Spiritual Blindness and the Problem of Spiritual Individualism
In the New Testament, we read, “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). This passage from the letter to the Hebrews contains a crucial lesson: to avoid falling into sin, believers need to rely on one another. Salvation is not merely about a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Christ works through other people to save us. This, of course, is the reason Jesus did not simply speak of saving individuals, but deliberately instituted the Church.
In times of scandal and crisis, it is helpful to be reminded of this. Salvation is not merely a “self-help” project. When priests and bishops are discovered to have committed, aided, and abetted the most egregious crimes imaginable, it is tempting to downplay the need for a Church. A personal approach to holiness that does not depend on others can appear quite appealing.
Yet if we fail to exhort one another—and, by extension, be exhorted by others—we will become deceived by sin. Sin blinds us. We think we see clearly when, in fact, we do not.
This lesson is clear in John 8. There Jesus explains that he performs a miracle so that “those who do not see may see” (John 8:39). Pharisees, however, are present and refuse to believe. They ask derisively, “Are we also blind?” Jesus responds to them, “now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains” (John 8:41). Jesus’ teaching here would have been astonishing to his original hearers. The Pharisees would seem to be the least likely to suffer from spiritual blindness.
Rethinking the Pharisees
Today people would rather not be labeled a “Pharisee.” Those who are Pharisaical are self-righteous, smug, and hypocritical. Indeed, Jesus does condemn the Pharisees who oppose him for these types of vices. That, however, is far from the whole picture. Recent research has pointed out that the Pharisees were far more complex than the one-dimensional villains they are often made out to be. Our sources even indicate that people wanted to be known as belonging to their group.
Our historical knowledge about the Pharisees is limited. Their name seems to be derived from the Aramaic word for “separate” (perish). Their name underscored their zeal to avoid or “separate” from anything “impure.” They were known for maintaining traditions that sought to preserve their purity and faithfulness to God’s law (cf. Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:5; cf. Galatians 1:13). Moreover, contrary to their reputation, they were not necessarily strict or harsh about this.
For one thing, when it came to observing Sabbath rest, the Pharisees took a more lenient position than other Jewish groups did. If one’s animal fell into a pit or cistern on the Sabbath and needed to be rescued, some Jews, such as those who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, prohibited rescuing it. They were concerned that raising up might be considered “work,” something forbidden on the Sabbath. This strict interpretation of the Law had grave real-world consequences. Animals were an expensive yet necessary resource, analogous to a car. Letting your animal die instead of saving it could put you in dire straits.
In the Gospels we learn that Jesus, however, took a compassionate position and permitted rescuing an animal on the Sabbath. But we also learn something else—the Pharisees also thought that one should be able to save an endangered animal. For Jesus, this makes their opposition to his healing on the Sabbath all the more frustrating. Jesus asks, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?” (Luke 14:5; cf. Mark 12:12–13). Jesus puts the Pharisees here in a difficult position. Is it wrong to heal and so save a human, but okay to do “work” to rescue an animal? Luke tells us, “they could not reply to this” (Luke 14:6).
The Pharisees were viewed by many as wise and merciful interpreters of the Scriptures. Ancient sources tell us that they were recognized for their devotion to God and were widely respected by the masses. Given their popularity, it is no wonder that political leaders sought their approval.
In light of all of this, it seems especially strange that Jesus so frequently comes into conflict with the Pharisees. Their teaching on various points agreed with aspects of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus even says that they “sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you” (Matthew 23:2–3). Unlike the other major Jewish group mentioned in the Gospels, the Sadducees, the Pharisees upheld beliefs in the immortality of the soul, the existence of angels, and the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:8)—all of which were affirmed by Jesus. It is no wonder, then, that some Pharisees later became Jesus’ followers (cf. Acts 15:5; cf. John 3:1; 19:39).
Turning to Christ
One Pharisee who came to believe in Jesus was St. Paul. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes of his previous life in Judaism, telling us that “as to the law” he was “a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5). Nevertheless, despite his intense commitment to the scriptures, Paul came to recognize that one can only properly understand them fully if one turns to Jesus.
In 2 Corinthians he writes of how the Israelites’ minds were “hardened” at the time of Moses (2 Corinthians 3:14), going on to say,
… to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away.  Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds;  but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed. (2 Corinthians 3:14–16)
Christ has come to fulfill the scriptures of Israel. Yet this cannot be realized apart from Christ. It is not as if one can simply read the Scriptures and study one’s way into belief in the gospel. Apart from Christ and the Spirit, one’s mind remains “hardened.” Elsewhere, therefore, the Apostle insists: “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). One remains in spiritual blindness apart from grace.
Hypocrisy as a Universal Problem
The biggest problem with spiritual blindness is that, by definition, it means that we fail to see things correctly. Yet the problem did not simply affect the Pharisees. In one well-known passage, Jesus employs a ridiculous exaggerated image to drive home his point:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye. (Luke 6:41–42)
The Pharisees who opposed Jesus, then, were not uniquely guilty of self-righteousness; deficiency of sight affects all of us. The takeaway from Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees is not that they were specially depraved. Rather, his point is this: if even the Pharisees failed to recognize their sin, no one is immune to spiritual blindness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up Jesus’ teaching this way: “… since sin is universal, those who pretend not to need salvation are blind to themselves” (no. 588).
Finding Spiritual Guides
What logs are there in our own eyes? Since we our often unable to recognize our sins, the saints down through the ages have highlighted the need to develop virtuous friendships that are anchored in commitment to Christ. Jesus condemned “blind guides” because they are especially dangerous. They prey on a very real spiritual need. Put simply: we require others to help hold us accountable. St. Francis de Sales writes, “For those who live in the world and desire to embrace true virtue it is necessary to unite together in holy, sacred friendship.”
What is more, the great spiritual masters of Catholic tradition—saints such as St. Francis de Sales, St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa of Avila—recommend consulting with a regular spiritual advisor. St. John of the Cross, said, “The virtuous soul that is alone and without a master is like a burning coal; it will grow colder rather than hotter.” He went on, “The blind person who falls will not be able to get up alone; the blind person who does get up alone will go off on the wrong road.” It is especially helpful to find a priest who can hear our confessions regularly. By getting to know us well, such a priest can attain a helpful perspective on our struggles and aid our spiritual growth.
We each must come face-to-face with our own sinfulness. We need to confront ourselves (and be confronted by others) with sins we fail to acknowledge, especially the ones to which we might be blind.
Christ speaks to us through other people—are we willing to listen him?
Michael Barber is Associate Professor of Scripture and Theology at the Augustine Institute. This article is adapted from his upcoming book, Salvation: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute, 2019).