Focus for August, 2021

Called for Relationship, Not Religion 

May we never grow weary sharing that God is a Father we can always run to.

“Religious people drive me nuts, always putting others down and spouting off about their beliefs.” I was talking to a landscaper who was helping me with a lawn project when he shared an argument he had overheard between two churchgoers about a doctrine their particular denominations had different views on. I responded by saying, “That’s OK, Jesus didn’t think too highly of the religious people in his time.”

About this time the landscaper remembered that he had previously asked what I did for a living, and I answered that I wrote for a Christian denomination and I was a supervisor/resource consultant for about 50 pastors. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t normally like religious people, but you seem easy to talk to and you aren’t trying to change my way of thinking.” I laughed and told him I wasn’t very religious, and in fact, I try to avoid religion. “But you are a minister,” he said in surprise. “Yes, I am, but I’m not very religious. Then I shared with him a quote I had recently read.

Religion tells us: I messed up. My Dad is gonna kill me.

Gospel tells us: I messed up. I need to call my Dad.

I explained that religion was following a set of rules and trying to please God through obedience, whereas the gospel was about relationship and seeing God as the Father (Abba, Papa, Dad) he is. He said he liked the difference between the two and then proceeded to change the topic. It was clear he was concerned he had offended me and was getting uncomfortable. We talked about other things, but I couldn’t get the conversation off my mind.

His reaction to religion is one many of us frequently encounter. And I’m not surprised. Please allow me to explain. I spent a good portion of my life being religious. I can’t speak for you, but for me, this meant I spent most of my life in the first statement above. I was afraid of God’s reaction to my sins, my lack of zeal, my selfishness, my unreligious behavior. I followed the rules (for the most part), but I believed that wasn’t enough. I was supposed to love the law and have full buy-in to all that I believed was required of me. And I was afraid of failure. Every time I sinned (either by commission or by omission) I wanted to hide in the garden like Adam and Eve. Except there was no garden and I knew I couldn’t hide from God. I was leery of being in relationship with God because that meant I had to be more open and honest with him—which was tough because I knew he could read my thoughts and I knew that he knew I had questions, doubts, fears, and shame. In other words, he could clearly see I wasn’t the religious person I wanted others to believe I was.

Most of my prayer life was focused on me—constantly asking for forgiveness, pleading with God to give me a better heart for him, asking him to help me deal with my constant fear, doubt and shame. I spent a lot of time worrying. Worrying that I would “not make it to the kingdom of God”, worrying that I would sin just before death and miss out, and hoping that when God looked at my life the good would outweigh the bad and he would give me a chance. It was all about me, me, me. Praise be to God, who helped me understand grace, and understand that grace is a person, Jesus, who took care of my sin. He came to release me from the law of sin and death, which includes fear, doubt, guilt and shame. I finally came to join Paul in saying, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ or Lord!”

Why is this important?

This is important because many people we encounter are still living under misguided and misinformed views of God, religiosity and legalistic expressions of Christianity. Many still believe the lies that they aren’t good enough, they aren’t loved because of…, their sins are too big or too many for forgiveness, they aren’t included. Just like my landscaper friend, many equate Christianity with religion and believe it is a burden too big for them to deal with. Following is a short list of things we will encounter as we share God’s love and life with others.

  • Seeing God as a (good) Father is difficult for many to comprehend.

I grew up in an abusive home; many people do. When we refer to God as Father, many don’t see that as a loving intimate relationship. They equate “Father” with fear, anger and animosity. They grew up trying to gain their dad’s approval, or spent their time trying to stay out of their dad’s way to avoid wrath and punishment. This misguided view of God can be read in many Old Testament stories that seem to support their view of God. Recall the Ethiopian who was reading the Old Testament and said to Philip, “How can I understand unless someone teaches me?” (Acts 8:31). How can we teach unless we understand and know who God is? The story of the good Father in the parable of the prodigal son is a good place to start.

  • Seeing yourself as a child of a Father who adores you for the unique person you are goes against many false beliefs about God.

Many believe God won’t love them until they conform to his teaching and perform accordingly. They learn this from home, from school, from coaches and other leaders who seem to focus more on the negative than the positive. They may want to believe John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” but they believe the “world” must refer to someone else—particularly to believers. Many don’t read John 3:17, which reminds us Jesus did not come to condemn, but to save. Further, they find difficulty in believing Jesus’ words, “Father forgive them…” relates to most, when so many who follow Christ seem more inclined to condemn and judge than forgive.

  • Believing God is for you goes against much of what people are taught in their religious institutions.

Many are taught God is only for you when you are for him. It’s more of a contract than a relationship. The idea that we love because he first loved us is a challenge to accept when they see Christians being judgmental and identifying people more because of their lifestyle than who they are in Christ.

  • Seeing the difference between “having the fear of God” and “being afraid of God” is tough for many to grasp.

It took me a long time to realize that fear doesn’t always mean being afraid. Fear is also a sense of awe, a deep reverence, honor and respect. When we understand who God is and that he is for us with a perfect love, then we can understand the biblical statement, Perfect love casts out fear.

  • Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship — a way of life.

Religion tells us we must obey in order to be in relationship. The gospel tells us we are in relationship and because of that truth we desire to obey. The gospel reveals a Father I can run to when I mess up. And he doesn’t lay guilt on me – he shows me forgiveness and a better way, which leads to peace. He holds out his arms and invites me to come in and lay my burdens on him. This is a difficult truth to get across to people who have been taught that God has a long list of do’s and don’ts that we must follow in order to be in his good graces.

  • Understanding and admitting you don’t have to have all the answers is freeing.

There are many “Yeah, but…” statements and questions that cannot be answered in a few sentences. “Yeah but, why did your God of love destroy all but one family in the flood?” “Yeah, but your God seemed to kill anyone not in agreement with him throughout Israel’s pilgrimage through the desert.” “Yeah, but you guys seem incapable of loving and accepting people who don’t believe the way you do.” We can’t answer these and many other questions with a short two to three sentences. It’s OK to say, “You know, I have questions as well, and I probably always will. I’m happy to discuss this further with you, but realize a couple things: One, I can’t answer every question that you might have. Two, I look at the Bible as God’s story of restoring all humanity through Jesus. It’s been a journey of learning for me, and I’ll never have all the answers, but let me tell you what God has done in my life that has led me to trust him—even when I can’t understand every part of the whole story.”

The bottom line

  • People need Jesus, and we are called to share Jesus with them. This is faith going forward. This is sharing his love and life with others. This is making disciples.
  • It takes time—sometimes lots of time. But God is patient, and he encourages us to be patient.
  • We may never see the end result. We trust God in the process. He is the savior, the forgiver, the redeemer, the restorer, the reconciler. But he invites us to participate in the process.

We are called to love others as Jesus loves them. This is the new commandment. We are called to make disciples in participation with the one who has been given all authority over heaven and earth, and who promises to always be with us. The world is full of people who are hurting, who need a relationship with God, and who need to know they are loved. May we never grow weary as we share that the gospel is about a Father we can always run to.

Still running to God,

Rick Shallenberger


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