Mark Johnston, Connections Pastor
Every once in a while, i start feeling like i pretty much have God figured out.
I mean, i’ve been a believer for a long time, grew up in church, and since i was in the cradle i was taught all of the Bible stories that are appropriate for kids. (And a few that probably aren’t. I mean, if you really think about the Ark or David & Goliath, we really do skim over some gory details that would give kids nightmares for weeks.) As Christians, we believe that God’s nature is revealed in the stories of how He has dealt with His people over the years, culminating in His Son, Jesus, the visible image of the invisible God.
The Pharisees in the Bible were the same way, but to the nth degree. Not only had they grown up learning the Law, they had devoted their entire lives to it. They had studied scripture, memorized huge parts of what we now call the Old Testament, and even went so far as to take the laws that were handed down to Moses, and ‘improve’ them (in their minds,) piling more and more minute rules and regulations on the people, until it was exhausting just trying to keep up with them. Their intentions were noble—they did all of this in the name of ‘good,’ with the idea of being holy and righteous before God.
Their lifestyles, however, tended to be purely judgmental. They had God and His laws figured out, dotted every i and crossed every t, but saw only the sin in other people, not the good that God might be working in their lives. They saw themselves as holy; and saw everyone else, because they weren’t as good at keeping the law, as failures.
Then Jesus shows up on the scene, and singlehandedly blows up all of their preconceived notions of who God is, and what is important to Him.
In the story of the two sons, in Luke 15:11-32, Jesus paints a startling portrait of God, represented by the father, as ready and eager to forgive each son’s transgressions and restore fellowship with them. The father, undignified, bucking all Jewish tradition, even hikes up his tunic to run toward the returning prodigal, and embrace him, despite his many sins. It was blatantly clear that Jesus was telling the Pharisees ‘this is what my Father is like.’
Here they are, the teachers and keepers of the ‘capital L’ Law with Jesus standing there saying ‘most of what you’ve been taught and assumed about God is wrong.’ No wonder they didn’t like him.
Now if you grew up in church, like i did, a whole lot of life seemed to be whittled down to be this list of do’s and don’ts—The Ten Commandments, plus some other ‘suggestions’ that church traditions had added to them, to ‘improve’ people’s behavior, much like the Pharisees years before.
In the book Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller puts it this way: “I grew up hearing about God, hearing that He had created the universe, some animals, the Grand Canyon, and that we weren’t supposed to have sex or drink whiskey or go to dance clubs, that sort of thing, you know. He’s making a list, He’s checking it twice. He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…”
Some people today are still hung up on the law, even though Jesus came to fulfill it. As the keeper of the church Facebook page, from time to time i get random people asking why we don’t ‘keep the Sabbath’ and meet on Saturday like they did in the Old Testament instead of Sunday. That one’s a biggie, apparently. Nobody ever asks questions about eating shellfish, wearing blended fabrics, or trimming the edges of their beards, at least not on our Facebook page, anyway. (See Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:2 for reference on why we gather on Sunday.)
As humans, sometimes we try to boil ‘religion’ down to a set of moral codes—some sort of checklist of things we can say we did, and another list of things we can say we didn’t do. Even as believers, despite knowing God’s plan for atonement, we still think that those lists will somehow make us righteous before Him, and keep us in good standing. Truth is, if left up to our own devices, none of us can do that. God is completely holy, and one sinful thought that enters our minds separates us from Him for eternity. Without Him coming to earth, in the form of his Son, Jesus, none of us have a chance at redemption.
But, as you really start living it, faith is much more complex than a set of rules to follow. Once you enter into a real relationship with God, and learn more about Him, He begins adjusting your mindset, ever so slightly, one sometimes painful step at a time, to be more aligned with His mindset.
Christianity isn’t some set of rules and regulations, but about falling in love with Jesus, and asking him to take over your life and allow you to see things more and more the way he sees them.
One problem we have, is while we accept that forgiveness and mercy for ourselves, we still look at other people, and pass judgement on their spiritual maturity though their actions. I’m not talking about someone obviously, blatantly living a life of sin here, but how we sometimes hold other people to a standard of rules that we have decided is right for ourselves.
Here’s an example. Tony Campolo used to begin his speeches to Christian groups this way, “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 children around the world died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a sh*t. What’s worse is that right now, you’re more upset with the fact that I said ‘sh*t’ than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
People who live in their Christian ‘bubbles’ miss the absolute tragedy of his first point, as they are picking up stones to cast at him for the way he stated his second. All of the repentant feelings we should have for not doing enough about poverty and hunger around the globe is immediately ignored ‘cause somebody said a ‘bad word.’ It’s the ultimate hypocrisy.
Please understand, God’s grace means that we can approach the Father directly now that the Son has atoned for our sins and done away with the need for animal sacrifices through the priestly system. It does not mean we’re excused from obedience of any sort and can do as we please.
One of our goals, as growing believers, is to truly see our sin as God sees it, ugly and repugnant. That’s where our road to healing and repentance begins. (1 John 1:5-9) All too often, though, we categorize, or write sins off as ‘not that big of a deal,’ when in fact it is a very big deal to God. (Romans 6:23) Jesus was full of compassion when dealing with sinful people, but always admonished them to leave their sins behind them.
But i do wish, as Christ followers, we could stop judging those whose sins differ from ours, and understand that so often, that road to redemption is a rocky one. Not all of us stay in the ruts, avoid the potholes, and stay the course without wandering into the weeds from time to time.
Believers who stray off course need encouragement and admonishment instead of the judgement that we, the Pharisees are so quick to bring.
A thousand years from now, in Heaven, we’re going to have a much better perspective on what our lives on earth were about, but even then, we’re not even gonna be close to having God figured out.