“Tell me what you think about this: A man had two sons. He went to the first son and said, ‘Son, go and work today in my vineyard.’  The son answered, ‘I will not go.’ But later the son changed his mind and went.  Then the father went to the other son and said, ‘Son, go and work today in my vineyard.’ The son answered, ‘Yes, sir, I will go and work,’ but he did not go.  Which of the two sons obeyed his father?” The priests and leaders answered, “The first son.” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before you do.
Matthew 21:28-31 NCV
The battle always took place at the dining room table. Cards were dealt and a fiercely competitive game of hearts or spades, sometimes poker, or my grandmother’s favorite bid whist would ensue.
During these card sessions my grandmother would dispense her wisdom, telling stories and providing a psychological profile of family members. Holidays were an intense time of card playing, and on one occasion I decided to start talking a little trash. I think I was about 12 or 13 years old.
My grandmother looked at me with a bit of amusement and said, “Deal the cards.” It was the longest hour of my life (up to that point anyway) as my grandmother defeated me in a variety of games and multiple ways, repeating this simple phrase after each victory, “Boy, talk is cheap.” Accurately profiled and decidedly defeated, I have never forgotten the lesson.
Jesus makes the same point in Matthew 21:28-31, teaching us that it doesn’t matter what you say, only what you do. There is one father with two sons. He asks the first son to work, but he says “no.” Turning to the second son, and asking the same question, he receives a “yes.” What makes the story interesting is that the son who said “no” actually goes to work, while other who said “yes” never shows up.
“Deep reflection” can help us see the difference between these two sons? The son who said “no” changed his mind and went to work. According to scripture, the son who said “yes” never changed his mind, so we will take some license and assume his outward “yes” hid an internal “no.” We can therefore conclude, both sons had a “no” heart but only one changed. This leaves us with an important truth. The kingdom of God is not about our ability to perform but rather our capacity to change.
Jesus concluded his parable of the two sons by saying, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before you do.” This was a rebuke to the religious leaders who pretended to obey God like the son who said “yes” but instead lived with a “no” heart (Matthew 21:23).
These religious leaders like the Pharisees focused on the appearance of obedience to God while in their hearts hiding rebellion. This focus on behavior while ignoring or denying the condition of the heart is what I call “religious behaviorism.” Religious behaviorism is the opposite of “Deep Change,” choosing ‘cheap talk’ over ‘real obedience’.
The Superficiality of Religious Behaviorism
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Matthew 23:27-28 NIV
The Cambridge Dictionary defines behaviorism as “the theory that the study of the human mind should be based on people’s actions and behavior, and not on what they say that they think or feel.” This theory has enormous benefit in areas like cognitive psychology, where this soft science of the mind has helped great numbers. However, faith is ‘the soft science of the heart,’ and the heart responds poorly to behaviorism.
“Religious behaviorism” ignores “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12-13), choosing instead to emphasize the rules of religious behavior (Colossians 2:22-23). This approach to faith frustrates, deceives, and leaves those longing for change disillusioned and disappointed. It practices a form of faith detached from power, turning Christianity into a form of religious behavior modification (Mark 12:24; II Timothy 3:5). Instead of experiencing the transformational power of God to change lives, believers are spiritually dead and powerless on the inside while exhausted from pretending on the outside (Matthew 23:4; Galatians 5:23-26 MSG).
What makes “religious behaviorism” so dangerous is that it can be mistaken for change, especially by those without a religious background. Perhaps this is why Jesus delivered some of his strongest rebukes to the Pharisees, who were the ultimate “religious behaviorists.” He was concerned about their hypocritical influence (Luke 12:1), self-righteous intimidation (Luke 18:9-14), and whitewashed behavior misleading people into superficiality, where they would discover neither faith in God nor the power to change (Matthew 23:15; Acts 15:5).
The Pharisee Problem
For I tell you this: you will not enter the kingdom of heaven unless your righteousness goes deeper than the Pharisees’, even more righteous than the most learned learner of the law.
Matthew 5:20 Voice
Hating on the Pharisees is a popular pastime and easy argument, but this is not my goal, because I have had more days living as a Pharisee than I would care to admit. In truth, anyone who has spent any time living as a Christian has been a Pharisee at times.
The problem with the Pharisee is not so much his or her sin, but the superficiality which blinds them to the deeper spiritual issues. Overcoming the superficiality of the Pharisee as individuals, or a collective fellowship of believers, is essential to unleashing the power of “Deep Change.”
- The Pharisee is outraged by the ‘bad public sin’ of murder, while ignoring the deeper ‘private sin’ of anger (Matthew 5:20).
- The Pharisee shames the ‘bad public sin’ of adultery, while remaining silent about the deeper ‘private sin’ of lust (Matthew 5:27-28).
- The Pharisee complains about the ‘bad public sin’ of the non-Christian (tax collectors and sinners), while failing to see his powerlessness to change their lives (Luke 5:29-32).
- The Pharisee finds it easier to believe in human leaders, human rules, and human organizations than in the supernatural power of God and his inspired word (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 12:24).
- The Pharisee problem is a deeply spiritual one. As human beings, we simply find it easier to focus on what our five traditional senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch) can comprehend than to pursue those things only our spiritual senses can discover.
This is why the spirituality of Jesus is so often discarded and replaced with the ‘religious humanism’ of the Pharisees.
We must recognize, reject, and conquer our easy inclination toward ‘religious humanism’ if we are going to experience “Deep Change.” If we do not, then like the Pharisees we will become opponents of “Deep Change.”
For instance, when Jesus proved to have a deeper understanding of the Sabbath than the Pharisees, they responded by plotting to kill him (Matthew 12:14). When Jesus demonstrated his depth of relationship with God by healing a demon-possessed man, the Pharisees responded by slanderously claiming his power came from Satan (Matthew 12:22-28). When the people (including even tax collectors) accepted the deeper teaching of Jesus, “the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected god’s purpose for themselves” (Luke 7:29-30). In so doing, they revealed this was not about obeying the truth but holding on to their power.
Perhaps now you can see why Jesus warned about the influence of the Pharisee (Luke 12:1) and spent so much of his time dealing with the Pharisee problem. The “religious behaviorism” of the Pharisee is the one thing that can keep us from seeing the need for and embracing “Deep Change.”
The Transformative Power of Deep Change
“So why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say?  I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then follows it.  It is like a person building a house who digs deep and lays the foundation on solid rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against that house, it stands firm because it is well built.  But anyone who hears and doesn’t obey is like a person who builds a house right on the ground, without a foundation. When the floods sweep down against that house, it will collapse into a heap of ruins.”
Luke 6:46-49 NLT
Jesus teaches that anyone can build their life, but only one person builds to last. That is the person who is willing to dig deep. This digging produces “Deep Change,” and this journey out of our ‘spiritual Egypt’ usually consists of 7 stages.
Here are the stages in the journey of the Israelites when they came out of Egypt by divisions under the leadership of Moses and Aaron.
Numbers 33:1 NIV
Spiritual Awareness – One of the primary reasons our lives grow spiritually stagnant is that we are moving too fast for “Deep Reflection.” “Deep Reflection” is a time we set aside to listen to God speak through his word. This is not always easy because we can come in contact with uncomfortable or unwanted thoughts and emotions. Sometimes it is a thrilling moment, as forgotten dreams or new hopes surface providing us with fresh inspiration. No matter what, this awareness is absolutely necessary for change. After all, how can we change ourselves if we have no idea who we are?
Spiritual Vision – Once we have a solid awareness of where we have been spiritually, this next step is about deciding where we want to go. During this stage we should place primary emphasis on questions like “How can my life be more God-focused and spiritual?” Building on this spiritual foundation, we should ask questions related to improving the quality of our lives, such as “How could my life be better, happier, healthier, more inspired, less burdened, and filled with deeply loving relationships?” You want to leave this stage with a clear vision of what you want your life to look like in a month, a year, or even a decade.
Spiritual Courage – Perhaps no stage is more important than this, which is why it is placed squarely in the middle of the process. Here we must muster the courage to make sure our dream is spiritual and not merely conforming to the world (pursuing power, prestige, or possessions). We are digging deep into the very soul of our being, asking God to make clear to us why we are here and what he has in mind for us to do. We are not merely looking for a way to improve our lives but a change capable of putting us on course for the destiny to which God has called us. When this stage is complete, you should be able to clearly articulate what you believe God wants you to do with your life.
Spiritual Relationships – Now that you have wrestled with God, it is time to wrestle with people. This is often the most frustrating part of the process, because it is the first time it is clearly out of our control. Select 3-6 of your family and friends who you consider to be among your most spiritual advisers. I have discovered three qualities in my most trusted spiritual advisers. The first is that they are God-focused, which means they won’t tell me what I want to hear but rather what they believe God wants them to say. Second, they have my best interests in mind, something I know because they are completely transparent with their lives and motives. Third, they aren’t afraid of asking me to do the hard work of change, especially when they know it will result in my dreams coming true. Once you walk away from this time, you should have a clear idea about the dream you should pursue and the changes you need to make it come true.
Spiritual Work – The first question you need to ask is “Should I be at this stage?” If you haven’t passed stage 4 with flying colors, don’t be afraid to go back to stage 1 and begin again. Cheating the process will only leave you disappointed and perhaps disillusioned in the end. Assuming you are ready for spiritual work, let’s take a moment to understand what this means. This is the time when you face the fact that human effort, human wisdom, human ability, and even the collective human will of all who support you cannot make the changes you need to make for your dreams to come true. Spiritual work is done in the unseen spiritual realm, where hearts and minds are changed, and we become emotionally strong enough to endure until dreams come true. This work is done by talking to, listening to, understanding, trusting, knowing, and obeying God with the confidence he will set you free from whatever human limits might prevent you from reaching your dreams. This is the work that unleashes God’s power in your life. Know this, until you have done the work, you will not experience the power.
Spiritual Power – Interestingly, this is both the most difficult and easiest stage. The difficult part is the patience to keep walking with God and relying on him to change your life and even your circumstances. The easiest part is letting God perform miracles. That is correct, this is the stage where you patiently watch for God to do his miracles. Some of these will be daily or weekly as you see him free you from bad habits and addictions. Others will take months or years as he gets you through college, builds your career and family, or opens doors for you to transform other parts of your life. While you wait is the perfect time to share with others the power of “Deep Change” in your life.
Spiritual Freedom – Every stage has elements of spiritual freedom because each one brings you closer to discovering who you are truly meant to be. I have been through these stages numerous times in my journey with God, and I have never been disappointed. I’ve only had my eyes opened to even greater possibilities. All I can tell you is this, there is no greater feeling than becoming who you were meant to be instead of who this world has constantly demanded you become.