“I was tired, and while I would never admit it, I was starting to hate God. He was the merciless taskmaster always standing over me yelling, “NOT ENOUGH! I want MORE!” He was always there, waving damnation in my face, saying, “If you want My approval, there’s something else you must do.” His constant demands were driving me insane. The more I strived to walk in His ways, the less love I felt for Him. The more closely my feet followed Him, the more my heart ran away.”Wow! I had never realized that this was exactly the direction in which my life was going. Once I realized that, I started questioning why I felt the way I did about God. After all, my mother had always told me to just close my eyes and feel God give me a big embrace during my times of heartache rather than see Him as some kind of dictator. Very few times was I able to form that personal connection. After pondering on my obviously inaccurate but seemingly common state of mind, I was able to pinpoint my skewed perception of God to one thing: the church. Again, I am not speaking about one church in particular but rather the institution as a whole. I had always heard about what people had to do to change their lives around and get in “God’s will.” I had been guilt-tripped, beaten up (figuratively of course), and frankly, hurt. Hurt by the one place where I should always feel complete sanctuary. Hurt by the place that God ordained to take care of the world. Obviously something was wrong with that picture.
I have really wanted to write this blog for a long time, but I had no idea how to start it. It is only by the grace and help of Jesus that I can find the words to articulate this message.
“Jesus will never hurt you” sounds obvious. How could the man who died to redeem the world of its sins ever be associated with hurt? There is one simple answer: the church. I myself have confused the way the church has hurt me (I do not mean one specific church, but the overall Christian church) with Jesus hurting me, which could not be farther from the truth. I wrote about the way the church can emotionally abuse people in the post “I don’t have it all together,” but after an incredible series at my church (Village Church in Hayesville, NC) called “Simple,” I want to expand on that premise.
During my affliction with Major Depression and Anxiety (sorry I write about this time so much, but it was truly the most transformative of my life), I was mad at God, because I blamed Him. Obviously He was a mythical being with a lot of hubris with whom I had become unattached. As much as I had tried to pursue God during my time in college, I simply could not feel Him. After being hospitalized twice, I learned that that the best way to forgive myself and start to recover from my mental illnesses was to connect to some kind of higher power. Of course! The answer is always obvious! Psychological studies have proven that people of some kind of faith are often healthier and more satisfied with their overall quality of life than people who are not of faith. So, for the very selfish reason of my own health, I began the searching that led to following, the following that led to believing, and the believing that led to obeying God.
For a long time, I did not feel comfortable going back to church, so I started searching for God in one of my most familiar outlets: books. I had always admired my good friend Ashley and her relationship with God, so I sought her for help. She recommended the book Gospel by JD Greear, pastor of Summit Church in Raleigh. I will be forever indebted to her for the wisdom this book brought me; seriously, she was a guardian angel during this time, and I know her prayers helped me get back on my feet. I have never heard a more poignant description of my sentiments about God than the one in the introduction to Greear’s Gospel:
Now that I have learned what I feel is the more accurate process by which to come to grace, I have become even more confused with most of the church’s approach to delivering God’s message to the world. Throughout the series “Simple” at Village Church, our incredible pastors outlined the message of God like this: follow, believe, and obey. Too often, the church begins their message of Christ with the action of obeying. “Stop drinking. Stop having pre-marital sex. Stop getting tattoos. Obey!” The list goes on and on. And then, the church can give no other reasons for these directions than “it says so in The Bible.” Well, that’s great. Luckily for me, I am familiar with The Bible, but for someone who has never heard about Jesus or might be a skeptic, the teachings of a sacred book are not going to be very motivating.
Instead, the church should start out how Jesus started out in his early encounters with sinners: by introducing the concept of following Christ. I have already written about the story of the tax collector, Matthew, and how Jesus introduced Himself to Matthew with no strings attached. Now, I want to discuss the man Zacchaeus. Like Matthew, Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Also like Matthew, Zacchaeus had a very similar experience with Jesus. Let’s look at the verses in Luke:
19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” 8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Anyone familiar with this story knows that Zacchaeus eventually became a believer, thus, his eternal fate was sealed. But before he followed, he could not have believed. And without believing, he could not obey Christ. Another amazing passage in Gospel states that “God is after an obedience filled with desire.” Yes, God wants us to obey Him, but he wants us to want to obey Him. Why should we? Because as we begin to follow and believe in Jesus, we learn that His commandments are not only to bring Him glory, but to help us live the lives we were created for. None of His teachings are meant to harm us or take away the breadth of our lives, even if the church makes it seem that way. None of them are cruel or arbitrary even if that is how His rules and guidelines are often illustrated. They are well-calculated to work out for our greatest good. In short, they are a gift to us.
So, churches, I beg of you, please get this right: follow, believe, obey. Do not condemn the masses who are coming to you because they have been hurt by the world and are looking for refuge. Do not cut deeper than the things that have already scarred them. If you present the gospel of the God I serve as obey, believe, and follow, you will not introduce unbelievers to a God who is for them and will rescue them when they truly need it.
And to those who have been hurt by the church, please know you are not alone. Do not make the mistake I did of equating the church’s hurt with hurt from Jesus. Hurt from Jesus simply does not exist. If you start to follow God, even if it is outside of church walls, I promise He will meet you where you are. For Zacchaeus, it was his own house where he felt the most comfortable. For me, it was curled up in my living room with a book where He showed me what I had been searching for. Then, when I obeyed Him, He sent me to a wonderful church that I am so thankful to call home.
He can do that for you. Let Him.
For viewing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-ATdnew_x4