The Day God Became 3-D

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I was one of those good kids that Sunday School teachers love and the other kids hate. I knew all the answers, was well behaved, and proud of it. People pleasing has always been important to me. Once I knew what the expectations were, I would follow them to the best of my ability. Becoming a Pharisee was natural for me.

My brother and sister and I were homeschooled before it was even a word. We started back when homeschoolers were afraid of the big yellow bus pulling into your driveway. If my mom took us grocery shopping during school hours, the cashier would automatically ask why we weren’t in school. It was fun to tell them that we were homeschooled because their mouths would literally drop open; then they usually asked my mom something like, “Is that legal?”

I knew the Bible stories growing up, I knew all about God, Creation, Jesus dying on the cross, etc. But it was two-dimensional knowledge to me. God was a name on the page of a book. This all changed one day when I was fifteen years old.

Both of my parents had real relationships with Jesus. This was something that they modeled to us. And because of them, I chose to trust Jesus as my Savior when I was seven. That was before the “crazy days” started. By the time I was fifteen, we were involved in our cultish group and church. I was performing with the best of them…having daily devotions, living a life of rules and standards, and always ready to answer the question, “What is God doing in your life?” But I didn’t really know Him. Not yet.

The day God became 3-D started with a normal (to my family) school assignment. My mom gave me a list of God’s names and told me to pray them to Him. So I went up to my bedroom, and began to pray something like this. “God, you are Jehovah Jireh, you always provide for us. You are El Roi; you see everything. You are the Rock, my strength. Etc.” Suddenly, I knew that I was not alone in my bedroom. A very real God had come to hear me praise Him, and He liked it. I don’t even remember if I finished the list or not. I know I jumped up and ran downstairs to my mom screaming, “Mom, Mom, God showed up!” She just smiled this secret little smile and said, “I’ve been praying He would.”

This day changed the course of my life. God was more than just a 2-D name on a page, He was a 3-D Person and I wanted to get to know Him. My morning devotions changed; my prayers changed. I started looking for Him. I started praying to Him instead of just at Him. I started taking long walks to talk with Him. I began to realize just how much He loved me. The Bible became personal as God spoke through it to me. It was amazing!

Ultimately, this new understanding of Jesus would lead me to question the god, the standards, and the rules our church and group was telling me to follow. Eventually I would ask the question, “Will the real Jesus please stand up?” and He would lead me out. But that’s another story.

Would We Miss Him?

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If Jesus came and visited my church would I recognize him? Would you? Most of the religious people missed him last time.

The Pharisees were some of the religious elite. They looked good on the outside. They not only followed the rules in the Law, they made up more rules and followed them too. They read and taught the Scriptures. But when God showed up, the promised Savior of the world, these same religious people missed him. In fact they didn’t just miss him, they claimed that he was a drunkard and that he was possessed by a demon! God, the Creator of the Universe!

Ironically, these “good” Pharisees were the only people Jesus condemned. He spent a lot of time telling parables about them, ignoring their rules, and challenging their ideology. Why? Jesus met “sinners” in the dirt, loved them, forgave them, and set them free. Why was he so confrontational with the Pharisees? Would he be confrontational with me? I think this is the answer.

The sinners knew they were sinners. The Pharisees thought they were good enough. Grace is only good news if you know you need it.

When I am in the dirt (like the woman caught in adultery in John 8), totally aware of my sin and my mess and my unworthiness, Jesus can sit down there with me and show me grace. He loves me and forgives me even though I don’t deserve it. Jesus overwhelms me with grace because that’s who He is, and I stand in awe and can’t help but love Him in return.

But, if I think that I am good enough because of the list of rules that I am following, if I think that my outward performance is impressing God, if I am standing in pride, then Jesus can’t show me grace. Grace means nothing if we think that there is something we have done to earn it.

I really believe that Jesus’ motivation behind every confrontation with the Pharisees was to show them their sin, to show them that they weren’t good enough, that they would never be good enough.

These religious people thought that God gave the Law so that people would follow it and be good enough to impress Him. They thought it was a checklist to perfection. But Paul tells us in Galatians 3 that God gave the Law to show us our sin, to show us that we couldn’t do it, and to remind us that we needed a Savior.

God’s standard is perfection. In order to be with Him, we have to be perfect. (Psalm 5:4) Yeah, I don’t know about you, but I’m out of luck! Still, He wants us! God wants a relationship with us! That has always been His goal. The consequence of sin, disobedience to God, is death. (Romans 6:23) But God loved us so much that He came to die in our place (John 3:16). If we believe this, that Jesus died in our place for our sins, then God forgives us, adopts us as His children, and gives us eternal life! (John 3:16-18 Jesus is talking to a Pharisee!) That is good news! There is nothing that we can do to earn forgiveness. And there is nothing we can do to earn God’s blessings or impress Him once we are saved.

I’ve met a lot of Christians who look more like Pharisees than Jesus followers. And I can say this because I was one once.

If Jesus showed up at your church with shaggy hair, maybe an earring or two, wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops, with Christian rap music blaring out of his rolled down car windows, would you recognize Him? Does this description make you angry? Uncomfortable? Does it make you laugh? Let me know what you think!

I’ll be sharing some personal stories in the next few days about how I stopped being a Pharisee and embraced being a sinner.

Freedom vs. Rules Part 2

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I’ve often wondered how people initially get caught up in legalism. I guess I’d assumed that people just liked rules, or that they were sucked in because of pride and a desire to be “looked up to”, or that, like me, they were inadvertently taken there by their parents. The other day I had a really interesting conversation with my mom about why they got involved in this lifestyle, and what I heard surprised me.

Some people get involved with legalism by accident because they just want to follow God. Huh? This was not the answer I was expecting!

But as I thought about some other people I know who have gotten heavily involved in a legalistic group, I realized that it’s true for them too. So, how do you get from a good place like “I want to follow God” to a legalistic place where “I have to obey all of these rules” and then “You’re not godly because you do, or don’t do, x, y, z”? I think it starts with forgetting Who it’s all about.

When my parents first became Christians, they were in college. They got involved with a college ministry full of other Christians who were serious about their relationship with Jesus. The attitude was, “If the Bible says it, let’s do it!” After my parents left college, they had a hard time finding a church with a similar attitude and they missed having a community of believers who were actively following Christ. When they found our “crazy” church (as I call it), they were drawn in by the fact that these people were doing “what the Bible said” and were pursuing a “godly” lifestyle. My mom says that, at the time, she didn’t notice the legalism because she was so excited to have found people who were living for God. Living for God or living to impress God?

So what makes something legalistic? Did you know that two people can do the exact same thing but one is a legalist and the other is a genuine follower of Christ? It really has everything to do with heart motivation and nothing to do with outward actions. Legalism is often motivated by pride and/or fear.

You can do a lot of good things from legalistic motivations. For example: eating healthy, home schooling, reading your Bible, praying, going to church, memorizing Scripture, avoiding certain entertainment choices, dressing modestly, etc. These things can also be done without legalistic motivations. So, how do you know if something is legalism or not? Ask this question: Why am I doing this? Is it because I want to? Or is it because I think that I have to? Am I trying to make God happy? Am I trying to impress other people?  Our motivations show our true hearts.

When I lived as a legalist, I had my morning devotions so that God would be pleased with me. I wanted to “get in his favor” and make sure I had his blessing. Now, I do my morning devos because I want to hear from God and start my morning with Him. Newsflash: Good things can be sin if they are done with the wrong motivation! All those mornings where I was trying to impress God with my “goodness” were unimpressive to Him.

Why does this matter to me?

Because, legalism takes the focus off of Jesus and puts it on me. Legalism says that I have to perform in order to make God happy…I have to perform. Legalism ignores the fact that there is nothing I can do in myself to please God. Legalism ignores the perfect performance of Jesus Christ. It encourages pride, or hopelessness, depending on my performance. Legalism turns the freedom we have in Christ into bondage. And it steals the glory of God.

The Pharisees were some of the greatest legalists who ever lived. They not only followed the rules, they made up more rules. They supposedly knew the Bible. And yet, when the promised Savior showed up on earth, when God walked among them, they missed him.

This Christian life, as we call it, cannot be about us. It has to be about Him, Jesus, the Savior of the world!

More about the Pharisees next time!

Freedom vs. Rules Part 1

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“For freedom Christ has set us free, stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations?” Colossians 2:20

“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by any of them.” 1 Corinthians 6:12

Sometimes I wonder if we even read the Bible back then. I recently did an in-depth study of the book of Colossians and the whole time I kept thinking, “How did I miss this for so many years? Did we just skip this book?” We seem to also have skipped Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Corinthians, etc. We skipped all the parts of the Bible that condemned legalism and instead spent a lot of time in the Old Testament and the gospels…looking for rules to follow. Here’s a definition of legalism for those of you who are lucky never to have experienced this way of life.

Legalism:

  1. strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit.
  2. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works; the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.

These definitions hit close to home for me as I think about the home school program I was raised in (ATI: The Advanced Training Institute), the cultish church we attended or were affiliated with for most of my teens/early twenties, and the way I lived my life for almost ten years. It wasn’t my choice to get involved at first; I was a child that was taken along by my parents. Later, since I wanted people to think well of me, I learned to follow the rules and perform correctly with the best of them.

“What’s wrong with following the rules?”

“Are you saying we should just live in sin?”

“God has called us to be holy and different from the world”

I can hear the questions.

People living in legalism spend a lot of time pointing fingers at other people in judgement, while feeling good about themselves. “You’re wrong because you do blah, blah, blah. And I’m right because I do this, this, and this.” The only person worthy to judge the sins of humanity didn’t. The only people Jesus ever yelled at were the Pharisees who thought they were so perfect. But he got down in the dirt with sinners and forgave them. Maybe it’s not about rules. Maybe it’s about Jesus.

I grew up in a cultish subculture of Christianity. It’s still out there. But more concerning to me is the legalism I see in mainstream churches. When we put the focus on ourselves through legalism, we steal God’s glory and we alienate people from the only One who can save them!

I’m going to be writing a couple more posts about legalism and false teachers, so stay tuned! 🙂