As Christians, God, the Holy Spirit, and His Son Jesus Christ are the standards we should pursue. Jesus said, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness.” (Matt. 6:33a). “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5:48). “Those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.” (Rom. 8:29). Unfortunately, instead of chasing God’s standards, we often chase ghost standards. I speak from experience.
A ghost standard is an imaginary, elusive, self-defining standard apart from God.
1) Imaginary. These standards often exist in our imagination. We’re not always sure where they come from. Sometimes they’re imposed on us by society, by unspoken rules in our household growing up, or we just make them up. For instance, “Eating dessert twice a week is bad, but once a week is okay.” Uh —okay; where exactly did that standard come from?
How about, “I must decide my college major by the end of my sophomore year.” Imaginary. “I can’t just talk to a pretty girl I don’t know, that’s creepy.” “I’m 31 and should be married by now.” Imaginary. “It’s not good to drive used cars.” Imaginary. “Real houses should have carpeting.” Imaginary. “I have to love what I do every day or my career is a sham.” Imaginary. “Real Christians should read their Bibles for at least an hour a day.” Imaginary (though a great goal).
Jesus spent most of His ministry fighting imaginary religious standards imposed by the Pharisees, like “Thou shalt not heal a man on the Sabbath day,” (Matt. 12:9) or “Thou shalt not rub grain in your hands on the Sabbath day” (Matt. 12:1-2) or “Thou keep your vows only if you swore by the offering on the altar, but not by the altar itself.” (Matt. 23:18). Imaginary, imaginary, imaginary.
2) Elusive. Ghost standards are elusive because they’re always changing! Like a dangling carrot on a stick, they’re almost always just beyond reach! If a ghost standard says, “I need to lose 30 points in order to look good,” then once we lose the weight, the ghost standard can shift. “I’ve dropped 30 lbs., but if I don’t keep going that would be lazy.” Imaginary and elusive.
“Okay I bought myself a new car, but it’s still last year’s model so it’s not as good.” Imaginary and elusive. “I’ve been reading my Bible for an hour a day, but to really please God I need to start reading for an hour and 15 minutes.” Imaginary and elusive. The scribes in Jesus’ day were amending their religious ghost standards all the time, so as soon as you thought you were doing well, they’d spring another new rule on you. Elusive.
3) Self-defining. You may be wondering, “Brian, it sounds like you’re describing goals, so what’s the big deal? Isn’t it good to push ourselves to be better and do better?” Goals are fine, but here’s the difference: goals define what we do, ghost standards define who we are. If I set a goal to only have dessert once a week and I have dessert twice, I missed my goal. I did something I did not intend to do, and I can rededicate myself next week to hitting that goal.
If it’s a ghost standard and I have two desserts, I’m bad. I let it define me as a bad person. Ghost standards aren’t just standards of performance, they’re standards about the kind of person we should be. So when we fail to meet a ghosts standard, we equate it with failing as a person. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day would label you a sinner for not keeping their ghost standards.
Since ghost standards are imaginary, they pressure us to be someone other people want us to be. Since they’re elusive, it means we can never become the person we think we should be. Since they’re self-defining, it means we’re forever trapped in shame over how bad and unacceptable we are.
When you feel yourself trapped in this horrible cycle of defining yourself by imaginary standards you can’t ever reach, here’s a great question to ask: “Who says?” Next time you feel pressure to submit to some standard of how you should be and who you should be in your life, ask “Who says?” If the answer is “God’s word,” then it’s a proper standard. If it’s not, I can almost guarantee you it’s imaginary. If it’s imaginary, why submit yourself to it? Even more, why define yourself by it?
Now, I’m calling it imaginary, but Jesus calls Satan “the father of lies” (John 8:44) and I believe Satan is the one behind these false ghost standards. He imposes them on us so he can whisper to us every day that we’re good for nothin’, we’ll never amount to anything, and we’ll never be pleasing to God, so why even try?
Here’s the beauty of chasing God’s standard. 1) It’s real, not imaginary. We can read it and know it in His Word. 2) It’s not elusive because it never changes. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, and forever.” (Heb. 13:8). 3) It allows God to define us. Ghost standards are all about what we think about ourselves, which usually leads in one of two extremes: arrogance (Pharisees) or abject shame (“sinners”).
God’s standard, on the other hand, is all about what He thinks of us. That prevents arrogance because we know how far short we fall of His glory (Rom. 3:23) but it prevents abject shame because in God we find grace (Rom. 5:1-2). Herein lies true freedom from the cage ghost standards keep us trapped in. If you’ve been trapped like I was for years by chasing the wrong standards, you can break free right now! Chase God, not ghosts.
Can you think of more examples of ghost standards we impose on ourselves?