In the years I’ve spent pastoring/mentoring, I’ve grown tired of trying to convince people that God doesn’t hate them because they don’t follow the rules as they should.
It’s an epidemic of sorts. In our culture, when someone gets religion, it’s as if a spirit comes down from heaven, like a dove softly landing on their shoulder, and whispers until they die:
“More than anything else, get your shit together.”
Some people manage to improve their behavior to a degree, but nobody can do it completely, and many are driven to anxiety by their newfound awareness of personal faults and failures. Ever wonder why religious people can be so cranky? And when the greatest fruit of your religion is self-loathing, you’re now open to all manner of activities, agendas, and campaigns that God would never endorse.
I wrote this years ago in Seminary (except the last part). More true every year.
I don’t know what I want to say
It may be best to leave the words alone
But you live inside my heart
You walk about
You poke around
And I don’t hear a sound
Then you shake them from my head and lay them deep inside my heart
Your words of life and truth go coursing through my veins
Into my soul
Now I’m a man I never should have been
And though my eyes are open wide
I only see enough to know I need you more
My fear will not prevail against a lion
My bullshit catches fire in the presence of this king
My hardened heart will not survive
Within the clutches of a lamb
My death has breathed its last
It hung there lifelessly upon a cross
How can it be
That thou, My God
Should die for me
The Bible seems to teach that we should, on some level, be afraid of God. One passage in particular, one that gets plastered on Sunday Morning church billboards all over the country, literally reads “Fear God.” Some people see this and hear “Don’t screw with God or He’ll screw with you.” Some see another opportunity to forget religion altogether.
If there is a God, ie. something that’s a) capable of creating our world and b) in charge of the whole thing, there should be some level of respect, not just for the work that he does on a day-to-day basis, but for the fact that he a) knows more than we do and b) can do whatever he wants – make it rain, hurl lightning bolts, destroy the cosmos, etc. So maybe there should be some fear, sort of the way we would fear Superman – as nice as he is you don’t want to get on his bad side.
But I don’t think the Bible’s admonition to “Fear God” means “Be afraid of God,” or “Don’t piss him off.”
Take a moment to make a list of all the things you are afraid of – the negative things that fill your mind throughout the day, the things that “stress” you out (let’s be honest about stress, it’s a cutesy, contemporary moniker for fear – plain and simple). We worry about what others think of us, we’re scared of not performing well at work, or losing our job. We’re “stressed” about how our life will turn out – will we get the happy ending that everyone else seems to be living? Money, kids, marriage, money, health, politics, money, economics, terrorism, global warming, guilt, shame, money. Fear. We live with a ton of it.
I think what the Bible is getting at is something more akin to “If you want to be scared of something, if you want to fill your head with “what if?” be scared of God. Be scared of this thing that a) can do whatever it wants and b) loves you without condition – even if you don’t believe in him. “Fear not” or some derivative, occurs so many times in the Old and New Testaments. It’s also one of the many commandments Jesus gave to his disciples. To “Fear God,” is to ultimately be at peace.
Jesus dealt with a ton of fear about God and what happens to people who step out of line. In His world it was believed that suffering was punishment for wrongdoing, and wealth was blessing for right-doing. The “sinners” ran around scared to death, wondering when their punishment would come. The “righteous” lived afraid of stepping out of line and losing their wealth as a result, while looking down on people who weren’t blessed, like they were. Either way – “stress” everywhere.
While Jesus never did anything but honor and uphold the Jewish scriptures, He seemed to believe that this era of focusing on right and wrong was over. Something new had arrived, but you couldn’t be part of it and be scared of God at the same time. Fear had to be removed. It’s no surprise that Jesus’ messages were full of “fear not,” and “trust me”
But Jesus also said “repent,” something that’s typically translated as “stop sinning” – a truly horrible translation (“Repent” in both Koine Greek and Ancient Hebrew means “turn”). Typically, when Jesus said “repent” he included the phrase “because the Kingdom of Heaven is here” (which was something his Jewish audience was expecting to arrive any day now). “Repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven is here” basically means “Turn from your current agenda, leave it, drop it, there’s something better – right in front of you, and you can have it. Trust me.”
Don’t get me wrong, I think God has his rules (I get alot of complaints from conservative religious folk about how I forget to talk about rules, morality, etc – this is for you). God wants us to live a good life, and there are rules for that, even if you don’t believe in God. But I know people who have done a great job being part of this new thing that Jesus talked about. They’re people who live with courage, respect, great influence and great (non-material) wealth. And yes, there are rules that they follow, but they don’t follow them to stay in God’s good graces, or to avoid lightening bolts, or hell. They follow the rules to live. Really live. They’re not obnoxious, irrelevant, offensive religious people who talk about nothing but morality and what everyone should be doing or not doing. They’re people that other people love being around (we all love being around people who are truly living). They “fear God” but not as you might think.
To “fear God” means to trust Him, to respect what He is, to ultimately believe that He’s got something for us – something that transcends religion, something that’s more akin to the life that we’re all dying to live. If we do it right, our “fear” of Him will replace the scads of other fears that we carry with us all. day. long – the fears that are keeping us from the Good life that God so desperately wants us to live.
If you know the story well, you know that He literally went through hell so we could have it.
Fear God, turn aside from all that other crap you’ve been carrying, for the life you so desperately want has arrived.
It’s dizzying to think about how many people have read the Bible cover to cover, and how many different perspectives there are on it’s overall message. Some read it as a legal document, laying out in great detail how one should live in a way that makes God happy – pleased to lay His lightning bolts aside, momentarily at least. Some read it as a way to get into heaven, with little regard for life in the here and now – and only those with the proper theology are accepted.
Others read it as a document of war, releasing them into the world to point fingers, judge others, and be an agent of God’s wrath, only to find themselves batting for the wrong team.
I was once asked to lead a study on the historical happenings of the Bible – the places, people, events, etc., of the Old and New Testaments. I rebelled and instead made an attempt to teach both Testaments as one story – which it is by the way, but I didn’t do a very good job. I started with a room full of people and quickly whittled it down to a small gathering – a little too counter-cultural for this conservative crowd.
In preparing for the class, my perspective on the Bible, and ultimately what God really wants from us, was forever changed.
At the time, my wife and I were about to experience a huge life change, an adoption that would bring challenge, hardship, and joy in one big heaping helping of a little girl named Hannah. Before her arrival, we decided to go to Brazil, relax and spend some time together. I read the Bible, uninterrupted, cover to cover, very quickly, on one very long flight, paired with boxed wine and airplane food.
I was taught in Seminary to pick each passage apart, to read the “original” languages, consult multiple resources, etc., before making a decision about what that passage might mean. Reading it cover to cover in one sitting was something I hadn’t done before.
There’s one theme that pops up over and over again, with alarming repetition, something I would call one of the most prevalent, if not the most prevalent themes of the Bible. It’s one that, interestingly enough, doesn’t get a lot of air-time from Sunday morning pulpiteers.
Over and over again, in the Old Testament, and in the teachings of the New, God says to everyone He runs into, “Trust Me.” “I’m on your side.” “I want things to work out in your favor.” “Please, whatever you do, wherever you go – TRUST ME.” It’s hard to catch if you read the Bible slowly, but I dare you – read it fast, really fast, cover to cover, not stopping to ruminate over the parts that bother you, or the ones that don’t immediately make sense. And drink some crappy boxed red wine.
Sure, there are passages in the Bible that talk about God’s unconditional love, His unlimited power, and how He worked it out so that anyone that wants to go to heaven can go. There are statements about right and wrong, instructions about how to live, etc., but these are all subtexts in submission to the overarching principle that God wants us to trust Him.
Since my “conversion” on the flight to Brazil, I now hear God saying to me “I know more about what you want than you do. I won’t give you life on your terms, it’ll be on mine, because my way will get you where you want to go quicker and more completely than yours. If you’ll trust me I’ll write a story for you that will be amazing. We can do things your way if you want – you can write your own story, but I write better stories than you do. Trust me. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be great.”
If you don’t believe in God, that’s cool, I respect you. I have great friends who don’t believe as I do, not to mention the fact that they’re the ones who know how to really party. But imagine for a minute what would happen to the world if everyone believed that there was this “thing up there” that could do anything it wants, loves unconditionally, and is interested in everyone’s life the way a really good parent is interested in her children.
There would be peace.
Peace is the biggest issue in our world. Always has been. When people are set at ease about their lives, their finances, their relationships, politics, how things will ultimately shake out, etc., they’re less likely to do bad, and more likely to do good.
I know people of peace, people who look at God this way. They see what they have instead of stressing about what they don’t. They’re comfortable in their skins – it doesn’t matter what other people think when you believe that everything will turn out OK. They’re hard workers. They know work is good, but they don’t stress about it because they have trust, which, ironically, makes them more effective at what they do. Their peace derives from their belief that everything will work out in their favor, which is dependent on their view of God and ultimately their trust in Him.
God doesn’t want you to be a flaming, irrelevant, religious person by the way. The other guy wants that. It’s a truly crappy way to live. Remember that Jesus’ first miracle was to make 180 gallons of wine at a party full of already drunk people. He doesn’t want you to blindly adhere to a life-numbing list of rules and principles. He doesn’t want you to be unhappy. He does however want to change you – to remove the things that are keeping you from being free, from being the person you’re supposed to be. This process isn’t “easy,” or “safe.” Trusting Him will mean facing fears that you’ve been chained to most of your life.
But when you believe that He’s on your side, and that He’s a badass who’ll fight for you, with you, and against you when you head in a direction away from freedom and peace, you can face anything.
Jesus said something akin to, “I have peace inside of me – My peace. God’s peace. This peace I’m giving to you. Therefore, don’t be scared. Of anything.”
There’s one hitch though. When God sets people free, He wants those people to go and free other people. God’s freed ones are to be like a vaccine in the jugular vein of a world that’s ever-hurdling towards more fear, anger, suspicion – ever decreasing peace. What we receive from God we’re to give to others, like Jesus did.
That might sound like a lot, but when you’re at peace, you’re also at strength – your resources aren’t tapped by fear, anger, etc. I think that’s why religious people look so tired all the time – always trying to bring good into the lives of others, but doing it from a place of obligation, fear, and spiritual stress – not peace.
I had a very troubling conversation with a Gay woman several months ago. She was afraid that God hated her because she was Gay. It made her feel gross. Unlovable. I very quickly relieved her of that lie and laid on her the truth that God’s love for her has no boundaries or conditions – no barbed wire. You wouldn’t believe how it changed her – the idea that God loves her, that she can now trust Him to walk alongside her. Boom. Peace.
May that kind of peace be with you, and extend far beyond you.