I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).

People listen to Dr. Laura.  The ratings for Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s radio show have shot upward faster than any program in the history of talk radio.  Her books, too, have racked up remarkable sales.

How has Dr. Laura attracted such multitudes of listeners and readers?  She doesn’t do it by flattering the people who call the show for advice.  She scolds caller after caller for being selfish, stupid, immoral, or lazy.  If a caller objects to the scolding or tries to explain something, Dr. Laura might say, “Shut up!  I’m not finished insulting you yet.”

Dr. Laura’s popularity doesn’t depend on trendy ideas from psychotherapy, either. She mocks the notion that people’s greatest need is self-esteem and insists instead that what they need is self-control.  Some psychologists and counselors try to make people feel less guilty, but not Dr. Laura.  When people do wrong, she wants them to feel guilty.  “Guilt is good,” she declares.  She doesn’t like excuses.  She complains that we live in the “Age of the Victim” where “nothing is anybody’s fault.”

A man calls in and says, “I have a sex addiction problem.”

“No,” says Dr. Laura, “you have a character problem. I don’t want you to go to one of those therapists who’ll pat you on the head and tell you that you have a disease.”

“But I was abused as a child …” he begins.

“So what?” she interrupts. “You’re still responsible for your actions now.”


Teach, Preach, and Nag

Dr. Laura has critics who accuse her of being superficial, simplistic, intolerant, cruel, hateful, and judgmental.  But she also has millions of fans who love to hear what she says.  Dr. Laura tells her critics that she’s not cruel or hateful and that she’s trying to help people by offering tough love and telling them what they need to hear. “If I’m not blunt it gives you too much room for rationalization and justification,” she says.  As for the charge that she’s judgmental, Dr. Laura doesn’t mind.  She takes it as a compliment.  “I am judgmental,” she says proudly.  She judges bad behavior, hoping people will see the error of their ways and perhaps change for the better.  Her books have titles such as Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives and Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives. She openly says it’s her job to “teach, preach, and nag,” and if that means being judgmental and telling people that what they’re doing is stupid or wrong, so be it.

Dr. Laura’s popularity is a sign that a lot of people are fed up with wimpy talk of feeling good about themselves.  They’re weary of the victim mentality where people blame everyone but themselves for their own decisions.  They find it refreshing to hear someone with a straight-talking, hard-hitting approach that takes no prisoners, accepts no excuses, and pushes people to take responsibility for themselves and their families.

Dr. Laura’s huge following is also proof that millions of ordinary folks thinks it’s time for parents to base their choices on what’s best for their children and not just for themselves. Dr. Laura says that at one time she cared only about her career and self-fulfillment, but after having a child, she says, “all that feminist stuff fell off me like bad dandruff and I knew there was something more important than me and my success.” When a woman calls and speaks of wanting a baby and then going back to work immediately with a friend there to help, Dr. Laura fires back, “Why don’t you just get a pet?”  To those who believe in shipping kids off to daycare as soon as possible, or who pretend that “quality time” makes up for a lack of “quantity time,” Dr. Laura’s blunt response is, “Give me a break!” Dr. Laura’s declaration “I am my kid’s mom” is music to the ears of people who know how important it for mothers and fathers to be deeply involved in the lives of their kids.

Meanwhile, Dr. Laura’s concern for children and family makes her ferocious toward sex outside marriage–and that, too, endears her to millions who are troubled by a society where sexual immorality is rampant, and marriage breakups are common, and children have to suffer the consequences.  To adults who think only of their own right to be happy, Dr. Laura thunders, “Grow up!” To those who live with someone outside marriage, Dr. Laura applies a tongue lashing for “shacking up.”  To married people who have affairs, commit adultery, and leave spouses and children, Dr. Laura is ruthless.  When they call to tell about their problems and regrets, she snaps, “You should be ashamed.”  Then she sternly orders them to make the best of a bad situation and be as involved as possible in their kids’ lives.  If they object to her orders or try to excuse their behavior, Dr. Laura snarls, “You’re not listening. Hello, do you speak English?”

Another way Dr. Laura has won listeners’ loyalty is by opposing the silliness of some leading institutions in society.  She has pointed out the folly of the U.S. Supreme Court justices meeting regularly in a building which has an impressive depiction of Moses carrying the Ten Commandments and then pronouncing it unconstitutional for the Ten Commandments to be placed on the walls of a schoolroom.  She attacked a psychological journal for publishing an article saying that children who are molested by adults aren’t always by it and that the term “molest” is too negative.  She helped create a firestorm of protest that led to some embarrassing backtracking by the psychological journal.  Dr. Laura has also challenged library officials who appealed to freedom of speech as a ground for not protecting children from internet pornography and filthy chat rooms. Many people like to hear her stand up to intellectual elitists and insist on a common sense approach to protecting children.

Dr. Laura is especially popular with religious people who believe in moral absolutes. Some people go regularly to church or synagogue but seldom hear their priest, pastor, or rabbi denounce sin, call for responsibility, or offer guidance as clearly as Dr. Laura does.  Strange, isn’t it?  A talk-show host is attracting listeners by making moral pronouncements that many religious leaders are too timid to make.

Of course, there’s more to Dr. Laura’s immense popularity than her willingness to uphold morality and responsibility.  After all, there are others who “teach, preach, and nag,” but they don’t attract as large a following as Dr. Laura has done.  Others may be able to scold sinners and bemoan the problems in society, but few can do it with the flare and force of Dr. Laura.  Few are so frank and so funny at the same time.  Few have her way of cutting through the clutter and getting to the point.  And so, in a time when many people are fed up with “anything goes” and are hungry for a renewed sense of responsibility and a clear moral framework, Dr. Laura’s sharp voice is music to their ears.

There is much to learn from Dr. Laura.  She is saying things that many people desperately need to hear.  At the same time, it would be disastrous to settle for Dr. Laura’s approach and think it’s a sufficient foundation for your life. Let’s focus first on what we can learn from Dr. Laura, and then we’ll consider why it’s absolutely necessary to go further than she does.

Learning from Dr. Laura

The main thing we can learn from Dr. Laura is this: morality matters, and morality is grounded in God’s authority and defined by God’s commandments.

Dr. Laura didn’t always believe this; she learned it only after mistakes and struggles. She grew up the child of a Jewish father who had nothing good to say about the God of Israel and with an Italian mother who was born Roman Catholic but despised the church and its leaders.  “There was no conversation about God or prayer, no worship, and no observances,” says Dr. Laura. “My parents brought me up with absolutely no religion. Zero. I was brought up with moral principles, but they weren’t based on anything, so they were negotiable.”

Young Laura did not believe in God at all. At one point her parents tried out a Unitarian church which taught that there is beauty and truth in many traditions and that doctrines and commandments are optional.  How did Laura react?  “I had the same reaction to this smorgasbord of tradition that I had when a restaurant would overfill my plate with food I couldn’t really identify.  I lost my appetite.”

In her younger, atheistic years, Dr. Laura did some things she isn’t very proud of.  Among other things, there was an affair with an older man who took nude photos of her and, years later, when she had become famous, sold them to an internet pornographer.  There was a brief, failed marriage when she was in her twenties.  “I do have regrets and shame,” she says.  “To some extent, the heavy, uncomfortable presence of those regrets in my soul and mind, together with my deepened appreciation and reliance on godly authority, helped focus my radio program during the last half dozen years.  I am especially trying to help young folks minimize the occurrence of such historical self-disappointment, and the sometimes terrible or difficult consequences, by introducing and reinforcing the morals and values they ought to have received at home.  Those values aren’t reinforced in general society, and they are unassailable by rationalizations: God’s commandments.”

There was a time, she says, when “I would never permit God or religion, especially Bible quotes, to be mentioned on my program!  That had left me with the question of who or what is the authority behind my positions and answers… I felt I was missing something, personally and professionally.”

Eventually, Dr. Laura got more interested in the Jewish roots which her father had left behind.  She became more eager to learn about God and the Bible.  Not long ago she, her husband, and their son converted to Orthodox Judaism.  She also co-authored a book on the significance of the Ten Commandments in everyday life.  Finding out that God is real and that his commandments are right has been exciting for her, she says.  “Realizing that I had a God-mandated responsibility to represent his character, love, and ethical will was the meaning I’d been searching for.”

We can learn much from Dr. Laura’s personal experience and her public pronouncements.  When she’s asked about interfaith marriage, she says, “I’m categorically against it. It’s very important that a couple embrace one religion–it’s part of the glue that holds the family together.  I’m convinced that partners who share one religion have a lower divorce rate than those with two. Also, interfaith marriage makes religion seem like a choice on the level of where you’re going to live, or hair color.” Her own experience growing up is probably a big reason why she often refers to interfaith marriages as “interfaithless marriages.”    We can also learn much from Dr. Laura about what God is really like.  Those who believe in God but see him only as a source of comfort, not as the supreme authority who holds us accountable, have a lot to learn.  “Many people call my program,” says Dr. Laura, “and describe a relationship with God as one in which God loves and comforts them or sometimes does them favors.”  But, she says, when she presses them about their obligation to obey God, they make excuses for ignoring the teaching of their church or synagogue and for not doing what the Bible says.  They like Bible verses that comfort and sooth them in hard times, but they don’t want to listen to God’s commands in the Bible.

Here Dr. Laura puts her finger on one of the great problems among religious people in our society: their religion is more about feeling good than becoming good.  Genuine Christianity and authentic Judaism alike insist that it’s much less important to feel good about yourself than it is to believe in the one holy God and take his commands with utmost seriousness. This is a message for which Dr. Laura has become an unlikely but effective advocate, and I hope her listeners take that message to heart.  Delight in God and his law is essential for a person to flourish.


Surpassing Dr. Laura

God matters.  His law matters. Dr. Laura Schlessinger insists on this, and she is right. Dr. Laura is not a Christian, but many Christians–myself included–appreciate her insistence on moral absolutes.  Dr. Laura says that when she was about to join Orthodox Judaism, “Everybody said it would destroy my show. And anti-Semitism would come out of the woodwork. The irony is that my biggest supporters have been the Christian community,” she says. “I have been encouraged by the strong and touching support I have received from the Christian community… I am moved and grateful.  It proves that people sincere about their love and awe of God are ultimately of one mind.”

Well, not quite.  I’m glad that so many Christians reject anti-Jewish attitudes and affirm what they have in common with Dr. Laura and with all who take God and his commandments seriously.  But Dr. Laura is wrong when she says this “proves that people sincere about their love and awe of God are ultimately of one mind.”  People can be sincerely wrong.  Despite some important common convictions, there is a huge difference between the religion of Judaism and Christianity.  Dr. Laura describes the difference this way: “In the Christian view, the world is redeemed as each individual’s soul is saved through Jesus Christ.  In the Jewish view, we are redeeming the world by our own efforts.”

Jesus Christ, or our own efforts?  That’s the question.  Dr. Laura tries to downplay the difference and get on with urging  people to behave better.  But we can’t sidestep the question of whether to trust in Jesus or in our own efforts.  The difference is a matter of life or death, of heaven or hell.

Dr. Laura’s message is basically the message which the Pharisees and teachers of the law were bringing at the time of Jesus.  They said that people must earn God’s favor and save the world through their own righteous deeds.  Dr. Laura applies that message of the Pharisees to contemporary life.

Now, I don’t link Dr. Laura with the Pharisees to insult her.  The Pharisees often get a bad rap, but the fact is that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were some of the finest people of their time.  They were serious about God and eager to obey his laws.  Nobody studied the Bible more or tried harder to live up to God’s demands than the Pharisees did.

And yet Jesus insisted that being a good Pharisee was not good enough. It’s often thought that the Pharisees were too uptight about doing the right thing and that Jesus spoke of a God who doesn’t get very upset about sin or care about righteousness all that much.  But Jesus’ objection to the Pharisees was not that they were too righteous but that they weren’t righteous enough to deserve God’s approval.  Jesus never said, “Let’s trash God’s law.”  He said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).  Jesus never said,  “Righteousness doesn’t matter.”  He said, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

How could anyone possibly surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees?  They had a stricter sense of responsibility and were more careful about good behavior than anybody else.  Nobody, relying on their own efforts and willpower, could surpass the Pharisee’s level of righteousness–and still today, nobody can do so, not even Dr. Laura.  She may preach the importance of God’s law, but she has broken it in the past, and she admits that she’s not perfect now. “I try my darndest to obey God’s commandments,”  but she adds, “I’m a serious Jew, not a perfect Jew.”   No matter how hard she tries, Dr. Laura isn’t perfect.

And perfection is what God requires.  “Be perfect,” says Jesus, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)  Real righteousness, the only kind God accepts, is nothing less than perfection.  Your righteousness must surpass the Pharisees and teachers of the law and Dr. Laura, or you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Righteous in Christ

Well, then, does that mean nobody can be saved?  No, it means that none of us can be saved by our own efforts or by our own righteousness.  We must be saved by a righteousness that comes from someone else, a righteousness that flows not from our own efforts but from God as a free gift of his mercy.

Jesus told a story about two people who prayed to God.  One was a Pharisee, the other a lowlife tax collector.  The Pharisee prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

But the tax collector didn’t even dare to look up.  He cried, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”  This man, not the Pharisee, went home right with God.  Those admit their sin and plead for the gift of God’s mercy are accepted.  Those who think they’re superior to more blatant sinners and have earned God’s approval remain outside God’s kingdom and far from his favor.

I’m afraid some people like listening to Dr. Laura’s show because it makes them feel superior to most of the messed up people who call in.  Listeners get an unhealthy thrill out of hearing other people’s problems.  They like hearing someone else get scolded for being so sinful and stupid.  Any listener to Dr. Laura’s program who says, “Thank God I’m not messed up like those losers!” is echoing the Pharisee in Jesus’ story.

The only righteousness that satisfies God is perfect righteousness.  And of all who have lived on earth, only one has been perfectly righteous: Jesus Christ.  He never failed to do, say, think, or desire anything God his Father wanted.  Jesus’ righteousness surpassed the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. And Jesus’ perfect righteousness can be credited to you.  How?  Give up on your own efforts; admit you’re a sinner; plead for God’s mercy; trust in Jesus; and accept his righteousness as God’s free gift. A long-time Pharisee who became a Christian, the apostle Paul, once put it this way: “A righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).

God has not given his commandments as an instruction manual for earning our way into his favor.  In fact, if all we have is God’s commands, we may become worse instead of better.  This isn’t because the commands are bad, but because those good commands stir up the rebelliousness in our hearts.  The more we’re told what to do, the more we want to do the opposite.  The commandments can’t make us perfect; instead, they show us that we fall short of God’s glory.

God wants us to give up on our own efforts and depend on Jesus.  Only Jesus’ perfect obedience credited to us can make us right with God.  Only Jesus’ death can pay the penalty for the ways we’ve broken, and still break, God’s law.  “If righteousness could be gained through the law,” says Paul, “Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21).  But Christ didn’t die for nothing.  The Bible says, “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

People who discover God’s law but don’t trust Christ still have not entered God’s kingdom.  But their spiritual pilgrimage may eventually bring them to Jesus.  I hope that’s what will happen to Dr. Laura and to many who are learning from her that God’s commandments matter.  Seeing our need to be righteous before God is an important step, and it can lead to more.  There have been people who thought much the same way Dr. Laura thinks and ended up trusting Jesus. I’ve already mentioned Paul, the Pharisee who eventually became a leading apostle of Christ.  Another Pharisee who came to Jesus was a man named Nicodemus.

When Nicodemus sought out Jesus and wanted to talk with him, Jesus made it clear that willpower is not enough. Jesus was even better than Dr. Laura at zeroing in on a problem and stating the solution in a few pointed sentences.  “I tell you the truth,” Jesus told Nicodemus, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3).  Jesus went on to tell Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  That conversation changed Nicodemus.

What Jesus told Nicodemus the Pharisee is what he tells you and me: You must be born again through God’s Spirit working in you.  You must believe in Jesus as your Savior and Lord.  That’s the only way to enter God’s kingdom.  Once you trust Jesus and have his Spirit living in you, you will begin to love God as you never have before, and your actions and attitudes will be shaped more and more by God’s commandments. You’ll have more than your own weak willpower. You’ll have God’s Holy Spirit living in you, empowering you become a far better person than preaching, teaching, and nagging could ever make you.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.