The Gray Area: A plea for a higher level of discourse

The world we live in — and especially the US — has become very polarized. I believe that this polarization has existed for a long time, but I feel that in the past couple decades the polarization has increased due to the development of an hypersensitivity, where everyone becomes easily offended by anything that they don’t agree with. This disagreement with a group or individual results in an inability to co-exist, where each side sticks solely to their views and refuses to sway from their own opinions, and, because of this dedication, refuses to come to any sort of mutual consensus to agree to disagree with opposing voices. I feel that this upcoming election is the perfect of example of this problem. There are two hyper-polarized ends of the spectrum, with very little in between, and people are taking sides, sometimes simply to make sure the person they don’t agree with doesn’t end up being elected.

But this election has also created a very interesting phenomenon. A growing number of people don’t buy into either end of the spectrum, realizing that both sides have distinct problems. A growing number of people are realizing that not everything is black and white, that there isn’t simply a right or wrong answer to everything.

In other words, there’s a growing number of people who believe that there is a gray area on many issues.

And I feel this group of people is growing.

As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, about a year ago I left a spiritually abusive church environment. This church approached everything — every issue — as black and white. When I left this church, I ended up swinging to the opposite end of the spectrum of everything that they believed, as some sort of revolt or rebellion against them. This only lasted a short while before I realized that the end of the spectrum opposite theirs also had its fundamental flaws. So then I was caught in an interesting dilemma: Which was correct? The conservative, white evangelicalism that I was basically raised with and had become further indoctrinated with through spiritual abuse? Or the more progressive Christianity that is opposed to “organized religion”?

Before long, I realized that my conscience wouldn’t let me commit fully to either camp. Each end had its merits, but they also had certain things that I didn’t agree with; things that Jesus isn’t about. Things that exclude people from the kingdom of heaven and completely demonize certain people or behaviors.

It was then that I realized there had to be an in between. Or, in other words, a gray area.

Now, there are some things that I believe are black and white. I’m a Christian, and I believe in salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. There are certain fundamental, foundational biblical principles that I do not and will not sway on. True conviction on select issues is life-giving. When you have something at the end of the day that you can plant your feet on know that nothing will move it, it makes it easier to sleep at night. There’s a reason Jesus is called the “cornerstone of our faith.”

There are some other not necessarily biblical issues that are black and white for me, as well. Art is important. Racism is wrong. Life is valuable. And everything is better with bacon.

But there are some issues that I’ve lived in the gray area on for a long time. For example, creation. I believe that God created the universe. But within that reality, there are a lot of variables. There are people who believe in the literal interpretation of Scripture, that God creating the universe and everything in it in seven literal days. There’s also a growing number of people who are in essence “Christian evolutionists,” who believe that God used evolution as a means to create life and — ultimately — man. People are very polarized and divided on this issue. Denominations of Christianity have divided because of the debate of creation, families have been torn apart by it.

Here’s my stance: I don’t really care.

At the end of the day, whether the earth was made in seven days or over the course of billions of years does not change the fact that I believe God made it. And it also doesn’t change the fact that, before the beginning of time, God planned a great work in advance to send his own Son to live a perfect life as a human being and be executed by his own people so that we could be reconciled with him. So I don’t really care about the details of how the earth was made. It could be billions of years old, it could be thousands of years old. Besides, I won’t know for sure how it all happened until I get to ask God face-to-face, anyway. So why bother worrying so much about it now? (I have an interesting quirk in that I don’t really need an answer for everything. There are a lot of things that I’m willing to take at face value. It has its negative aspects, but it also has its benefits. Some people need an answer for everything, and will pursue an answer until the find one. I don’t need an answer for everything. So I end up being content a lot sooner. But then I don’t always have proof or evidence for what I’ve come to accept, which is where the occasional negative part comes into play. But I digress.)

I know that not everyone will settle with remaining in the gray area on most issues. In fact, I’m sure most people will still believe that things are pretty black and white. They will continue to have strong opinions and beliefs and they will continue to hold to them. And let me make this clear: That’s not a bad thing. Again, having strong opinions on things can be a good thing. When having strong opinions becomes dangerous is when people refuse to engage in conflict with opposing voices. The hypersensitivity that has developed in recent years, along with the development of social media, has caused people to simply react to things. When something or someone offends an individual, that individual will often just go off on whatever or whoever offended them. This causes a huge problem, because it results in hyper polarization, as all parties involved disengage from the other, and start throwing insults and slander around about the other group. Groups demonize any and all opposing groups, and opposing groups respond in turn. So everyone ends up just being angry and no one listens to anything any more.

I’m not asking for people to let go of their convictions and beliefs. What I’m asking for is conversation. There is something to be said for listening to both sides of the story. Rather than sticking to your guns and shooting down every word of an opposing argument, there’s a lot of merit to approaching the situation at hand with empathy, and trying to look at it from the other person’s perspective. At the very least, you will be able to gain an insight into how this person is approaching the argument, rather than just sticking to your own argument and refusing to allow anyone else to have an opinion or a voice.

I’m not asking people to give up their convictions. This is a plea for a higher level of discourse.

Everything has become a shouting match rather than an actual debate. Discussion will at least enable people to approach opposition with empathy rather than anger. And, once the dust has settled, it’s entirely possible an agreement hasn’t been reached. And that’s okay. Part of being human is realizing people are different than you and that they won’t always agree with you. That doesn’t mean you can’t associate with that person. In fact, I’d highly recommend having friends with opinions different from your own. If you only interact with people who agree with you on everything, you won’t grow as a person. Conflict fosters growth.

As Mike McHargue has said, human beings are a social species, and refusing to interact with people simply based on different beliefs is not the way we should approach life. It’s only through discussion and engaging in conflict that we’ll be able to grow and progress.

I believe that letting go of issues as being purely black and white can be very beneficial. Nowadays, I sit in the gray area on most controversial issues. I do my best to listen to both sides of most arguments so that I can come to an informed decision. But oftentimes I can’t side completely with either side. Because oftentimes each side has important points that, contrary to popular belief, don’t conflict with each other, but can actually exist together. And each side also generally has points that don’t make sense. Or are just ridiculous. And so I choose to sit in the gray area. And if I disagree with people on these issues, that’s absolutely fine. I’ll still love them anyway.
We need to stop causing division and just accept the fact that people won’t always agree with us. It’s not our responsibility to change their minds. And it isn’t their responsibility to change ours. If anything, it’s our responsibility to engage with conflict, have intelligent, logical conversation and debate, and not cause division because of petty disagreement. If people were more accepting of the reality that not everything is black and white, and that disagreement doesn’t shouldn’t result in shattered community, I do honestly believe that the world would be a better place. Rather than focusing on the areas where you disagree with people, find the things you agree on. And come together with creative ways to focus on the good things and bring about peace and change.

PSA:

**With that, I would like to mention something. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had multiple conversations with some friends of mine about this very reality. In these past few weeks, we’ve been planning on starting a podcast discussing certain controversial issues and the gray area within them, focusing on the reality that not everything is black and white. Things are still in development, but things are shaping up very quickly. I’m really excited for this project that we’ve been working on and can’t wait to have some of these conversations with my friends and share them with everyone. Stay tuned in the near future to hear about what we’re up to and what we’re working on.**

Spiritual Abuse: My experience and recovery

On October 30th of last year, I attended a social event with my church on campus at CU. It was an incredibly fun evening, as it was our Halloween celebration, so everyone from the church was there and everyone was dressed up in their costumes. That evening, I spent time with some of the closest friends I’ve ever had in my lifetime, people that I’ve done life with and who I’ve had countless fun experiences and incredible conversations with. And as I left the party that night, I left knowing that I would most likely never see most of the people in that room ever again.

Simply because I was leaving the church.

Let’s rewind two years, to the beginning of my freshman year of college.

In August of 2013, I was setting foot on CU’s campus for the first time as a student, attending band camp for marching band as all first-year instrumental Music Education majors are required to do. At the time, I was interning at my then-current church, an internship that would end shortly after the start of the next year. I was looking for a new community of Christians, specifically people my age, to get connected and grow in community with. It was in these first few weeks during band camp and the early weeks of school that I met Sarah. I still firmly believe that Sarah is the closest and dearest friend that I have ever had. In my first few weeks on campus, Sarah and I spent a considerable amount of time together, discussing our interests, our lives and histories, and some of the finer points of faith. She invited me to come visit her church sometime, which wasn’t really possible at the time because of my internship.

During my first semester, I visited a few different campus ministries and got connected with one of the campus evangelists from Sarah’s church after hanging out with people at the events they hosted on Friday nights. He and I would meet and discuss the Bible and different Bible studies that his church made once a week. I didn’t always understand or agree with some of the things in these Bible studies when I first read them, but he was usually able to reference certain scriptures that would make me accept them. Once the second semester started, my internship ended and I was able to visit Sarah’s church. This church was filled with young people, people my age who were passionate about Jesus and sold out for Him.

And that was exactly what I was looking for.

Early on, I had my hesitations with this church because I had concerns with some of their odd exclusivity; There were certain things that made them seem like some sort of weird club, namely their special Saturday meetings that only members of the church were allowed to go to. But, as they continually referenced different scriptures to justify their reasonings for what they do, my defenses were gradually broken down and I eventually decided to become a member of their church.

During my 15-or-so month stint at this church, I made some of the closest friends I’ve ever had, and I felt for one of the first times in my life that I truly belonged. I also was gradually enlightened to all of the things that I was doing horribly wrong in my life and needed to change, was taught how to submit to and obey authority, was encouraged to practically sever all ties with my family, was taught legalism as some sort of misunderstood grace, and gradually lost who I was; My personality, my humanity, my calling, my agency.

What I endured during that time was a year and a half of spiritual abuse.

There were multiple instances during this time that my mom approached me and asked me to consider leaving; Each time I said no. Until, through miraculous circumstances, people who I’ve never met who live in Arizona got in contact with my mother and knew about my situation and certain situations happening behind the scenes at the church I had come to call home. I had had multiple instances of doubt and considered leaving the church multiple times during my time there, but the people on staff always convinced me otherwise, that Satan or demons or the fear of man or whatever were trying to make me leave. But this intervention from people several states away whom I’ve never met before was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I determined that October 30th, 2015 was the last event I would attend with this church, and that I’d never go to that church on Sunday ever again.

I left campus that night and haven’t seen or heard from most those people since.

Unfortunately, I knew it was coming.

On November 2nd (or perhaps a day or two after, I’m not entirely sure when anymore), I sat down with Sarah to break the news to her, that I was leaving. She knew what this meant as well. She was my closest friend, even in spite of the church intervening in our friendship, telling her on more than one occasion that she basically couldn’t be friends with me any more because we were getting too close (in one instance, we literally didn’t speak for two or three months because of this). But the fact that I was leaving meant that, most likely, we would never see each other again. Though at the time we both reached a conclusion that neither of us wanted that, I believe that deep down we both knew that would be the case. I reached out to my other close circle of friends as well and notified them that I’d be leaving. At the time, they were very accepting, and said that they still wanted to keep in contact with me, that I was still welcome to come over and hang out with them, that they didn’t want me to be completely cut out of their lives. Less than a week later, they changed their minds, deciding to cut all ties. The worst part was that I still had stuff at their house that I needed to get back. When I went to their house to retrieve it, they simply sat in the other room, continuing their conversation, denying my presence and existence for about half an hour as I separated out two sets of a card game that we had mixed together. Those were the most painful thirty minutes of my life.

I left their house that night and haven’t seen any of them since.

Sarah and I still had classes together for the rest of the semester and things were still civil and, honestly, completely normal, as if nothing had happened, until the end of finals. The last day I saw Sarah that year, I didn’t say good-bye. I knew it would be too difficult. The only time I’ve seen Sarah since that day was when I helped one of her roommates, one of my fellow excommunicatees who left shortly before I did, move out. There were few words exchanged and you could feel the tension in the room.

I left her house that day and haven’t seen or heard from her since.

Though I did recently send her a message just giving an update on how I’m doing since I left. Which I don’t believe she’s read and hasn’t responded to. Not that I expect her to.

This church I became a member of thrives off exclusivity. They don’t associate with other churches besides their sister churches, and when people leave on terms they don’t agree with, they cut all ties, leaving the person isolated and alone. I, along with so many other people, made friends at school within that church and nowhere else. So when people want to leave, they have no one and nowhere else to go. This can cause people not to leave in the first place, though if they do they often don’t know what to do after that.

This is what spiritual abuse looks like.

Spiritual abuse isn’t talked about much in most circles, though it’s a common thread through many different churches and denominations. It’s also a main reason people decide to leave their faith and hate the church. There are actually several books and articles on the subject if you know what to look for. In their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen define spiritual abuse, saying that

Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being.”

Spiritual abuse involves taking people and turning them into obedient, subservient shells of human beings in the name of Christ. This involves different levels of severity of leaders using these people for personal gain. In some situations, the pastor, or whoever may be in charge, may even use church finances for their own luxury, spending it on cars, houses, vacations, among many other things. In my own experience, there didn’t seem to be as much abuse for personal gain as in other scenarios, but there was a very clear hierarchical pyramid scheme in my environment. A pyramid scheme that was based entirely around submission to authority, the main authority being held by a single person.

Mary Demuth, a Christian writer and blogger who also does speaking tours around the world, identified ten main aspects of spiritually abusive ministries that I’ve abridged:

Spiritually abusive ministries…

  1. Have a distorted view of respect.
  2. Demand allegiance as proof of the follower’s allegiance to Christ.
  3. Use exclusive language.
  4. Create a culture of fear and shame.
  5. Often have a charismatic leader at the helm who starts off well, but slips into arrogance, protectionism, and pride.
  6. Cultivate a dependence on one leader or leaders for spiritual information.
  7. Demand servanthood from their followers, but live prestigious, privileged lives.
  8. Buffer [themselves] from criticism by placing people around themselves whose only allegiance is to the leader.
  9. Hold to outward performance but rejects authentic spirituality.
  10. Use exclusivity for allegiance.*

These ten aspects of spiritually abusive environments are a good measure and indicator when trying to recognize these environments. My church exhibited all ten of these to some degree. The control exhibited over followers or members can also delve into the realms of financial, emotional, relational, and, obviously, spiritual control. They will tell you what to feel, who to be friends with, what to believe, when and how much to give financially to the church. They will gradually break you down piece by piece, picking apart your personality until you’re whittled down to fit the mold they believe to be Christ-like living. In my situation specifically, control was forced onto children within the church. In this church, all children are literally beaten into submission, justifying physical abuse with scriptures like Proverbs 22:15, which says “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.” So the rod of discipline is used as the solution to all instances of a child acting out at whatever age. More spankings are encouraged for children who have mental handicaps. I didn’t really know about any of this until after I left, unfortunately.

This control has an incredibly powerful detrimental effect on people, and it can even be multiplied when people leave or attempt to leave these environments. Mike McHargue, commonly known as Science Mike, was asked how he would define spiritual abuse, and what happens to the brain when one experiences it. This was his response:

“I think when we hold our ideas and agreement on ideas as a test for fellowship in our life, that borders on spiritual abuse: ‘What you believe is more important than what you do.’ If people are doing harmful behaviors, confront them in love. But if people just believe things and we start to ostracize them and push them out of communities, it creates this state in the brain of escalated stress hormones, of reduced pre-frontal activity, because we’re a social species…Our only hope as a species is to stick together. And so we have an existential angst about rejection when we kick people out of churches or use the connection people feel, the good sense of connection religious communities offer, as a way to marshall people, and control them. Spiritual abuse and religious PTSD are inevitable results.”**

My own personal friendship and fellowship was based on agreement with the ideas of the church. When I decided I didn’t agree any more, they decided that they could not, and would not, associate with me any more. Their reasoning is that I would be a detriment to them; That I would corrupt their way of thinking and the unity (or mindless subservience) that they had established. When I left this church, I didn’t know what to do. I had lost my closest friends over night. I didn’t quite spiral into depression, but I was about two steps away from the edge of that cliff. I’m fortunate enough to have friends and family who live here and love and care for me dearly, but some of my friends who left that church and some people who are still there, having moved to Colorado from out of state, don’t have those faith communities to fall back on.

When I left this church, I had to re-learn so many things: Who I was, what I believed, what grace was and how it operated in my life. I also had to rewire my brain to block out the exclusive judgmentalism that the church had developed deep inside me. I’m still working through some of these things. All this to say, leaving wasn’t easy. It hurt. And I’m still recovering from the after-effects. Science Mike described his experience leaving his church when defining spiritual abuse:

“…When I left my Southern Baptist church, I went to pieces and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to go to therapy for weeks. And weeks, and weeks. And that leaving the church where my oldest daughter was baptized, and that I got married at the altar, hurt a lot more than when my parents got divorced. That leaving that church was a death in my life.”

Suffering from spiritual abuse is painful. But leaving the environment is just as painful, if not more so. And the fear of dealing with that pain, the fear of going through what people may have seen some of their closest friends go through, can cause people to remain in it, to continue submitting to the authorities that have worked so hard to break them and control them.

But even with the pain involved, if you happen to be in a spiritually abusive environment, my one exhortation is this: Leave. Get out as soon as possible. Staying in that environment is only toxic, and even though the church will try to convince you otherwise, you won’t grow in your faith. I firmly believe that faith grows through questioning it and God giving you the answers. When that pathway for growth is restricted by spiritual leaders, growth is practically impossible. So you need to leave. And, speaking from experience, it will hurt. A lot.

But there is hope. If you have suffered or are suffering from spiritual abuse, there is hope. When Science Mike was asked to define spiritual abuse, he was also asked how people can recover from spiritual abuse. He boils it down into a three-step process that I believe covers all of the bases. I’ll reflect on my own experiences with these steps here, too.

Step 1: Grieve.

Don’t try to be tough about it. Don’t try to avoid it. When we experience pain, oftentimes we try to turn away from it or leave it behind. My exhortation would be to face it head on. Press into it. Trying to put it in a box in the closet doesn’t change the fact that it’s there; If you don’t deal with it and allow yourself time to grieve (and honestly wallow in misery for a little bit), healing won’t come as easy, if it comes at all. If you’re not familiar with them, there are five stages of loss and grief: Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. And sometimes all of them happen at the same time. Journaling, praying, and talking with people you trust through these phases are really good options to help you get through it. The best therapy I’ve had was talking through my experiences and pain with my friend Seth, who went through experiences similar to my own not long ago. Over six months later, I’m still working through my own grief. It takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. For some people, actual therapy may be a really good option. It will still take time. But have hope that things will get better.

Step 2: Re-engage with the Church.

This step will happen at different times for different people. Some people need to jump into a new church right away, some people need to take some time away from church to sort through their own issues with the capital-C Church during their phases of grieving. But, ultimately, you need to re-engage with the Church. Not the same church you went to before, obviously, but a different one. When it comes to finding the “right church,” I thoroughly appreciate Science Mike’s approach:

“One, your faith community must affirm, accept, and celebrate exactly who you are today. In all your beauty and all your warts. Your church has to love it. But your church must also challenge you to become who God is making you…It’s really just a two-prong formula: Accepts you as you are, helps you grow to who God is making you.”

That’s really the key. Find a community of believers who accept you as you are today. You’ll have questions. You’ll likely be angry and confused. Find people who are okay with that. And, more importantly, are more than willing help you on your quest to find answers. For me, due to the fortunate situation I was in, I was able to find a church that does exactly that. It’s a church filled with people who really, authentically love Jesus (even the people on staff, which is honestly surprising in most mainstream churches today), who engage with their community, who pursue issues of social justice, and who love like Jesus. One of my church’s vision statements is that “We believe it’s okay not to be okay.” But my church also believes it’s not okay to stay that way. And that “We don’t go it alone.”*** Find a community of believers who accept you as you are today and help you grow into the person you were created to be. It may take some time, but it’s so worth it.

Step 3: Recognize the way your experience can and will transform the way that you love other people.

In our world today, it can often seem like the church does more harm than good. We live in a country full of spiritually abused people. They may not have a name for it, but so many people have been affected by spiritual abuse. Those of us who have gone through it and lived to tell the tale have an opportunity to touch the lives and hearts of those who may be in the thick of it, or who may be in the middle of their own stages of grief. We have an opportunity to be a light in the darkness they’ve found themselves in. So many people today have been hurt by the Church. So have we. The difference is that we can turn it around and speak into other peoples’ lives from it. I firmly believe in the promise of Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” I believe that my experience at this church will be used for good. My experience at this church awakened me to what I believe to be my own mission field in my own ministry in the future. While I can’t say I’ve particularly enjoyed the experience, I wouldn’t trade where I’m at with God now because of it for anything. My heart’s been broken for people who have been hurt by the church, either by its action or its inaction. And there’s a desire in my heart to help people in those situations that wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t gone through my own experience with spiritual abuse.

At the end of the day, the main issue with spiritually abusive communities is that they aren’t representative of Jesus and who He is and what He stands for. Jesus is about service and surrender. Spiritually abusive churches teach service that benefits those higher up in their pyramid scheme. Jesus taught love and acceptance. Spiritually abusive churches teach judgment and exclusivity. Jesus taught that we are saved by grace through faith. Spiritually abusive churches teach that you need to fit the Christ-like mold they’ve designed, and not fitting into it means you are not aligned with Christ. Jesus pursues us even on days when we are angry with Him, when we don’t know where He is or if He even exists. Spiritually abusive churches cut ties as soon as you decide you don’t agree with them any more.

I’m still dealing with my own grief and recovery from leaving this church. I’m still harboring bitterness and anger and resentment toward them in my heart. But, when it comes down to it, I still love each and every one of them. And I pray that my friends — that Sarah — will realize the lies they’re being told, and that they’ll wake up to the reality of who Jesus really is and what He truly stands for. I hope that I’ll have the opportunity to reconnect with them again in this lifetime. But if not, I’ll wait until I see them on the other side.

As my final thought, I figured I’d share one final anecdote from a friend of mine. My friend Seth who I mentioned before has a specific story about leaving his church that has basically become my own mission statement when it comes to spiritual abuse. When he and his wife were leaving their church, his wife was still on staff at the time and decided to go into the church’s database to remove the two of them from the church membership archives. When she went to change their status, there were three check boxes that members could be categorized in: Dead, Missing, or Heretic. Only three options. Because simply deciding this toxic environment wasn’t one you belonged in any more isn’t an option. She checked the box for “Heretic” and left.

I’m a heretic.

But at the end of day, I’d rather be a heretic who loves and pursues Jesus with everything that I have than a lifeless shell of a human being that’s been forced into the mold deemed acceptable.

So if you’re in a spiritually abusive environment, please, come join me and countless others here in the body of Christ who would love nothing more than to meet you where you’re at and help you become who you’re meant to be.

Be a heretic.

 

P.S. — If you are currently in a spiritually abusive environment, I really do believe you need to get out as soon as possible. What I would recommend is connecting with someone outside of your church; It could be your family, a local campus ministry, or the pastor of another church, and get help leaving. Find people to fall back on. And then once you’re out, don’t turn back. Move forward. When I left my church, the biggest thing for me was re-learning the reality of grace. The best thing I’ve found for that is the book Proof: Finding Freedom Through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace, by Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones. When it comes to dealing with the pain and the grief that comes with leaving, take time to press into it. I would recommend going to therapy to work through some of the more deeper-rooted issues you may not be able to recognize right away, but talking through your pain with trusted friends can be incredibly therapeutic as well.

 

P.P.S. — If you aren’t in a spiritually abusive environment but know someone who is, please, try to help them. They will most likely be resistant, and their church will most likely try to convince them not to leave, but trying is better than leaving them to suffer without doing anything. As someone who is able to see things from the other side, please, do what you can to help them, before it’s too late.

 

*For more details and information from this article, read it here: http://www.marydemuth.com/spiritual-abuse-10-ways-to-spot-it/

**I reference this several times throughout this blog. To hear Mike McHargue’s full answer, listen here, starting around 11:28. http://mikemchargue.com/asksciencemike/2016/4/10/episode-64-ask-science-mike-live-in-ventura-ca

***Taken from Northern Hills’s “Our Story” page: http://nhills.org/our-story-2/

Spiritual Privilege: The lost and the apathetic

There are a lot of debates going on in our country right now involving the issue of privilege. People are protesting in many different ways the issues of sexism and institutionalized racism in the U.S., all tied in to the issue of privilege. Whether or not you believe these issues exist in our country doesn’t really matter, since it really doesn’t have anything to do with my purpose for writing this. I’m not trying to awaken people to these issues since I don’t feel I know for sure where I stand on any of them, nor do I feel that I know enough about them to say anything relevant. What I do know is this: Privilege can be detrimental to all parties involved, both those who experience it and those who suffer from it. But the privilege I’m wanting to enlighten people to is drastically different from male privilege or white privilege. The privilege I feel the need to discuss, I feel has the potential to tear apart the American church as it stands today.

But before I get into that, a little background.

I grew up in the church. Both my parents have been in ministry for as long as I can remember. I grew up as a “pastor’s kid,” which generally comes with two potential stereotypes: Either you’re a hyper-sheltered goody-two-shoes who doesn’t do anything wrong and tattles on and/or judges the people who do “bad things,” or you just completely go off the deep end and end up doing all of the “bad things,” getting in trouble at school, possibly becoming a statistic in regards to teen pregnancy, and potentially even going to jail in some extreme cases. Fortunately for me, I feel that I don’t exactly fit into either of these categories, though I’m definitely more part of the first stereotype than the second. People always knew who I was growing up, because they knew my parents. And because they knew my parents, who were on staff, there always seemed to be some sort of unspoken rule about how I was meant to behave. But that’s a completely different topic. All this to say, I grew up in the church. I’ve known who Jesus is and what He’s done my whole life. I can’t remember a day when I didn’t. I grew up singing “Jesus Loves Me” and “Father Abraham,” and I even knew who Abraham was, along with Noah, Jonah, Joseph, Isaiah, Moses, Paul, all of the apostles, pretty much any biblical character you could come up with. I even went to a private Christian school that was run partly by my church until eighth grade. Growing up in the church absolutely has benefits. But, I believe, it can also have some detrimental effects.

Again, I feel the need to write a disclaimer: The points I am bringing up are speaking in general trends of the American church at large. I know that not all of these points apply to every church in this country, and in fact there are some churches that this post doesn’t even apply to, including the church that I’m fortunate enough to go to now. But, I would argue that the vast majority of churches in the U.S. suffer from some (or all) of the issues I plan to address. I am speaking from my own experience, having attended and volunteered at several different churches that suffered from these issues. That being said, I ask that you read with an open mind, and maybe take a moment to reflect on your own experience and see if any of these things may apply to you as well.

That said, here are some of the benefits of growing up in the church:

I’ve always known who Jesus is. There was never a day growing up that I didn’t know that Jesus died for me. I’ve always known that He loves me, and that He is on the throne, reigning as King and that one day I’ll get to be with Him forever.

I’ve never known a life outside of Christ. I’ve never had experience knowing what it’s like being “on the outside,” not knowing where I’m going or what my purpose in life is. I’ve always known that, when my time here comes to an end, I’ll get to be in heaven with Jesus forever, and that that’s the most important thing.

I’ve always known to avoid “bad stuff.” Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Well, not as much rock and roll. But growing up in the church, you’re always taught about things that will stand in the way of your relationship with Christ, especially things that are addictive. I’ve never done drugs, never even been in a relationship, and I’ve always tended to avoid things that are considered “really bad.” And, in most cases, if I’ve had run-ins with any of these “really bad” things, I’ve usually gotten help to get out of them.

I’ve always had a community. When you grow up in the church, you always have like-minded people to do life with. Some of the closest friends I’ve ever had are the ones that I grew up in church with. They’re the people I hung out with on the weekends and, on occasion, discussed some of the finer points of religion and faith. I’m so thankful for those friendships and wouldn’t trade my experiences with those people for anything.

There are so many benefits to being raised in the church, so many things that I’m incredibly thankful for and that have led to so many great memories and experiences that I’ve had in life. I found my calling in the church, I’ve discovered who I am in the church, and I’ve come to know Jesus because of the church.

Now here are some of the detriments of growing up in the church:

I’ve always known who Jesus is. Growing up in the church, you always know who Jesus is. In fact, He’s one of the biggest points of conversation, especially when you’re young. Your parents and Sunday school teachers always talk about Jesus and how He died for you, even though you may not fully understand what that even means yet. You always know that Jesus died for your sin, even though you don’t even really know what sin is or why it’s important, or what Jesus’s substitutionary sacrifice really accomplished.

I’ve never known a life outside of Christ. Growing up in the church, living a life in Christ can almost become hereditary. It can become something that a child inherently receives because their parents also have it. Because I grew up in a Christian family–especially with parents in ministry–I was almost born into the body of Christ. I’m not trying to knock on my parents or anything at all, the way I was raised was incredibly beneficial and loving, more so than many kids from my generation have experienced. But at the same time, there has never been a point in my life that I felt separate from Christ, that I felt that I was part of the world, rather than among the saved. Because of this, the life I’ve always lived and experienced I’ve always assumed was what a life in Christ was like, even though deep down I never felt the true change and transition from being on the outside to being on the inside. I’m not sure that the “conversion,” that true point and feeling of change is something that I’ve ever really experienced. And I feel that the same could be said for many of my peers that I grew up with in the church.

I grew up very judgmental. One of the main things that happens when you grow up being told “don’t do this, don’t do that, this is bad for you” is you start judging people who do said things. This point doesn’t specifically apply to the church, it applies to anyone really, but the church especially. No one explicitly tells you to judge people, it just sort of happens. And that was always me. As I mentioned, I was more of a goody-two-shoes pastor’s kid, and so I didn’t really participate in all of the things that we had entire sermon series on. I was never sleeping around or engaging in any sort of substance abuse. And so whenever I encountered someone who was struggling with these things, I immediately felt disgust and contempt for that person, knowing that I would never do something like that. There were certain sins especially that had become demonized in my mind to the point where they had become “the worst thing you could do.” This judgmental view had me looking at other people in a negative light while not turning the lens on myself and observing all of my own issues. And, trust me, I have a lot of them.

My community was very exclusive. As part of the in crowd, it can be difficult to remember the people locked outside. I have distinct memories throughout student ministry (middle school and high school) that we rarely had new people visit. And when they did, they usually didn’t stick around very long. And within this community in our student ministry, there were sub-communities, cliques of people who didn’t engage with other cliques. My experience in college was drastically different. I found a church that had new people coming in all the time and many of these people ended up staying. But then, once you were in, you were in. You became part of the meetings that only members could attend, and you only hung out with people within the church (specifically your church) and didn’t hang out with people who weren’t saved. Like, ever. (Involving myself in this community also led to a year and a half of spiritual abuse, but, once again, that’s another story.) And neither of these church environments really engaged their community in the sense of going out into the surrounding area and serving the people around them: Feeding the homeless, helping local schools with fundraisers, nothing of that sort. At least, not on a macro scale (I’m sure there are individuals who engaged in these things). Sure, we would raise money for organizations or take donations of food and clothing for different non-profits, and we would even have people go on the occasional missions trip overseas, but in terms of actual, active going out and engaging the community, being the hands and feet of Jesus, there was basically nothing. It was so exclusive, and the people who we engaged with outside of the church walls on a daily basis never would have known that our lives were “changed.” That we were “different.” When I was young, we just kept seeing the same people every week. In college, we brought people in and then wouldn’t allow them to be a light in the environments where the lost felt they were in a normal, comfortable space. And ultimately, I feel the communities in our surrounding area suffered from a terminal case of the church’s inaction.

So those are some of the benefits and detriments of growing up in the church. But, clearly, I haven’t gotten to my point yet. I started this off talking about privilege and then went straight into defining benefits and detriments of growing up in the church. My reasoning is this: I believe that the pros and cons of growing up in the church all add up to what I like to call spiritual privilege. Now, thinking through this, there are two main types of spiritual privilege: a purely spiritual privilege, and a socioeconomic/sociocultural spiritual privilege. The latter is determined by race and social class and is, quite frankly, its own beast that I don’t feel fully prepared to address at this present time, though the realities of socioeconomic spiritual privilege may be fairly obvious (to hear a good discussion involving some issues of socioeconomic spiritual privilege, check out The Liturgists Podcast, episode 34: Black and White). So, for now, I’ll be addressing the purely spiritual aspect of spiritual privilege.

If I were to give a specific definition to spiritual privilege, it would be this:

Spiritual privilege is the combination of the set of both positive and negative effects that growing up within the church has on an individual and the church at large. This set of beliefs and their effects is most commonly possessed by those who have lived their entire lives as part of the church, and haven’t truly known life without faith. These effects, which include a salvation based on heritage rather than faith, lead an individual and the church to a state of judgmental apathy and inaction due to the lack of experience of a true “conversion,” in the sense of transitioning from one state of being to another.

A very academic-sounding definition, I know. But here’s what I’m getting at: Spiritual privilege can cause those who have been raised in the church to be blind to the lost, the key word here being can. People who suffer from spiritual privilege are often unable to empathize with the lost, because they’ve never known a life other than the one they’re living. The conversion experience they’ve had is often based around a baptism, rather than a true life change. When people are raised having inherited salvation in Christ, rather than being taught that they are undeserving of grace, that they are just as flawed as the people that they’re told not to hang out with, and that they are saved by grace through faith in the One who was perfect and lived a perfect life in their place, life doesn’t change when you come back up from the baptismal. It stays the same, except you got dunked in a pool in front of the whole church so that they all know that you’re a Christian now, too. Any baggage you may have had before is the same baggage you have now, and the salvation of Christ has always been not only available, but a “reality” that you live in. Oftentimes, the “saved” are just as lost as the lost, if not more so. When your life hasn’t truly been changed by the power of Christ, the desire to share the good news of Christ about this change doesn’t truly exist. When there isn’t an empathy with the lost, because you have never truly lived life in their shoes, there’s no real desire to try to bring them out of their current state. After all, your life didn’t change when you were saved. So why would theirs? If their life ends up being the same after accepting Christ as it is now, what difference is there if they don’t ever accept Christ to begin with? Based on experience, the drug addict or the prostitute who gives their life to Jesus will become a drug addict or prostitute who’s apparently going to heaven now. Their life won’t change, there will just be Jesus sprinkled on top. Why should those people have the same right into the Kingdom of God as me, someone who has tried to do the right thing my whole life even though I fail most of the time and been super judgmental and hypocritical towards the very people I’m meant to help save? Their sin will just reflect badly on the body of Christ, won’t it?

This causes the spiritually privileged to interact exclusively with the spiritually privileged. This is why there isn’t a Gospel message preached in most churches most weekends, why so many churches devolve into a weekly self-help seminar on how to find the blessing of God in your life, rather than dealing with the secret sin you’re hiding. We carry Good News meant for the lost in this world, and we often hide it on Sundays because the people sitting in those seats are the same people every week. And they’re the same people every week because when visitors come, there’s no message that applies to them. There’s no Gospel, and the message being delivered is only applicable to those who are already on the inside. Hearing about how God can increase your finances and pour out abundant blessings in your life isn’t helpful when you feel the very life you have is hopeless. And if there’s nothing in this place to give you hope, there’s no reason to come back.

This is the struggle that I and so many others who have grown up spiritually privileged have wrestled with. Many people have grown up in these environments, reached my age and come to conclusions similar to my own. But the reality now is that people are waking up. Through one means or another, God is breaking through the sheltered Christian wall we’ve built and enlightening people to the reality that the lives of those we interact with on a daily basis are no less valuable than our own, that every person should have the same equal access to Jesus that we do. Whether or not they accept it is their own decision, but that doesn’t change the fact that we carry Good News. A Gospel message that leads to salvation and true life change. A Gospel message that, if I’m being honest, sometimes needs to be preached to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

So with issues like this, I suppose one question that comes up is, “How do I know if I suffer from spiritual privilege?” Well, that can be a hard question to answer. But, my guess is that if you read this and you felt something uncomfortable start stirring in your soul a little bit, you probably suffer from spiritual privilege to some degree. If you grew up in the church and you spend more time feeling lost and insecure with no direction, rather than being secure in your identity in Christ, you probably suffer from spiritual privilege. If you feel like you’re white-knuckling your walk in Christ most of the time, trying your hardest to do the right thing and feeling guilty when you don’t, you probably suffer from spiritual privilege, amongst other things (mainly the issue of depravity, a common struggle for people who have grown up spiritually privileged). If you can’t really remember a before Christ and after Christ moment in your life, I’d venture to say that you’ve definitely grown up spiritually privileged.

So then the question becomes, “How do I fix it?” This is where things get difficult, because everyone is different. In my own specific scenario, in order to truly understand the relevance and value of Christ in my life, I basically had to discover who I was apart from Him. For a few months, I kind of walked away from my faith in a sense, simply because struggling to maintain it was becoming a tiring, fruitless exercise that was wearing thin on my sanity. When I took a step back and stopped trying to be something I wasn’t for a little bit, I was able to recognize the areas of my life that I truly need Jesus to come in and drastically change, rather than me constantly trying to change them myself. I don’t exactly recommend doing that, and it probably won’t work for everyone. Another recommendation I’d have is just to simply pray that God would reveal to you areas in your life that really need true, drastic change (though, let’s be honest, you probably know a few off hand) and ask Him to really change those areas. Having an awareness of your privilege in and of itself can cause dramatic change. And most importantly, ask God to help you develop a heart for the lost. Ask Him to break your heart and give you His heart for these people in the world. Develop a desire for a true sense of empathy that relates to where real people are and looks forward to who they can become by the power of Christ. And then, once some of these things have started to flesh themselves out, pursue God. Find security in Him, and solidify your own identity and who you really are in Him.

The American church is suffering from atrophied evangelism muscles due to apathetic judgmentalism towards the rest of the world. My belief is that if this issue of spiritual privilege persists in our own lives and the lives of the next generation, the American church as we know it could die out. Partly because we’ll become so exclusive that no one new will come in, and partly because people will take Christians even less seriously than they do now. So be the one to break the pattern and become a truly new creation in Christ. Take the love we’ve found, this Gospel message, and change your families, churches, communities, and the world. There’s still hope for the future of the Church in the US, but it starts with true life change.

G*d in a Box: Limitations and expectations

Imagine a line. Just a red line on the ground. You happen to be standing somewhere in the middle of it. It stretches as far as you can see in either direction on the ground. There’s nothing particularly special about this line. Except that it never ends. And it never begins either. Sure, you can try to find the end. You can follow that line as far as you want, but you will never find an end to it. No explanation, no matter how hard you try. It isn’t self-contained, wrapping itself around the planet or anything, it just never ends.

Simple enough to imagine? Try this, then.

Take a moment to just think about our universe, infinitely expanding in all directions. I’m not a scientist, and I don’t even really care to learn much about science, but just take a moment to think about the fact that if you flew out into space you would never stop flying out into space. You would keep going. Forever.

Brain hurt yet? How about this.

Imagine being immortal. Not with any sort of romanticized immortality that has been dreamed up by the human imagination. Consider the concept that you’ve always existed. That you never had a beginning. And then imagine never dying. Ever. Regardless of the circumstance. You would just continue to exist forever, seeing your loved ones, the planet, even the infinitely expanding universe die out. You could even spend the rest of your eternal lifetime exploring every inch of the entire universe; you would never run out of new things to see and you would never run out of time to see these new things.

This is about when I start to curl up into a ball and cry a little bit. Here’s the point I’m trying to make: Our understanding is limited. To us, everything has its limit. Everything has a beginning and an ending. So there are concepts that, no matter how hard we try to understand them, we will never wrap our brain around. They exceed our limited comprehension, leaving us confused and possibly frustrated at our inability to really understand it. The only response we can have is to admit defeat. There’s nothing we can do to change our understanding, so we have to give up trying to understand it. Even once we think we may understand it, there’s still an aspect of it that escapes our grasp. Then, once a new fact comes to light, it blows our minds all over again.

Infinity is something we, in our limited understanding, aren’t completely able to wrap our brains around. And we realize this. And we accept this.

So here’s my question: Why do people keep trying to wrap their brains around God? Why do people try to put some sort of definition or label on God to satisfy their need for everything to make sense? Why don’t people give up?

Again, I feel the need to take a moment here to clarify: I’m not claiming to have everything figured out. I’m human, so it’s not possible for me to have everything figured out. These are my own thoughts and my own opinions at this exact moment in time, and this organization of my own thoughts is as much preaching to myself as it is to anyone who will take the time to read it. In fact, it is preaching to myself before it is to anyone else, because that’s usually where these kinds of things start in the first place. I just sometimes feel the need to organize my thoughts in a place where other people can see them.

Anyway, there are so many verses that remind us how big God is and how we can’t completely understand Him.

These are just the beginning of all that he does, merely a whisper of his power. Who, then, can comprehend the thunder of his power? (Job 26:14, NLT)

Behold, God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable. (Job 36:26, ESV)

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers — the moon and the stars you set in place — what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4, NLT)

He counts the stars and calls them all by name. How great is our Lord! His power is absolute! His understanding is beyond comprehension! (Psalm 147:4-5, NLT)

Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. (Isaiah 40:28, NLT)

Time after time we’re reminded that we’re human. That we cannot and will not understand everything. And yet, we still try to wrap our brains around God. We still try to take the Creator of the universe, with power, love, and wisdom immeasurable, and put Him in a box. We try to define what He can and can’t do and what He will and won’t do. Then, something happens that blows our understanding out of the water. But, instead of letting God out of the box, we find a bigger box to put Him in. I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m guilty of this. But every person is guilty of this. But why don’t we let God out of the box? Why do we just find a bigger one to try and contain Him in?

The answer is simple: We can’t fully understand God.

The conclusion I have come to is this: Because of our limited understanding, we will always put God in a box. In our minds, everything has a limit, simply because we can’t even fully conceptualize something that truly has no limit. While the reality is that God has no limits, our brains will, rather than stop putting limits on God, expand the limits past our previous understanding, whether we know it or not. We may think that we don’t put limits on what we think God can do, but we still unconsciously place limits on Him nonetheless. Sometimes even our ways of describing what God is capable of show our limits. Saying that God is “big enough” to overcome something in our lives indicates the limits we place on Him. We say “He is powerful enough” rather than simply “He is powerful.” Even the statement that “Christ is sufficient,” as if He’s just enough for us, has started to bug me a little bit as of late. When in truth He’s far more than we could ever ask for, expect, or imagine. We will always keep God in a box. And when He exceeds our limitations and expectations, we’ll go and find a bigger box.

But there’s a certain beauty to this tension that we live in. Every time God blows our minds, we get a bigger box for Him. If we truly reached a point where we were fully able to comprehend the infinite beauty, wonder, power, and majesty that is our Creator, God would no longer be able to blow our minds. We would no longer be blown away by the incredible grace that He pours out over us every day. The blessings that are so graciously poured out over us would become normal. We would begin to know exactly what to expect when it came to God and what He would do in our lives.

But instead, He keeps Himself beyond our understanding. He’s created us in such a way that, because of our limited understanding, He is able to amaze us over and over again. He blows the lid off the box that we’ve put Him in, and will never stop blowing the lid off of it, because He loves us. And because He loves us, He loves to blow the lid off of that box. He loves to reveal more of His character and His heart to us. And so we continue to pursue Him, to further understand His character and His heart, living for the moments when He blows the lid off of the box we’ve put Him in.

While this tension does exist, and while it is frustrating that we, in our limited understanding, can never fully comprehend all that is God, I believe there is a “correct” way to approach this tension. And that is simply to place our hopes and expectations in Him and to ask Him to reveal Himself to us day by day. This involves being honest with ourselves and with God about the limits we’ve placed, whether we know them or not. It involves saying, “God, these are my hopes and dreams. These are my desires. I know all things are possible with You. And this is only possible in and through You.” Because no one in their right mind has a dream fulfilled then sits back and says, “That went exactly according to plan.” The response should be gratitude, thankfulness for the blessings poured out on us. Having dreams fulfilled is in and of itself one of the manifestations of God revealing Himself to us. Just one of the many ways He blows the lid off the box we’ve put Him in. But, since we always just find a bigger box to try and contain God in, the key to this tension is to never stop dreaming. To never stop hoping. To never stop pursuing God and His heart. Doing so is to become content with God staying in the new box you’ve found, rather than bringing your limitations before Him and asking Him to exceed them.

Never become content with keeping God in the box.

And never try to claim that you haven’t put God into a box. Instead, accept the fact that you’ve found a bigger box to try and contain Him in.

And know that He will not be contained.

And pray every day that He would blow the lid off of the new box you’ve tried to put Him in.

Depravity: How the book of Romans reads me

A few weeks ago, I sat down with my mentor and caught him up to speed on where I’ve been spiritually and the stuff I’ve been wrestling with. He helped me identify what I was dealing with, which is the depravity of man. The reality that, though I’ve given my life to Christ and believe in everything He’s done for me and is doing for me, that I still sin. Even though I know what’s wrong and what’s right, I still do things I know are wrong. Even when I don’t want to do things, I still do them. In his explanation of this, he mentioned the book of Romans several times and Paul’s own experience wrestling with this reality. So, on Sunday morning two weeks ago, instead of going to church anywhere, I decided to just spend time with God and sat down and read through the entire book of Romans. Though, in all honesty, I didn’t really read the book of Romans. The book of Romans read me.

If you’ve read the book of Romans before, you probably know that it’s chock full of promises from God. Romans 8 is (in my opinion) one of the most uplifting, encouraging, inspirational chapters in the entire Bible:

Romans 8:1

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.

Romans 8:10-11

And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.

Romans 8:15-18

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.

Romans 8:28

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.

Romans 8:31

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us?

Romans 8:38-39

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

*All passages in this blog are from the New Living Translation of the Bible.

These promises are incredibly encouraging for everyone living under the abundant grace and promises that God has given us. But, if you’ve read some of my recent blogs (namely “Blogging Again” and “I Can’t”) you’ll know that, quite frankly, I’ve heard these things my entire life. I’ve been taught them since before I can remember and, in twenty-one years of life, have gotten kind of desensitized to them. So I was reading through Romans, not for the promises and encouragement, but for the explanation of where I’m at. For the harsh reality that is the depravity of man and the way that Jesus has saved us from our inability to do what we know is right and to stop doing what we know is wrong. I’ve read through Romans multiple times, but I’ve never read it the way I did today. And the way I read it today has more meaning for my life than anything else I’ve read before.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I am not a theologian. Well, maybe I am in a sense, but not really. What’s important is that I will be the first one to admit that I don’t have the answers. It’s entirely possible I may have gotten something wrong in here. And the way I think about things now could change entirely from the way I think about things at some point in the future. But this is kind of how faith works. It’s a journey. God doesn’t give you everything all at once, He gives it to you in pieces, leads you from point A to point B to point C. So if there’s something I’ve posted in here that you disagree with completely, great. If there’s something I’ve gotten wrong in here, cool. That’s fine. This just happens to be where my brain is at right now and this is one of the main ways that I organize my thoughts. Don’t send me angry hate emails or something. If you want to leave a comment, maybe explaining something I’ve misunderstood and trying to help me understand it better, that would be much preferred. I want to understand this, not be yelled at it for my misunderstanding. So thank you. Anyway, moving on.

Starting in the second chapter, Paul’s words to the Roman church started to strike really close to the heart:

Romans 2:28-29

For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.

What may be somewhat confusing here is Paul’s description of a “true Jew.” What’s important to remember is the context of Paul’s writing. This was in a time a few years after the death and resurrection of Christ, when Christianity as a religion was still young, but was spreading throughout Israel, Asia, and the Mediterranean. At this time, Christians were divided into two categories: Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were the people who had been raised being taught the law and may have known the Scriptures inside and out since they were taught basically from birth. These people had been raised following the law since before they even really knew what the law was. In the past two thousand years, the distinction of Jew and Gentile has all but disappeared, as most Christians nowadays are, in fact, Gentiles. We’re all just Christians at this point, and the title of “Jew” generally doesn’t apply to the Christian faith any more. At this point, I would argue that the “true Jews” Paul is talking about apply to a different group nowadays. I believe that it applies to, simply, “true Christians.” Try reading the passage this way:

For you are not a true Christian just because you were born of Christian parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of baptism. No, a true Christian is one whose heart is right with God.

Obviously, this change to the verse doesn’t translate for the entire passage since circumcision is not 100% equivalent with baptism. Regardless, do you see my point here? The American church at large is filled with people who consider themselves “true Christians” because they were born of Christian parents and were baptized. But Paul makes it clear that’s not the case, saying that “a true [Christian] is one whose heart is right with God.” This deceptive reality is one that I and many of my peers who I grew up in the church with grew up in. And I would argue it’s the reality many young Christians my age grew up in. And I also believe that many of them are probably starting to realize this lie for what it is.

Paul continues his explanation of the purpose of the law in chapter 3.

Romans 3:19-28

Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.

But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God freely and graciously declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.

Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.

There are a couple verses in this passage that stood out the most to me. Verses 19-20 make it clear that the law exists so that we would see how sinful we are, so that we would have a clear understanding that we can’t do everything right. But Jesus, full of unfailing love and faithfulness, came to give us a way to be made right with God without fulfilling the requirements of the law because, quite simply, we can’t. We are completely incapable of fulfilling the law. The fact that Jesus came to die and save us means that, as Paul explains in verses 27 and 28, that we can never be proud of ourselves for obeying the law. We cannot boast to other people about our obeying and fulfilling the law because we already broke it. And Jesus came and died so that we wouldn’t have to try to fulfill the law because, again, we can’t. So we have no reason to be proud of ourselves for our obedience. Ever. It’s by faith we’ve been saved, not by anything we’ve done or tried to do.

Being human, many people would obviously take this the wrong way. Paul attempts to address this soon afterward in verse 31 of chapter 3, “Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law.”

Just because we can’t fulfill the law doesn’t mean we ignore the law. It’s still important. Paul makes it clear that taking on faith and believing in Jesus is, in fact, the only way to fulfill the law. If you don’t believe in Jesus and don’t have faith, you aren’t fulfilling the law. Jesus came and lived a perfect life and gave His life as a sacrifice to fulfill the law for us; our fulfillment of the law comes in accepting the gift He offered and having faith in Him.

This seems to have strayed a bit from the total depravity of man, but in reality it hasn’t. The law and man’s attempt to fulfill it is, in and of itself, the focal point of man’s depravity. The fact that we have a sin nature and have sin in our hearts is where man’s attempt to fulfill the law comes into play, and the depravity of man is made known. But there is still plenty of truth Paul writes in this book that continue to address all of these issues.

In Romans 4, Paul writes:

Romans 4:14-16

If God’s promise is only for those who obey the law, then faith is not necessary and the promise is pointless. For the law always brings punishment on those who try to obey it. (The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!)

So the promise is received by faith. It is given as a free gift. And we are all certain to receive it, whether or not we live according to the law of Moses, if we have faith like Abraham’s. For Abraham is the father of all who believe.

 

If God’s promise is only for those who obey the law, there is no promise. God would have made a promise for no reason, knowing that no one was able to obey the law, leaving His promise permanently out of reach and unattainable to anyone who would ever live. Simply because “the law brings punishment on those who try to obey it.” As Paul says in Romans 2:12, “When the Gentiles sin, they will be destroyed, even though they never had God’s written law. And the Jews, who do have God’s law, will be judged by that law when they fail to obey it.” Since we know that we aren’t able to obey the law, we’ll be judged by it and receive the punishment from it. So the promise is received by faith. And when we have faith like Abraham’s, we receive this gift whether or not we live according to the law. Some people will read “And we are all certain to receive it, whether or not we live according to the law of Moses,” and will take that statement without finishing the verse, which makes it clear that we’ll receive it “if we have faith like Abraham’s.” Faith saves, not works. Understanding that we can’t fulfill the law is pointless without the understanding that faith is what saves us. Understanding the former without the latter will just lead to people giving up on their belief. But understanding that accepting Jesus’ free gift and receiving this gift by faith leads to eternal life and being saved through Him. And, as was brought to my attention and realization by close friends of mine through discussion recently, the thing about having faith like Abraham is that, if we believe in Jesus, we already have faith like Abraham. It’s not something we have to work toward. Having faith like Abraham involves having faith that God is for us and has saved us and has a plan. We’ve already been given that gift of faith by the grace of God.

In Romans 5, Paul writes:

Romans 5:7-8

Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.

Before we could even be saved, while we were still living in sin, God sent His son to die for us. God knew we couldn’t fulfill the law and sent His Son to fulfill it for us. He knew that, even after accepting the gift He offers us, that we would still sin. That we still wouldn’t be able to fulfill the law. And yet He came anyway. He came to save us in spite of our depravity.

In Romans 7, Paul addresses exactly what I’ve been feeling. He addresses exactly what I’ve felt and been concerned about.

Romans 7:14-25

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.

This is the primary issue I’ve wrestled with. “I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” I’ve just been incredibly frustrated by the fact that, although I know what I should and should not do, I do the opposite. This really helped make it clear as to why. “If I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.” I’m still letting this reality sink in. The reality that, though I mess up quite often, I still live and walk in the grace that God has offered me. The fact that I know that what I do is wrong does not mean that I am doing wrong; it is my own sin nature causing me to do so. This is a really confusing point that, honestly, I’m still working through in my head. And this doesn’t mean that sin isn’t bad. Sin is still bad. But I shouldn’t be so hard on myself when I do sin. I shouldn’t beat myself up and sit around wishing I was better. I need to be comfortable with the reality that I will sin sometimes. It’s just the reality of my sin nature. And just because I do sin and will sin also doesn’t mean that I’m unrepentant. In fact, repentance is kind of the glue that makes this possible. Without repentance for what you’ve done wrong, you’re just going on sinning for no reason. It’s the realization that what you’ve done is wrong and your repentance, bringing it before the throne of God, that makes it so you don’t have to live ridden with guilt. This is only available to those who have been saved through faith, and I’m incredibly grateful that it’s available to me.

There’s still more in this book to get to, though. In Romans 9:16, Paul says, “So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.” Again, Paul makes it clear that we can’t do it ourselves. There is nothing we can do to attain mercy. We can’t save ourselves. We can’t work for it. We can’t choose to receive it. But we can choose Jesus. And God, in turn, will turn around and pour grace and mercy out in abundance over our lives.

This whole living by faith and not by works thing is a lot easier said than done. I’ve realized that more and more for myself in recent times. The Jews of Paul’s time also struggled with this concept:

Romans 9:30-32

What does all this mean? Even though the Gentiles were not trying to follow God’s standards, they were made right with God. And it was by faith that this took place. But the people of Israel, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded. Why not? Because they were trying to get right with God by keeping the law instead of by trusting in him. They stumbled over the great rock in their path. God warned them of this in the Scriptures when he said,

“I am placing a stone in Jerusalem that makes people stumble,

   a rock that makes them fall.

But anyone who trusts in him

   will never be disgraced.”

Working to be saved is a great rock in the path of faith. The law is a difficult thing. It’s good, and we should follow it, but trying to live up to the letter of the law will, in and of itself, result in condemnation, because we’ll be judged by the standard of the law and we will, inevitably, break one of its rules. Trying hard to follow the law, striving to follow the law, without the assistance or power of Jesus and the Spirit of God living within you, just leads to death. And you’ll never be satisfied with your own performance at following the law. Because that’s what an attempt to follow the letter of the law is about: Performance. The idea that all eyes are on you and you need to do everything right for yourself and the people around you to see. But Jesus isn’t about performance. Jesus is about faith. In Colossians 3:23, Paul writes, “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.” Striving to fulfill the letter of the law is working for man, putting on a display that is right in man’s eyes. But God doesn’t want us to work for man and try to prove ourselves to the people around us. God wants us to become more like Jesus. And He wants us to become more like Jesus by relying on His power and His Spirit to continually work in us and through us. To change our hearts and the hearts of those around us. It’s a difference between working hard and living a life of faith. And God wants us to live a life of faith, falling into Him and pursuing Him deeper and deeper each day.

This is a difficult concept for people to wrap their brain around. I still struggle with it, if I’m being honest. We’re supposed to become more like Jesus by trusting in Him to do a work in us. Being more like Jesus involves loving more, loving better, and, because of who He is, sinning less. But sinning less involves following the law. But we aren’t supposed to try hard to follow the law because that in and of itself is going against the grace that’s been lavished upon us. It comes back to the issue of trying to keep the law instead of trusting in Jesus. Trying to keep the law based on Jesus’ working in your heart is the key. And this conclusion can take people a long time to realize. In Romans 10, Paul writes:

Romans 10:1-10

Dear brothers and sisters, the longing of my heart and my prayer to God is for the people of Israel to be saved. I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal. For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law. For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God.

For Moses writes that the law’s way of making a person right with God requires obedience to all of its commands. But faith’s way of getting right with God says, “Don’t say in your heart, ‘Who will go up to heaven?’ (to bring Christ down to earth). And don’t say, ‘Who will go down to the place of the dead?’ (to bring Christ back to life again).” In fact, it says,

“The message is very close at hand;

   it is on your lips and in your heart.”

And that message is the very message about faith that we preach: If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved.

Our declaration of faith and our belief in Jesus in our heart makes us right with God. So at this point, no good thing that we do can make us more right with God. And no bad thing we do can make us less right with God. We just believe in Him and become more like Him every day. We don’t want to have an enthusiasm for God that’s simply misdirected zeal. We don’t want to be excited about God and then wander around as slaves to the law, striving our hardest to fulfill everything that’s asked of us to do. We want to press into the Spirit and fall deeper into the love, grace, and mercy that Jesus has in abundance for us. There is only one way to get right with God; we don’t want to cling to another way that will get us nowhere.

There are other things that go along with this, though. Paul writes in Romans 12:3, “Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.” There is a lot that goes into this statement. This is an issue of pride, something that everyone deals with at some point in some way or another. We aren’t meant to think of ourselves higher than we really are. On the flipside of that coin, we also shouldn’t think of ourselves as less than we really are. Either one is wrong. If you think you’re better than you really are, odds are you’ll end up being disappointed when you mess up. You’ll get down on yourself and beat yourself up, feeling guilty for not living up to whatever standard you may have in your mind. If you think of yourself as less than you really are, that edges into the territory of believing that what Jesus did on the cross wasn’t enough for you. Which, honestly, is more dangerous than thinking more of yourself. If you think “I’m not worth anything, I just mess up all the time, I can’t do anything right,” that is thinking of yourself as less than a son or daughter of God. Less than a co-heir to the throne of God. Less than royalty. Less than saved. This is wrong. Very wrong. Thinking of yourself as less than saved by grace through faith, that Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t enough to save you, reveals an unbelief in God that needs to be sorted out. So the key here is to not think more of yourself, not think less of yourself, but be real with where you really are. Be comfortable with your flaws. Not saying that you don’t want them to not be there, because we should always be wanting to become more like Jesus. But be comfortable with the fact that you’re going to mess up sometimes. And it isn’t exactly “okay,” but it is, in fact, okay. Because it’s going to happen. It’s bound to happen inevitably because of our sin nature. Sin is bad, but understanding that you are going to sin is good. We need to be comfortable with that reality. We need to be comfortable with our own depravity.

This doesn’t mean that we should just sin whenever we feel like it. We should still be working every day to become more like Jesus. There’s a difference between sinning (because we’re going to) and sinning because we know we’re going to. The moment you think to yourself, “Well, I’m going to sin anyway, so I might as well just do x, y, or z,” is the moment you’ve edged out of faith and into licentiousness. Licentiousness is when people think that, because they’re saved, they have license to sin knowing that God will forgive them later. Yes, God will forgive you. No, that doesn’t mean that you should sin because of that fact. Moments of temptation should lead to prayer, not some sort of illogical reasoning that says, “If I do x, God will still forgive me, so I’ll do it anyway.” NO. BAD. WRONG. Don’t do that. And I’ll be the first to admit that I have thought this at times. And, looking back on it, I just feel gross about it. Being comfortable with our own depravity involves knowing that we are going to sin, but still trying to be like Jesus and not beating ourselves up horrendously when we do sin. That isn’t what God would do. When God sees us sin, He says, “I still love you. Nothing can change that.” When we bring our sin before Him in repentance, He says, “I know. And I still love you. Nothing can change that.” On a side note, the moment we start to think that God is surprised when we bring our sin before Him in repentance is another moment when you should realize you got confused about something somewhere. He knows already. He just wants to hear it from you.

The last thing I want to get to that stuck out to me in this book comes from Romans 13.

Romans 13:13-14

Because we belong to the day, we must live decent lives for all to see. Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires.

We’re supposed to live in the light. We’re supposed to live in such a way so that people can see everything we stand for and the reality of radical forgiveness and grace that we live in. So, that does imply that something should be done about the things Paul mentions in these verses: wild parties and drunkenness, sexual promiscuity and immoral living, quarreling and jealousy. The fact that Paul mentions these things specifically implies that there’s something that needs to be done with them. If you’re living a life in Christ, and any of these things exist in your life, GET RID OF THEM. No, seriously, it’s not okay. These are things you need to get sorted out. Get help if you need it. These are the things of the world, and we are meant to be in the world and not of it. How can people tell that your life is different from theirs if you engage in all of the same crap that they do? So, get it sorted out. Then, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. Live your life in the light. Be real with people about what you believe, in whom you place your hope, where you find your joy. Live life in the light.

So this has been a long post. I had a lot of thoughts about this book. And, suffice it to say, I have a lot of stuff to work on. Just in general. This is something that I’m becoming more comfortable with and that I’m working on improving day by day. Just because I came to these realizations doesn’t mean that they set in right away. It’ll take time. But I have faith that things will work out all right and I’m hopeful, looking forward to the way God will work all of this out in my heart in the (hopefully near) future. Depravity is something many people, especially those in the modern American church, don’t entirely understand. It’s been a place of confusion for me for a long time, and in some ways it still kind of is. But I know that God illuminated this in my heart for a reason, and I know that He’ll give me further clarity in the days to come. But for now, all I know is that I’m going to sin today. And tomorrow. And every day after that. But that doesn’t change who I am or who God is.

I Can’t: The lame man and the importance of surrender

Recently, I decided to go through the Gospels one chapter at a time with new eyes and ears to hear what God is speaking through them, as if I’d never heard them before. This is due to a lot of recent realizations and revelations about a lot of things that I may write a blog post about sometime soon. Maybe. I don’t have all of my thoughts on that organized yet. But today, I was reading through John, specifically John 5, which starts with the story of the lame man.

In John 5, Jesus and His disciples come upon the pool of Bethsaida which was surrounded by sick people of all varieties (namely blind, lame, or paralyzed according to the NLT). Not everyone knows the importance of the pool of Bethsaida. Basically what happened at the pool of Bethsaida is that at different times, an angel would come and stir the water of the pool, and the first person who made it into the pool would be healed of any affliction they may have. There’s a lot of controversy and debate about this particular instance in Scripture, but I really don’t care because that’s not what I’m focused on. What I’m giving particular interest to is what happens when Jesus walks by the pool, starting in verse 5 of the New Living Translation:

One of the men lying there had been sick for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew he had been ill for a long time, he asked him, “Would you like to get well?”

“I can’t, sir,” the sick man said, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Someone else always gets there ahead of me.”

Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!”

Instantly, the man was healed! He rolled up his sleeping mat and began walking!

John 5:5-9a, NLT

Something important happens here. Something that I never noticed until reading this passage again today. First off, Jesus asks a question: “Would you like to get well?” Other translations read “Do you want to be healed?” (ESV) or “Do you wish to get well?” (NASB). Wait…Isn’t that obvious? Of course he wants to get well! He’s been in this condition for thirty-eight years! Why would anyone in their right minds want to stay like this? Who wouldn’t want to get well?

All of this seems painfully obvious. So, therefore, the question becomes: Why did Jesus ask this question? If Jesus knew what the obvious answer would be, why would He ask a question like this in the first place? Jesus knew what He was doing, so there has to be a purpose. And that purpose was this: Jesus wasn’t asking if the man wanted to get well. He was testing his heart.

Imagine the scenario here: Jesus, Savior of the world, Son of God, filled with unfailing love and faithfulness, walked up to a man who hadn’t walked for thirty-eight years. This man, who has likely been lying here for an incredibly long time, knows that if he can make it into the pool, he will be healed. By his understanding, this was his only chance to be freed and saved from his current condition. There’s a problem here, though, that Jesus sees immediately. Thus, Jesus asks him, “Would you like to get well? Do you want to be healed?”

And the man’s response?

“I can’t.”

His answer wasn’t “Yes.” His answer wasn’t “No.” The man says “I can’t, sir, for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up.” This is the answer Jesus was looking for. Obviously the man wanted to be healed. But what Jesus wanted to see was whether or not he had come to the realization that he couldn’t do it on his own. By his own power and his own strength, he wasn’t capable of receiving the healing that he desired. He couldn’t pick himself up and make it to the pool. He was completely incapable and unable to save himself. In the midst of his hope and desire to be healed and to be made well, he recognized his own problem and his inability to accomplish that dream himself.

And Jesus, filled with unfailing love and faithfulness, met him where he was.

This is where Jesus wants to find us.

Jesus asks every single person, “Do you want to be healed?” Often the answer is no. Other times the answer is yes. But not frequently enough in this day in age is the answer “I can’t do it. I can’t be healed. I’ve tried.”

The answer of “no” is a complete refusal of the gift of God. They see what Jesus has to offer and don’t want it. They’re supposedly satisfied where they’re at and don’t want that drastic of a change, so they decide to remain lying by the pool.

The answer of “yes” is an acceptance of the free gift of eternal life that Jesus offers to every person. It is a decision to take what Jesus has offered, the very thing He died for. But, nowadays, more and more frequently, people say “yes” to Jesus and then wander around as if they haven’t been healed, trying to do things in their own power to save themselves and completely forgetting what they’ve been given. They still think they’re able to do something to save themselves from…Something.

The answer of “I can’t” is surrender. A realization that, no matter how hard you try, you’re unable to achieve what you’re trying to do. You can’t save yourself. You can’t heal yourself. All your best efforts will leave you worse off than you were before. It is complete and total surrender. It’s a cry for help. “I can’t do it, will You do it for me?” This is where a true life in Christ begins. This is where Jesus wants to meet us.

I’ve realized recently that this really isn’t where I was when I first gave my life to Christ. I was originally in the category of people that just said “yes” and then tried to keep doing things myself. I tried to follow all the rules as best as I could, because I felt that was what I needed to do. (Not to say that following rules is a bad thing; in fact, it’s a good thing. But it shouldn’t be something that we try super hard to do, it should be something that results from surrender to Christ. Also not to say that after surrendering your life to Christ you should be perfect, because that isn’t possible. That’s where grace comes into play. Anyway…) Obviously, this didn’t work out well. I tried to make things happen myself, which led to years of looking at the world through the lens of comparison, feeling like I was never able to measure up to the expectations that people had for me, and that I was never going to be as good at x, y, or z as the people around me.

I realized that this is where I was before. And that’s why I’ve been starting over with the Gospels with new eyes, soaking in every word that Jesus has for me. I want every promise, every reality that Jesus says that I live in to be the one that I know I live in. And this started with the realization that I had been trying so hard to do things on my own; that I didn’t surrender all of my expectations, hopes, dreams, and flaws to Him. Trying to live a Christian life any other way is missing out on the life that God has for you. Surrendering everything to Jesus, every hope and fear, every sin and prayer, every single facet of your life, is the only way to truly walk in all of the plans and promises that God has in store.

If you’ve experience a life even remotely similar to mine, having been raised in the church and having this entire concept of complete and total surrender ultimately lost on you, I would encourage you to see yourself as the lame man by the pool of Bethsaida. Reposition yourself and redirect your thinking to realize that you can’t do this yourself. You need help. You need someone to pick you up and bring you to the pool. And then you’ll receive something even better.

If you’ve never given your life to Christ before, maybe you’ve come to the realization that your best efforts have failed you, that you’ve just felt stuck and maybe that life is pointless or meaningless. If that’s you, I would encourage you by saying that Jesus is the answer to whatever problem you may be going through. Not the judgmental Jesus that has been portrayed in the media, but the Jesus who wants nothing more than to have a relationship with you and for you to know Him because He loves you more than anyone ever could. That’s my Jesus.

Regardless of who you are or where you’re at in this regard, I feel like there’s no better time than right now to think about who’s controlling your path and who’s in charge of your destiny. Whether it’s you or Jesus.

Conclusion: I can’t. But Jesus can. And He strengthens me to do things every day that I never thought possible.

My prayer is that, at the end of the day, this would be the heart cry of each and every one of us.

The Meaning of Life: No, it’s not 42.

There are three things I know of that are catalysts of deep, meaningful conversations: Late nights, long drives, and dying campfires. Whatever the discussion may end up being about, more often than not, the cliche question of “What’s the meaning of life?” or, “Why are we here?” ends up making its way into discussion. It’s a question that’s been asked since the beginning of time, by people of all ages. Usually, people can’t really seem to come up with the answer. They usually just make some sort of guess as to what it might be and leave it at that. Well, I don’t mean to brag, but I think I have an idea as to what it might be. This isn’t something I just made up, this is a conclusion I’ve come to over lots of time thinking, listening to other peoples’ ideas and all that kind of stuff. It’s not even exclusively my idea. Plenty of other people have come to the same conclusion. So let’s go through how I came to this conclusion. (You didn’t really think I was just going to tell you, did you?) The way I came to this conclusion was by observing peoples’ natural wants, desires, needs, that kind of stuff. Then the conclusion I came to seemed to fit. Whether or not you agree with me is your decision, but for now, I guess you’re just along for the ride.

There are a lot of things people look for in life. One of these things is an outlet to use their talents. Everyone is good at something. Whether you think so or not, you excel at something that other people may not. For some people it’s an artistic talent, for others, it’s more a talent of intelligence in one of many different areas. And even still for others, it can be athletic talent, or talent when it comes to people skills, being outgoing, relating to others people, being a good listener, et cetera. There are so many different things that different people excel at, and finding a good outlet to use those talents in is one of my paths to discovering the meaning of life. When people aren’t able to use their talents, when they don’t get to use the skills they’ve been gifted with and aren’t able to excel at what they’re good at, it can leave them feeling empty, frustrated, and unmotivated. While on the other hand, people who get to use their talents on a regular basis, whether it be at work or in a club or another group, feel more encouraged, excited, and motivated to continue thriving in that area. People who use their talents on a regular basis feel more of a sense of purpose than those who don’t have that outlet to excel in. Feeling a sense of purpose is something that everyone longs for, which is my next point.

People need to feel a sense of purpose in order to find their life’s meaning. People find their sense of purpose in different things. Some find it in supporting their family, friends, or a particular cause. Some find their purpose in aiming toward a specific goal, whether it’s a career, a life-long dream, anything bigger and better than what they’re doing now. When people don’t have those dreams or desires, they can feel hopeless, that they’re forever stuck in the place they’re currently in. And if they have those dreams or desires with no way of working to achieve them, it can have the same effect. Not having a dream or having a dream that seems completely out of reach can cause someone to feel hopeless, worthless, or without purpose. Having people to encourage you along the way and having the motivation to achieve your dreams is one path to discovering purpose in life. However, having dreams and goals usually isn’t much without one key thing, which is something to devote your life to.

Everyone needs something bigger, something to wrap their life around and devote it to. For some people, it’s the American dream, having a wife, two kids, a dog, and a white picket fence with a good job to support it all. For others it can be a particular cause, like saving the environment, helping children in Africa, or seeking justice for people in court. And for some other people, it can be something as simple as money, success, a relationship, wealth, or fame. Everyone searches for a cause outside themselves to devote their life to. The difference between this aspect and a dream is that quite often the dreams and goals a person has are driven by whatever the “something bigger” in their life is. The dream to have an amazing career can be driven by money. They dream to become a rock star or actor on television can be driven by fame. The dream to get an education, a good job, and a great home can be driven by the American dream, the desire to have a family, or one of many other things. Whatever this bigger purpose may be, it’s something that people look for to devote their life to, so that anything and everything they do is trying to achieve that goal and purpose.

So what do we have so far? People need an outlet to use their talents to achieve a goal driven by a bigger cause. Or, to put it a different way, the “something bigger” in a person’s life drives everything they do, and causes them give their talents and abilities back to that “something bigger” to achieve the dream that it created. It may sound confusing at first, but I’d say this is a pretty accurate description of one of peoples’ greatest needs. And, to me, this sounds like something you may not have thought of before. To me, this sounds like worship. This may sound like a stretch to you, because the way most people think of worship is something brutal or animalistic, something involving sacrifices, ancient rituals, and all that jazz. But for me, worship is something completely different. For me, worship is using your talents and abilities for a cause outside yourself to achieve a dream, which is usually driven by the root cause in the first place. So, by my logic, if everyone has those three things (a desire to use their talents and abilities, a bigger, better dream, and a cause outside themselves), it stands to reason that everyone worships something. Some people worship money, fame, and success, some people worship the American dream, some people worship other people or a relationship, some people worship a specific cause such as saving the planet, some people worship the planet itself. Whatever it is that you worship, it’s something that consumes your thoughts, your motivation, your desires, your whole being. And whatever it may be, everyone worships something. Worship is the purpose and meaning of life.

Now, here’s where things get a little complicated. There are a couple more things that every person looks for and needs. The first thing people look for is to be loved, appreciated, to have a feeling that you belong. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. People long for that feeling of belonging, that they’ve found their place, and that they’re loved and appreciated. Some of these things that people worship don’t do that at all, like money and success, while some others may seem to give people what they’re looking for, like a relationship or fame. People look for love and appreciation in a myriad of places and they may think they’ve found it for a while, but a lot of times they end up feeling empty, wondering why they don’t feel happy or content. So they end up looking for more of it. And then it just turns into a never-ending cycle of no satisfaction. Whether they know it or not, people want to worship something that gives back to them, and when they realize they aren’t getting what they want or need, they just end up throwing themselves into it even more, which complicates things even more.

The last thing people want and need in life is a sense of identity. Something that shows who they are, what they do, what they stand for. And, once again, some people find their identity in what they do, where they are in life, or who they’re in a relationship with. The problem here is, jobs and careers come and go, life is never consistent, and people fail. The issue here comes when the thing they find their identity in, the thing they’ve wrapped their lives around and devoted so much time, energy, and hope to, is taken away. When a job is lost, when the market crashes and you lose everything, when your significant other decides it’s time to see new people, where does your identity go? It disappears. People find their identity in what they worship, but when it’s taken away, they’re left broken, without an identity, and starting from square one when it comes to discovering who they are. Thus begins a process of rebuilding, picking up the pieces and trying to reconstruct the shell they once were. Some people don’t even make an attempt to move on, and just end up just accepting that being miserable is the new way of life. Their identity’s gone, and it can’t be found again, so why even try?

This is all where my final point comes in. People need to worship something that never changes, never fails, gives them an identity and shows them who they truly are, what they’re capable of, and how they’re able to use their gifts, talents, and abilities for a greater cause. If worship is the purpose of life, having a purpose that doesn’t suddenly disappear is not only beneficial, but necessary in order to have a constant understanding of where you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to be doing. Now, you can probably guess what I would say at this point. You probably know my views and opinions at this point and probably already know what I would say my life’s purpose is because of what (or Who) I worship. But I’ll refrain for the time being. For now, I’ll just hope that some people take the time to analyze who or what they’re worshiping in their life and see what it’s doing for them. See what their apparent purpose is and how they feel about it. I plan on making two more posts in the future: one specifically about identity, and one specifically about worship. I’m hoping they’ll be out there fairly soon. But in the meantime, I hope my basic setup of my idea of the meaning of life has been helpful for someone. That’s all I can really do at this point. Hope and pray.