum impact. I watched intently, ready to re-enact this riveting game when Mama got tired later on. But it wasn’t a game, and Daddy didn’t want to play.

This wouldn’t be the last time my parents argued with fervor, and their interactions soon became familiar territory to my four year-old self. Healthy families intimidated me (and sometimes still do). I knew how to navigate tension, rage, and betrayal. But kindness and sincerity left me skeptical at best and aggressive at worst. So church was hard for me. All dressed up in our ironed clothes with curled locks, we would sing, “Come just as you are…”

Lies We Believe

Those words were a lie. I heard how the adults gossiped about the Girl with the Blue Hair, and how Jesus obviously was not pleased with her attire. Our song was not true. You cannot come just as you are.

It was then that I realized something terrible. The Girl with the Blue Hair could change her clothes. She could take out her piercings and dye her hair back to a natural color. She could change the things about herself that didn’t measure up. But I couldn’t.

I couldn’t clean up my family. My past would always be dirty and unacceptable. A foundational belief quickly began to take root in my heart: I am too broken to be loved.

Many women struggle with the belief that they are inadequate, but I have wrestled with the lie that I am too much.

I’m too opinionated. I’m too direct. I’m too emotional. I’m too intense. I care too much. I over-analyze. I’m too controlling. I’m too competitive. I’m too dramatic. I’m too broken.

How could Jesus love me?

I found my answer in one of the most boring parts of the Bible: The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1. At first glance this looks like an uneventful list of unimportant people, but with a little research, the passage comes alive. With a simple skim of the chapter, several names start to jump out: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and several other women. Women were not typically included in genealogies, so this caught my attention. But these weren’t just random, insignificant women…

Tamar is the first woman mentioned (v. 3) and her story is found in Genesis 38.  Tamar marries this guy named Er, but God ends up killing him because he “was wicked in the sight of the Lord” (v. 7). Because Tamar’s husband died before getting her pregnant, Er’s brother Onan was responsible for doing the deed. But he also turned out to be wicked, so God killed him too. Tamar’s father-in-law, Judah, was getting pretty worried. Every time one of his sons went to be with this woman, they ended up dead! Instead of providing for Tamar in her time of need, he sent her away to live as a widow for the rest of her life. But Tamar, being the resourceful woman that she was, had another plan. She disguised herself as a prostitute, ended up sleeping with her father-in-law, and gets pregnant.

The next woman named in Matthew 1 is Rahab – the prostitute who helped the spies at Jericho. We know her story ends with faithfulness and belief, but her past is dark.

Then Ruth, who we all love. Her love story with Boaz is one for the ages, but have you seen her family tree? Ruth was a Moabite, and Genesis 19 tells us that Moabites have an incestuous origin.

When you think it can’t get any worse, we come to Matthew 1:6 where we find the woman who cannot even be named. Matthew calls her “Uriah’s wife” because he doesn’t want us to forget how she and King David first met.

Finally we come to Mary. The unwed, pregnant teen who birthed our Messiah.

This is our Jesus – whose family history is littered with incest, prostitution, adultery, and paganism. God knew we’d be afraid to come just as we are, and I think that’s why he gave us this background. We needed to know that Jesus came from a screwed up family. We needed to know the skeletons in his closet. Matthew intentionally left in all the sketchy parts of Jesus’ story so we would know: We really can come just as we are.

The Girl with the Blue Hair can come.

The husband addicted to pornography can come.

The hormonal teenager who is skeptical about religion can come.

The single mom, the widow, the victim, the pagan, the homewrecker. They can all come just as they are.

And so can you.

Jesus Wrecked My Life

He turned water into wine, made the blind see, and cast out demons. Jesus is in the business of doing miracles. Every time he comes around, someone gets healed. And in Revelation 21 he lets us know that he makes all things new. New is good, right? So, as much as I tried, I couldn’t figure out why my life didn’t become a beacon of goodness once I became his girl.

Why didn’t Jesus fix my life?

Despite the stories I’d heard from revival preachers and televangelists, I did not instantly stop craving attention from guys and my home life was still a tumultuous war zone. Following Jesus didn’t fix my problems. In some instances, he made them worse.

Jesus Wrecked My Life

Pursuing holiness won’t make you many friends. The word holy even means “to be set apart,” so loneliness quickly became a familiar friend. I have vivid memories of being made fun of by other girls in my Sunday school class, simply because I could recite that week’s memory verse. I skipped class the next week – roaming the church halls while my parents were in Big Church – but my folks found out, and I got grounded. As if that weren’t enough, I actually had a guy tell me that he wasn’t interested in me because I seemed “too innocent.” For a preteen who just decided to buy into the Jesus life, this was all a little jarring.

Fast forward.

I decided to attend a Bible college, and hoped that things would finally go right for me. Wrong. My undergrad days were riddled with toxic relationships, major health issues, and abuse.

I knew Jesus urged us to “count the cost” but no one said it would be this hard.

In one of his poems, William Yeats wrote:

But Love has pitched his mansion in

The place of excrement;

For nothing can be sole or whole

That has not been rent.

The strongest bonds of love are forged in the places of excrement. That’s what I found out. Jesus completely wrecked my life. He dug into every corner of my heart, which was (and still is) indescribably painful. But I have experienced the truth of what Yeats was trying to say: Love is built in the trenches.

It’s not easy, but nothing good ever was.

C.S. Lewis was a master storyteller who wrote about the kingdom of God, sometimes subtly and others times overtly. I’ve often felt that his stories illustrate my own journey with Jesus. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace, an annoying and pretentious boy, gets turned into a dragon – a manifestation of the selfishness that resides in his heart. After much soul-searching, Eustace tries to tear off his dragon skin so he can be a boy again. But no matter how hard he tries, the dragon skin will not come off.

“You will have to let me undress you,” says Aslan the Lion.

Eustace was pretty desperate by this point. Aslan had sharp claws that would undoubtedly cause severe pain, but Eustace agreed to let him peel off the dragon skin anyway. Aslan was his only hope.

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…

Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times,  only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and he threw me into the water. It smarted like anything only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…

After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me…in new clothes.

I am Eustace. I’m selfish, stingy, and always think of myself first. My heart is hard and it takes the excruciating power of Jesus to break through. But I’m desperate, friends. I’m desperate for healing and clear vision and grace. Jesus took all that I held most dear and smashed it on the altar of my pride. He tore idols – one by one – from my white-knuckled grip. It’s painful, but it’s the work of transformation.

For years I sang the words of Hillsong and begged God to “take it all.” Then he did. It’s true: Jesus wrecked my life. He flipped it upside down and changed my course.

Love built His mansion in the place of my excrement.

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