Recently I've been doing a lot of thinking about my faith, and trying to figure out what exactly is it that I believe in.
I find myself being pulled in a direction away from some of the basic concepts and tenets of faith that I thought I was certain of. I've discovered that I've been finding security and faith more in how correct I am about what I believe about Jesus, than in having faith in Jesus himself.
The first way of faith leads to closed minded assertions of correctness, and an exclusion of those who don't think the same way I do.
The other leads to a more open mind to consider new ideas and explore my growing understanding, and a willingness to include others who also search, but may have some different ideas.
One of the things I've been forced to examine is my mental image, the picture I frame in my mind, and the emotions and feelings I have in my heart, when I think about "God".
I'm not alone when I assert - the most important, most fundamental thing that will shape our attitudes and how we behave in all of life, whether one considers themselves to be religious or not, is how we think and what we believe about "God".
Which leads me to a passage in a book I'm re-reading, by Rob Bell, called "Love Wins". (I know some good fundamental evangelicals consider this book to be close to heresy, but I think most who would say that have not read the book.)
Bell writes this passage from the viewpoint of people everywhere who have trouble with their image, their imaginings, their understanding of God. As I re-read this passage, it touched me in a very deep, real way. I've read this same concept in the writings of many contemporary pastors and theologians, and I think it hits the nail squarely on the head:
"Millions of people in our world were told that God so loved the world, that God sent his Son to save the world, and that if they accept and believe in Jesus, then they'll be able to have a relationship with God.
But there's more. Millions have been taught that if they don't believe, if they don't accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, viscous tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future agony.
If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities.
If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.
If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good.
Loving one moment, viscous the next.
Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye.
Does God become someone totally different the moment you die?
That kind of God is simply devastating.
We can't bear it.
No one can.
And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don't love God. They can't, because the God they've been presented with and taught about can't be loved.
That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.
And so there are conferences about how churches can be more 'relevant' and 'missional' and 'welcoming', and there are vast resources, many, many books and films, for those who want to 'reach out' and 'connect' and 'build relationships' with people who aren't part of the church. And all that can be helpful. But at the heart of it, we have to ask: Just what kind of a God is behind all this?
Because if something is wrong with your God,
if your God is loving one second and cruel the next,
if your God will punish people for all eternity for sins committed in a few short years,
no amount of clever marketing,
or compelling language,
or good music,
or great coffee,
will be able to disguise
that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable awful reality.
Hell is refusing to trust, and refusing to trust if often rooted in a distorted view of God. Sometimes the reason people have a problem accepting 'the gospel' is that they sense that the God lurking behind Jesus isn't safe, loving, or good. It doesn't make sense, it can't be reconciled, and so they say no. They don't want anything to do with Jesus, because they don't want anything to do with that God."
This passage summarizes a feeling, and a truth, that has been haunting me for some time.
The first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength. But how do you love someone, let alone God, that you don't know very well, don't understand, and perhaps have some really bad misconceptions about?
We're told in our churches that God first loved us, so that we can love Him in return. We're told that God is worthy of praise and worship simply because of who He is. These are facts that are true, but how does one translate them into life?
How do you love a God who seems means and arbitrary, if that is how you know God to be?
How do you love a God who seems distant and aloof, if that is how you know God to be?
You can't, that's how.
Any effort to conjure up feelings of love or devotion to a God that you don't know or understand is simply impossible.
This is the reality I've been struggling with as I try to define and get a grasp on what it is I really believe, deep in my heart.
I have been a Christian since I was a teenager. When I learned that I was a guilty sinner, that Jesus died for my sins, and if I didn't accept Jesus as my savior and Lord, then when I died I'd be going to hell forever, you're damned right I accepted Jesus, whatever the heck that meant at the time.
I didn't care about following Jesus, I just didn't want to go to hell. That kind of 'salvation' produced exactly zero life transformation or spiritual growth. Looking back I wasn't 'born-again'. The only thing that kind of 'salvation' did produce a lot of guilt and shame. Tons of it.
I didn't love God or Jesus - I didn't know them! I just didn't want to get burned up in hell by a God who has 'perfect judgement', who can't stand sin and is compelled to destroy everything evil.
That's the God I learned about as a youth. As an adult, I walked away from that God. No way I was gonna be a follower of that God forever and ever. I didn't love that God one bit. I tried, but I just couldn't do it.
But Jesus was on my mind on and off through the years. The loving image of Jesus, purposely giving himself for me, kept drawing me gently, softly, back. One day I took a chance and came back to church, and as an adult it was as if I saw Jesus for the first time.
He is the King, the eternal embodied God who doesn't act like I'd think a God would.
I'm learning the way for me to learn to love God is to get to know Jesus Christ better. Jesus is the complete revelation of God - the active Word of God become flesh through which everything was created, all things hold together, and all things are reconciled - and from Jesus we can learn the character and loving heart of God.
I can learn to know God and, by discovering who He is as revealed to me through Jesus, I can learn to love Him.
Jesus said, when we know the truth, the truth will set us free. Jesus is truth.
I'm convinced that, as we disciple one another, we must teach each other about the beautiful love we see revealed in Christ. It's the only real way to get to know God and learn to love Him.
Strict obedience may look good, but its empty and void if obedience is not generated, motivated, and powered by a loving desire to obey.
One type of obedience is compliance with rules or law to avoid getting into trouble with the Master.
The other is a desire to please and enhance a relationship with the King.
One is a contract, the other is a covenant.
To love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength is the goal. From this all of life flows, and a life lived with a God I can love is as big and wide as the whole universe.
It is the answer to the questions of Life, the Universe, and Everything.