No matter what I say about faith, most people will continue to hear: I need to be better for God to be bigger in my life. Those who don’t hear that probably think that I’m encouraging others to sin. I understand why people hear what they hear, it’s a mixture of a culture-wide “hard work” idolatry as well as the basic genetic default to assume religion is about winning God’s approval by the sweat of our brow. (People’s misunderstanding of me might also have to do with my aggressive communication style, but I highly doubt that I’m flawed in any way.) The point is, what I’m saying goes against those two rampant assumptions: “hard work” isn’t as good as we think it is, and our “hard work” will never secure God’s approval for us. All that should sound a bit absurd, but the gospel demands an entirely new paradigm.
The typical evangelical believes that God’s primary job is to make sure they are on the right path to a purposeful, fulfilling life. 40 Days of Purpose. Your Best Life Now. Man-Up. God is another pursuit, along with weight-training, dieting, reading more Dostoyevsky (or at least Hemingway), learning some Spanish, and whatever else we do for self-improvement. Pastors have isolated areas of conflict/insecurity in people’s lives and then they say: If you are faithful and diligent you can fix this – or if you at least try your hardest the Holy Spirit will fix it for you! But it’s not true. I hate to rain on the parade. The Christian life is not an escalator – or even a jet – to the heavens.
Christian marriage can be difficult, too. In fact, it usually is. And finding purpose is no easier. Martin Luther, or St. Paul, might have died with doubts about what their purpose on earth actually was (Luther’s final words: We are beggars, this is true.). Jim Carrey has said that he wishes everybody could become famous just so that they realize fame creates more problems than it solves. We look at famous people and say, “They have so much purpose!” But they aren’t nearly as certain. Everyone struggles with futility. Christianity’s claim is bigger than this. It doesn’t say, “We’ll show you how to have purpose that will help you sleep well.” It says, “Even when you wake up at 2am convinced your life is meaningless: Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is still yours.” The pressure to find purpose is suddenly lifted when we get this. The haunting voice of futility will quiet down when we stare it in the face – not with platitudes about our dedication to God – but with confessions of his dedication to us.
People get tired of hearing the same thing over and over. “Yes, I get it, Jesus loves me. I got it! Let it go. Can’t we move on!” This exposes that we don’t really trust the power of God’s promise over our lives. We can talk about Spirit-empowered responses to God’s goodness in our lives, but I won’t believe it’s actually happening unless we actually let the unconditionality of God’s gospel sink in. We have peace for a fleeting moment, then it goes right back to the insecurity: “But am I doing enough?”
We move so quickly to Christianity Plus. Even before a person understands the gospel, we start laying down the rules just to make sure they get how tedious being a Christian is. There may be good reasons for this, but it looks more like we are operating out of fear and not our well-reasoned desire to inform a potential convert. We give them a job offer, then basically tell them that the job isn’t really for the version of them that currently exists, but rather the version of them that is improved in some trouble areas. “We’ll let you in, but please don’t embarrass us.”
I think we are afraid that they might be too much themselves. They might be more free than we are. They might not be dedicated enough to a life of rigorous discipline. But I thought we just told them, when we preached the gospel to them, how it’s all about God’s dedication to them? Now we speak like it’s all about their dedication to God? Haven’t we just contradicted ourselves? (“Why do you trouble this poor woman, for she has done a beautiful thing to me?” We always know better than new believers. Maybe we are just terrified that their works are out of pure gratitude and not intermingled with hopes to win a bit more of God’s favor than the next guy.)
To conclude: Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Your sins are forgiven you, go and sin no more.