Religion Gets in the Way

Let’s just get this out of the way: religion gets in the way of the gospel. Religion is like the stone rolled in front of the tomb and the seal to make the stone official—both futilely tried to keep Jesus back. Neither worked, of course, but they kept the resurrection tucked away, locked in a darkened space—until grace broke through.

Religion gives us lists such as this:

  • Read your Bible every day.
  • Pray before bed.
  • Don’t do drugs.
  • Don’t miss church.

But grace gives us a list like this:

  • Love the Word from the God who loves us.
  • Love to speak with the God who loves us.
  • Love to live a life pleasing to the God who loves us.
  • Love to hang with people who love the God who loves us.

That’s not a matter of semantics. Rules don’t honor God because rules miss the point of what God did. He finished the work. There’s no work left for us to codify or formulate or figure out. It’s all done.

Grace says Jesus. Let me repeat that: Grace says Jesus. When we know Him, we hunger for the things of God—and we’re filled. When we know Him, we take up our cross, deny what we think matters, and follow what really matters—Him.

Religion never saved anyone and never will. That job is already taken.

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Asking Questions

The Old Testament judge Gideon asked an angel of the Lord how he could possibly take on the mighty Midianites, being a wimp as he was, and God answered every request the man put forth—almost to the point of being ridiculous. On the other hand, Zechariah, a faithful Levite serving the Lord and John the Baptist’s father, asked only once how he could possibly have a son in his old age, and an angel told him he’d be unable to speak until it came to pass.

That hardly seems fair—harsh even. Why would God punish one and let the other get away with so much? We might think there’s a discrepancy in the treatment—until we examine the differences between the two men’s responses.

Let’s look at what’s the same first. Both of them were dedicated to God—Gideon seems to have been seeking God as he beat out the wheat and he later tore down an altar to Baal, while Zechariah served faithfully in the temple. In fact, you could say that Zechariah had the greater claim to being godly. Both men received shocking, seemingly impossible news from an angel. Both asked very similar questions.

God, however, didn’t just look at the questions. He looked at the reason for asking. Obviously, we don’t know what Gideon or Zechariah was thinking, but God did. Notice, for example, that Gideon’s fleecing of God reads much like Abraham’s petition for Sodom. Just as Gideon asks God not to be angry with him as he asks for more proof, Abraham asked God not to be angry as he begged for fewer and fewer righteous people to be found in Sodom.

On the other hand, Zechariah simply doubts. And that’s why the angel zings the old priest. He’s not asking God for proof. He’s not begging for evidence. He’s not amazed that something like this could really happen (as Mary was). He just doesn’t believe it can happen.

Gideon believed God could do what He said He would do. And that’s the key—he believed God to perform something amazing. What the man wasn’t sure about was his own ability and his calling. He believed God for the outcome; he questioned the agent, the catalyst. God graciously proved the calling by many unimpeachable signs.

I’m certainly not suggesting we test God’s patience—or test God at all. But God knows humans. He knows our doubts and our fears and our feelings of inadequacy. He’s been there and done that—all without sin.

Gideon doubted himself, and God patiently showed the seeming wimp that he was, in fact, a mighty man of valor. If God has given you a calling that seems improbable because of your failings, remember that what God purposes to do is imminently possible. In other words, He doesn’t pick the wrong person or give the wrong vision.

Whatever you do, don’t doubt the power of God to do whatever it is He’s given you. That’s where we get into trouble.

Did Somebody Say “Vision”?

I hate biting my cheek. When I do, I get that lump in the side of my mouth, which I inevitably crunch again and again with my molars. I’ll carefully chew through my granola at breakfast, only to hit that stubborn bump again at lunch.

So, would it be a stretch to say that biting my cheek is like vision? Probably, but here’s how that works:

  1. Vision gets in the way. We have plans. We have our desires to do something in our own names. But when God sends vision, it gets in the way of our status quo. Breaking through the boundaries is exactly why God sends vision.
  2. Vision hurts. Giving up on the plans we have for ourselves is a painful process, but that’s only because we cling so tightly to what we think is best for our lives. It’s not, but we cling stubbornly. God is the potter. Would the clay talk back to the potter?
  3. Vision won’t go away. If it’s from God, it sticks. You can chew around it and hope it goes away, but God confronts you with it. The new things? Those belong to Him, after all.

Jonah got a vision to do something amazing. He ran and ended up bitter. Embrace what God calls you to do and do that thing with all your might.

Knee Callouses

How’s your prayer life?

I usually go there. In fact, I usually go there first. I’ve never charted this, but I suspect that if I took the problems people have told me about (and my own) and plugged them into some amazing graph, the amount of prayer would be inversely proportional to the rising struggles. And I don’t mean “thank you, God” prayers. I mean knee-callous prayers.

When Paul says that those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh, he doesn’t mean an all-flash-no-boom, bottle-rocket prayer life. He tells the Galatians that the desires of the Holy Spirit don’t and can’t go hand-in-hand with our—let’s just say—less-holy desires. They’re like magnets of the same pole—they can never join together. If we live by the Spirit, we have to use the Spirit as our walking stick. Prayer keeps us standing up.

That’s exactly why I go straight for the jugular and ask about the prayer life. When it’s weak, so too is the fight, the drive. So, make sure you check your knees every once in a while.

Getting over Ourselves

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24, ESV)

What did you expect? When you submitted yourself to the Son of God, when you mourned your sinfulness in prayer, when you called on His name, when you put your life in His hands, what did you think would happen? I hope you weren’t like the disciples. They got it wrong.

You have to feel a bit sorry for them, these weary travelers who trudged mile after mile through dirt and experienced such a flux of emotions on their tour. Take Peter, for example: one moment he speaks for the disciples about who Jesus truly is, the next he’s trying to tell Jesus what can and cannot happen.

Peter wanted Jesus to fulfill an expectation. He wanted a Messiah who would storm into Jerusalem, throw off Roman rule, and pour riches upon His followers. Peter wanted to be right there with his Teacher, right there enjoying the accolades. After all, surely Jesus had big plans for the inner three (Peter, James, and John).

Jesus did, of course, but not the way they expected. Peter and James had no clue they’d be killed for what seemed so safe. John didn’t know that exile and loneliness awaited him on Patmos. After all, they knew they followed Messiah—the One who fed thousands of people and healed thousands more. No way anything bad could happen.

In response to their faulty hopes, Jesus tells them all to stop holding onto their own ideas about what should happen. Although He had not yet been to the cross, He uses the imagery that would later mean so much to them as a way to explain the pride-killing truth. He says, to put it in our language, “Get over yourself.”

They wanted riches and fame. They wanted an immediate kingdom. They wanted safe passage. Jesus tells them to work up some calloused hands and sore backs by carrying their crosses—their imprisonments, their aches for His sake.

Given how they all fled when Jesus was arrested, we can safely assume they didn’t immediately understand the message. Sometimes we don’t either.

We can’t hold onto our cross if we’re carrying our own junk. We can’t squeeze it in, tie it on, or make it fit. It’s too big and too heavy. We can’t shoulder the timber if our backs are weighed down already.

Paved-over Faith

I miss red dirt. Old downtown buildings with painted signs have historic charm, and even the buzz of traffic makes for a soothing morning. But you never forget dirt that binds at the molecular level to your shoes and crawls up your jeans and ruins your socks. If you can simply wipe it away, it’s not real dirt.

The crunch, the immediacy of the earth—both disappear with concrete. You get potholes and rocks and cars spraying water and radiant heat. You’re also several inches away from anything real. We’ve separated ourselves from the ground to make the way smoother, but cut ourselves off from the rough soil.

I dislike the word Christian for the same reason. Greeks once used the term as an epithet—it stuck. But the first witnesses and the people persuaded by those witnesses preferred following “the Way.” Usually, they died for it.

Christian—the word—functions like a layer of insulation. It protects people from the get-dirty-and-pick-up-the-cross core of what Christ commanded us to do. We can hide behind the term instead of being disciples and making disciples, instead of serving, loving, and giving. It’s safe, paved over.

Safe isn’t the point.

(A)theist: The Journey of 2003

Suicidal college students should not have to sit in waiting rooms with nothing but pulp entertainment. Perhaps the hope is that the airbrushed images, out-of-reach vacation destinations, and political attack pieces scattered throughout the worn magazines will provide joy beneath taupe walls.

I’ll just tell you. They don’t.

Whatever the justification for the cornucopia of Time and Condé Nast, my first visit to the university’s mental health clinic had only one bright spot: it was free. Seated in the midst of chairs packed into the room—I overcame the Lexus ads and remained.

Two or three other students kept their faces resolutely down. You have to love the unspoken communication in such places. We pretended to be obsessed with novels and cell phones and crinkling pages because we knew why each was there. After all, you didn’t wait there because the seats were comfortable. You waited because something had gone wrong.

My wrong had reached a climax at the tip of a knife the day before while standing in the kitchen of a two-bedroom apartment. With no premeditation, I decided I’d put an end to what I saw as nothing more than the motion of electrons—that is, me. In my deluded mind, the difference between my skin and the food I’d just cut was only a matter of texture and shape, and certainly not the chasm I now know exists between matter and my God-breathed life.

What stopped me had nothing to do with remorse or a desire to live. I had neither. Instead, it was curiosity—aching curiosity. Right then I heard—though I have no idea if it was audible—a single phrase: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The words reminded me of something—something I was sure I should remember—and that was enough. Purpose.

As you can see, I had two reasons to go see a psychologist: 1) I wanted to end my own life and 2) I heard a voice in the kitchen. Although the psychologist meant well, he could only deal with the symptoms: some techniques to think positively, some ways to refocus.

I’d love to tell you that during that time, I immediately looked up what I’d heard, surrendered to Christ, and retired at 25. But considering myself “healed enough,” I forgot about the event for several months—as well as one can forget nearly ending his own life. And perhaps that was best, since God used my lowest point to chip away the whitewashed walls I’d put up that declared “I don’t need God to be okay.”

Without God, I’d ended up staring at taupe walls and considering life of no more worth than carrots. I continued to stumble through depression until I did finally look up that phrase. Conviction and repentance and acceptance came upon discovering that “In Him was life, and that light was the light of men.”

It’s funny what God’s Word (in all senses) can do.