As Christians we talk about the love of God, how it’s so amazing and wonderful and unlike any human love we have ever experienced. We are drawn in as unbelievers with stories of God’s unchanging, limitless love; how crazy He is about us.
We hear, “Come as you are,” but then when we do come, the Bible is handed to us like a prescription, and we come face to face with all the thousands of ways we need to change and be better people, i.e. different. Nothing like ourselves. This results in a schizophrenic dichotomy and a bit of a bait and switch – on one hand we know Jesus loves us and died for us to prove it, and on the other hand He wants to change everything about us!
That isn’t love. That is sin management. Behavior modification. And usually we want others to change, not because it’s what is best for the other person, but what is most convenient for us.
In other words, your flaws really make me uncomfortable. And I will do anything to avoid being uncomfortable.
So this amazing love that we talk and sing about gets reduced to the kinds of conditional love that we already know and are already familiar with. Especially if that’s all we’ve ever been shown or all we have ever known. The love of Christ, in our daily experience, often resembles nothing more than our best human efforts. And our best attempts at love are only as healthy as we are. Likewise, they are also only as shallow and unhealthy as we are.
So because our mistakes and flaws and sins and failures make us feel so terribly uncomfortable, we double up on our efforts to look good. I mean really good. And then, in an even more desperate measure, we want to make sure that everyone looks just like us. Making sure they have the right politics. The right platforms. The right doctrine. The right stance. So we can all look like real Christians. Not those fake ones.
This is unfortunately how we have become known. By our beliefs, and not our love. By being right, not by our compassion.
I once had a conversation with my daughter about all the different denominations there are in Christianity alone. And after discussing several and their differing characteristics, she looked at me and with the utmost sincerity asked me, “But ours is the right one, right?”
As evangelists and ministers, the church is our business and Jesus is the product. And in order to polish up our sales pitch, we need to have proof that what we’re selling works. We need the before and after photo. We need to see changed lives. To our detriment, though, sometimes I think we try to speed up the process of sanctification, becoming more like Christ, in ourselves as well as others, so that we can offer up the sufficient evidence that what we believe in really works, and we are living proof.
But after 20 years as a Christian, I am learning that sanctification is a life-long process, with stops and starts, twists and turns, mid-course corrections and U-turns. And it certainly isn’t going as fast as I would like it to go.
We like to think of sanctification as a clean and steady incline, when really it looks more like a toddler’s scribble drawing.
When we walk through the doors of a church, we often come with tricks up our sleeves, wounds this world has left upon our souls. Ones we aren’t even aware of often take years to uncover. We come with baggage, and most of us have never been shown what emotionally healthy spirituality even looks like. But as soon as we give our lives to Christ, there’s this pressure to be perfect, you know, because Jesus is in our hearts now. And Jesus is perfect. And we have to prove it. So we fake it til we make it, so to speak.
I hate that phrase.
Yes, we are forgiven. And yes, there is heart change. And yes, there is newness of life, but old habits die hard. And all along the way, our factory settings keep kicking back in.
Our painful pasts never really go away. Instead, they innocuously lie dormant, crouching in darkened corners of the psyche, waiting for some golden opportunity to attack and cause you to inexplicably start acting like a freak. And this usually happens in the most inconvenient of places. At family gatherings. Church functions. Dinner with friends. Our inner dysfunctional children can hijack even the most benign circumstances and relationships, without us ever knowing why.
We’re all kind of imposters, really.
Jesus brings new life. He sets us free. He sets us on a trajectory towards abundant life, with an easy and unoppressive guidance. It is a lifelong trajectory and it doesn’t always happen overnight.
What if God really is crazy about us as we are, and doesn’t really want us to change the people He created us to be? Our core essence. Our thumbprint. What if we are so busy trying to look like everyone else, that we end up losing our true selves in the process? What if, while we are so busy trying to look so clean and tidy, what He is most concerned with is how whole and healthy our souls are? What if what He really wants for us is to discover how truly amazing we are and rest in His love?
Just like my daughter, we all want to be right, don’t we? Even more so than simply being loved. We long to be known for who we truly are, in the midst of all of our imperfections, and fully loved even as we are fully known. But we are so afraid of revealing our hearts and being rejected, that we aren’t willing to be uncomfortable with the tension that, even right this moment, our theology is not yet perfected. That our souls are still works in progress. That we haven’t quite gotten it all figured out yet. Because we think, deep down, that if we have the right doctrine, the right theology, we won’t mess up, and then God and everyone else will be so very pleased.
But it doesn’t quite work out that way. Check this out:
As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”
Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!” This amazed them. But Jesus said again, “Dear children, it is very hard to enter the Kingdom of God. In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.
Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” –Mark 10:17-27 (NLT)
The right denomination cannot save us. The right belief system cannot save us. The right church cannot save us. Our perfect theology cannot save us. Our good deeds cannot save us. That is precisely the point that Jesus is making here. It is through our faith in Christ alone. Everything is possible with Him. So who are we to judge when someone is not as far along in their sanctification process as we think they should be? Are we to argue with God? It is His business not ours. Our job is to remind each other this and love each other, patiently bearing each others’ burdens, and always pointing back to Christ, with boatloads of grace, for ourselves and each other, all along the way.
I think, that now more than ever, how we love one another will become our best sales pitch.