I’ve begun each of my two previous articles in The Amish Voice enumerating things I admire about the Amish—among whom I have many friends, particularly within the Pennsylvania communities of Smicksburg and Johnsonburg. The Smicksburg community is very conservative, whereas the Johnsonburg community has a more liberal ordnung. I love both groups, however, and there are so many good things to say about them both, as there are about all Amish groups.
When you compare any Amish community to the general non-Amish population, their moral virtue shines brightly. I am, of course, speaking in a generalization, because there are certainly plenty of virtuous people outside of Amish culture, and moral failings certainly surface in Amish communities at times. From my observation, however, Amish communities are generally comparable to an island in a cesspool, and I am very familiar with non-Amish culture. I am also probably more familiar with Amish culture than most non-Amish people.
Amish people generally have a good standard of ethics, and most non-Amish folks admire them for that. There is, for example, very little divorce among them. They are also generally modest, humble, and good neighbors. They resist greed. They won’t accept government handouts. They are hard-working, honest, family-focused, and care for the needs of each other. There are many more praiseworthy attributes I could add to this list, but I will save them for a future article. And this is not to say that I am ignorant of examples of moral compromise that do exist in Amish communities, compromise which every Amish adult is very aware. Still, I maintain that the average Amish person is more virtuous than the average non-Amish person.
And this brings me to my first point that has application to all Amish folks who view themselves as being morally better-than-average. (If you see yourself as less-than-average, then this point, and this entire article, does not apply to you.)
There is one temptation that is uniquely shared by all good people, Amish and non-Amish. That is the temptation to think you are good enough for God. When you compare yourself with others around you, and you are as good as the average Amish person is, it is quite easy to think of yourself as morally superior. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 representing the most morally-depraved person who has ever lived and 10 representing the most morally virtuous person who ever lived, most Amish people seem to be 7s, and some even 8s! (Amish women who have had 14 children might even be 9s!)
Naturally, because they are 7s and 8s on the moral scale, average Amish folks could be tempted to become proud of their moral superiority. Most Amish people, however, do their best to resist that temptation. The fact still remains, however, that most Amish people are indeed morally superior to the world around them. I’m saying it, even though most, if not all, Amish people would never say it. But I suspect they think it, even if not consciously, at least subconsciously.
But that is where the problem can start. When good people compare themselves to others, it can lead them to believe that they must be OK with God. Allow me to elaborate.
Jesus once told a story about this very thing that you are probably familiar with. It is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (tax-collector):
Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.” And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted (Luke 18:10-14).
Tax-collectors in Jesus’ time were notorious sinners. Not only did they betray their own people, the Jews, by collecting taxes for the occupying Roman government, but they over-taxed their fellow citizens, charging them even more than the Roman government required, and they became rich by their extortion.
In contrast, the Pharisees were a very strict Jewish sect. Their members not only strived to keep the Law of Moses, but also numerous additional man-made laws which were based on their religious traditions. In many ways, they were morally superior to the general population of Jews. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable is a good example. He was not an unjust extortioner (like the Jewish publican); nor was he an adulterer. He fasted twice a week and paid tithes on all his gains. He prayed to God. All those things are virtuous and praiseworthy. His error, however, was that, as he compared himself to others, he assumed God did the same, and he wrongly concluded that God accepted him. Clearly, however—according to Jesus—God did not accept him, even though he had some virtuous qualities.
One loud-and-clear lesson from the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is that self-appraisal can be very dangerous for good people. The reason is because they can, like the Pharisee, mistakenly assume God approves of them when He actually doesn’t. Jesus said that the Pharisee, unlike the publican, left the temple “unjustified” in the eyes of God. Another translation for “unjustified” is “unrighteous.” Stated simply, the Pharisee was not right before God. If he eventually died in that “unjustified” state, he went to hell.
And why was he not right before God? Jesus revealed the reason in His parable. It was because the Pharisee exalted himself.
How did he exalt himself? He compared himself to others and assumed he was accepted by God. Remember how his prayer began: “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are.”
Luke’s commentary right before this parable reveals its important moral: “And Jesus spake this parable unto certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (Luke 18:9). So “trusting in yourself that you are righteous” is spiritually deadly, as well as the sin that often accompanies it, that of “despising others.” Both are examples of exalting yourself.
Notice again the very important phrase that described the Pharisee. He “trusted in himself that he was righteous.” That is, the Pharisee thought that what he did made him righteous in God’s eyes. Because he focused only on his virtues, he was blind to his sins, one of which was his pride. Pride always blinds its possessors. The Pharisee (unlike the publican) saw no need for God’s mercy, because he believed he was good enough in God’s eyes. So when he left the temple that day, he remained on the road to hell, whereas the publican left the temple “justified,” or right in the eyes of God, because he recognized his sinfulness and prayed for mercy. Had the Pharisee humbled himself like the publican, he would have been exalted like the publican. That is, he too would have been forgiven and accepted by God.
So I hope you can see the great danger that exists for good Amish people. Like the publican, they can easily fall into the trap of self-righteousness.
Think about these two important questions: (1) If you were born into a good Amish family, why was that? Why were you not born into a non-Amish family with parents who were criminals, drug addicts, adulterers or liars? (2) How would you have turned out if you had been born to non-Amish, evil parents? Chances are you would be just like your sinful parents. You certainly would not be Amish! But the reason you were born into an Amish family is because God decided you would be born into an Amish family. So the reason you are as virtuous as you are is primarily because of God. I realize that your own will has something to do with your goodness. But what you have contributed to your virtue compared to what God has contributed is of no comparison!
So there is absolutely no room for self-righteousness (or despising others). The virtue you possess is mostly because of God. And those whom you might be tempted to despise would probably be just like you if they had been born into a virtuous Amish family. And you would probably be just like them if you had not been born into an Amish family. Think about that!
And this is how the gospel of Jesus Christ destroys our pride. It declares that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). “All” means all, including all good Amish people. It declares, “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). “None” means none, including all good Amish people. Amish people may be some of the best people in the world, but they are still sinners who need God’s mercy. And just like the world’s worst sinners, Amish people needed Jesus to die for their sins in order to be forgiven and be saved in the end. Apart from Jesus and the mercy of God, they deserve to be cast into hell just like everyone else. They may not deserve hell as much as some, but they still deserve it.
So the way of salvation for Amish people is identical to the way of salvation for thieves, murderers, adulterers, and dishonest, greedy tax-collectors. It is only through God’s mercy. And that mercy is appropriated by: (1) acknowledging that they are sinners who have no hope of being good enough to save themselves, (2) turning from the sins of which they are conscious, and (3) believing in Jesus, the Son of God, who died for your sins and before whom you must one day stand to give an account. God promises that anyone who will repent and believe in Jesus—from the greatest sinner to the least sinner—will be forgiven of their sins, be born again, and become His own child.
Remember, forgiveness is never something that is earned; it stems from mercy. Being born again is not something you can do for yourself. Only God can do it. Becoming God’s child cannot be achieved by human effort. Only God can adopt someone into His family. This is why Scripture declares:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:8-10, emphasis added).
For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 6:23, emphasis added).
No Amish person, when they stand before Jesus, is going to hear Him say, “By keeping My commandments as well as hundreds of other rules stipulated by your Amish community, you have earned your place in My kingdom.” Rather, any Amish person whom Jesus welcomes into His kingdom will know that it is all because of God’s mercy, made possible by Jesus’ sacrificial death for their sins. And it will be the same for every other person who is welcomed into His kingdom.
Are you being convicted, dear Amish reader who is morally above average? If “yes,” that is good. If “no,” that is tragic. You must see yourself as a hell-deserving sinner if you are to repent, truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and be born again. So allow me to try a little more to persuade you.
When you see non-Amish people, do you sometimes inwardly despise them? Do you try not associate with them too much, lest you become morally polluted by them? Would they never be welcome inside your pure home?
If “yes,” then can you see that you are no different than the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable? People who despise others whom they view as morally inferior are self-righteous. If they viewed themselves rightly—as blessed and graced by God—they would feel pity for those who are morally inferior, and they would not only associate with them, but they would actively reach out to them to tell them how they can receive God’s mercy through Jesus and be transformed by His Holy Spirit to become virtuous people.
Recall that Jesus, who was certainly the most righteous and virtuous person who ever walked on the earth, reached out in compassion to tax collectors, adulteresses, prostitutes, divorcees, the greedy, and others. Because of it, he was criticized as being “a friend of publicans and sinners” (Matt. 11:19), and the self-righteous Pharisees grumbled about Him, saying, “Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?” (Luke 5:30). Jesus replied, “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). Although He was morally perfect, Jesus associated with sinners—unlike the self-righteous Pharisees.
And do you recall the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery who was brought before Jesus by men who wanted to stone her? Think of how unrighteous those men were!
First, I’m sure you realize that it takes two people to commit adultery, but they only brought the woman. Where was the man? There’s was a very unjust application of the Law of Moses.
Second, none of them had any right to condemn the adulterous woman. When Jesus said to them, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7), the Bible says that they were “convicted by their own conscience” (John 8:9), and they started walking away, beginning with the oldest men, until every one of them was gone. They had exposed the sin of the adulterous woman, but before long, their own sin was exposed. They were hypocrites who were pretending to be righteous. How many of them had never lusted after a woman, something Jesus said was equivalent to “adultery of the heart” (see Matt. 5:28)? They were all adulterers who intended to stone an adulteress! They exalted themselves, pretending to be being better than her, but in the end, they were all humbled (just as Jesus promised).
How so many of us are just like those adulterous men who wanted to stone that adulteress! How many people have you voted to shun or excommunicate knowing that you also deserved to be shunned or excommunicated? How many people have you condemned for doing what you have done, or desired to do? As the apostle Paul wrote:
Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things (Rom. 2:1).
Let’s just be honest: Every Amish reader has transgressed their community’s ordnung to a greater or lesser degree, and they have not publicly confessed. And God has seen every Amish person in your community break, not only the man-made laws of the ordnung, but also some of His laws. He has also seen them vote “yes” to shun or excommunicate those who have been caught in their transgression. How are they any different than the hypocritical men who intended to stone the adulterous woman?
Are you being convicted by your conscience dear Amish reader who is morally above average? If “yes,” that is good. There is hope that you, like the publican in Jesus’ story, will soon experience being “justified” in the eyes of God, as you humble yourself and cry out for His mercy. But if “no,” that is tragic. Allow me to try a little harder to persuade you.
Are you perhaps hypocritical in other ways? Do you, for example, inwardly condemn those who own automobiles, including former-Amish people? But do you ever ride in automobiles yourself? Do you even pay money to ride in them? If driving a car is a sin, then you are participating in the sin of car owners by paying them to drive you in their cars. That is hypocritical.
Do you condemn people who own a TV because TVs are “worldly”? Think about this: a TV is just an electronic object that is neither moral or immoral. It can communicate sinful things, but it can also communicate godly things. I have a TV, but my wife and I don’t watch what glorifies sin. We watch many things that glorify Jesus Christ. And I also teach God’s Word to thousands of people through their TVs. Would God condemn me for that? Am I “worldly” because of it?
Similarly, do you own a gun, rifle or knife? Those are all things that people “of the world” own. Surely you know that guns, rifles and knives are sometimes used to murder people. They can, however, also be used for good, for example to help feed your family with deer meat. How hypocritical it is to condemn someone for owning a TV when you own a rifle, gun or knife!
As good as some Amish people are, they are still sinners like the rest of us. What about all the division among the Amish communities? Churches have excommunicated other churches, and not because of disagreements over the commandments of Christ, but over disagreements about small differences in man-made ordnungs! Each side thinks their side is right, and each side thinks they are morally superior and despises the other side, at least to some degree. How are they all not like the Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank Thee that I am not like others”?
Think of how many relationships have been destroyed by divisions over man-made laws! God has seen it all. Yet Jesus prayed that His people would be one (see John 17:11, 20-21).
Please understand. I do not enjoy attempting to convict Amish people of their sins who are 7s and 8s on the moral scale. But we all need to realize that God’s scale ranges not from 1 to 10, but from 1 to 100. Even those who attain an 8 on the human scale are near the very bottom of God’s scale…along with everyone else. We’re all wretches. And that is why we all need God’s forgiveness and to be born again. Once we are, we can truly sing from our hearts, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!”
Again, you must be convinced you are a sinner who can’t save himself or herself before you can truly understand your need for a Savior. That is why I’m trying to persuade you of how God sees you. Only the publican, after he repented and cried out for mercy, was justified in God’s eyes. Tragically, the Pharisee was blind to his sin and his need of God’s mercy. As good as he was, if he never humbled himself and repented after he left the Temple that day, he remained “unjustified” in the eyes of God, and he was cast into hell after his death and judgment.
Who would you rather be in Jesus’ parable, the Pharisee or the publican? I’m sure you will say, “the publican,” because only he left the temple righteous in God’s eyes. If you are to be forgiven of your sins and be born again, like the publican you must humble yourself, acknowledge you are a sinner who deserves God’s wrath, and cry out for His mercy. He will not ignore you! Rather, He will have mercy on you, forgive you, cause you to be spiritually reborn, adopt you as His own child, and put His Holy Spirit in you. You will become a “new creature” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). It is the most wonderful thing that can happen to anyone! And that is your Anabaptist heritage.
If you are Amish and have been born again, either at some point in the past, recently, or just a few moments ago, I would love to hear from you. You can write to me at: P.O. Box 33, Smicksburg, PA 16256.
More and more Amish people are recovering their spiritual heritage, being born again, and are sharing the good news with their Amish friends and families. What are you waiting for?
“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy” (Psa. 103:8).