doing good vs. knowing God

I was raised going to church, Sunday school, youth group, Bible studies, and even a Christian summer camp a couple times. After all that, my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian was still incomplete. It included a lot of pressure to do certain things regularly and with great enthusiasm. I thought I was supposed to:

-read my Bible every day

-pray, but without focusing too much on asking for things, especially for myself

-listen to only Christian music, or at least music without any swear words or references to violence, sex, or criminal mischief (Good Charlotte was popular at the time, what can I say?)

-I want to add “vote Republican” to the list, which would be a joke…sort of. This list could go on but you get the idea.

On the one hand it was easy to do these things because they were concrete. “Did I read my Bible today?” was a yes or no question, a pass/fail test. The problem was that I often failed. My main motivation to do the things on the list was simply the fact that they were on the list.

That sounds stupid, doesn’t it? But remember when we talked about extremes? I think “should do” lists are a mild but still damaging form of religious extremism, often directed against oneself. I’m not saying spiritual discipline is undesirable. I am saying that if spiritual discipline is pursued as a drudging duty, then it misses the mark.

Just over a year ago, after years of alternating between performing the empty rituals of religion and posing it some furious questions, something clicked for me. It was in a Power of a Praying Wife study with a group of three other women, all of us newly married or soon to be married, when it dawned on me¬† that we weren’t reading this book and praying together so we could get good grades on our spiritual report cards. We were doing it because it made a difference in our lives. We wanted to change, so we prayed for ourselves. We wanted to support our husbands, so we prayed for them. We wanted to understand how God wanted us to pray, so we read Bible verses and a book. None of the activities were ends in themselves. They were all things we did because we wanted to do them, and we wanted to do them because they led us somewhere we wanted to go. We weren’t trying to do good. We were trying to know God.

All it took was a subtle shift in perspective and suddenly I started to understand things I had gone years without understanding. Maybe the most important thing was that God hates sin but he’s not keeping score. In the past, if I skipped a day of Bible reading I would sometimes feel so guilty and defeated that the next day I wouldn’t even try. My thinking went something like, “I already failed so what’s the point?”

Now I understand the importance of some of the little bits of the Bible I used to ignore. For example, the part where it says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). So, wait. God offered us his greatest gift—defeating death and offering life through Jesus—before we had done anything we might consider good? Then there’s the oft-quoted, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Do you know what comes next?! (It’s so exciting!) “All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).

This is bizarre. I want to know more about it. I’ve swum in a sea of religion my whole life, cycling both truth and deceit through my gills so many times I find them both familiar. But now I want to sort them out from each other. I want to figure out which ideas about God are right, and I know I can find out by reading the Bible. Sometimes what I read there makes me mad. Sometimes it fills me with hope. Sometimes it sounds too good to be true. But now I believe it all is true, and that’s not just a Sunday school answer.

What about you? What’s your perspective on the idea of doing good? What helps you to know God?

he struggles

I just read that the name Israel probably means “he struggles with God.” Wow. This week I had a conversation with a friend about how we struggle in our faith. We question its place in a pluralistic society. We revisit certain doubts over and over. So I find it encouraging to read that Israel is named for struggle.

That means God knows us as we really are. Israel was the name of a man before it became the name of the nation of his descendants, but what man and nation share is a history of struggle. Israel was born Jacob, the conniving twin of Esau; the man who dreamed of angels on a stairway from earth to heaven; the man who wrestled with God. Much like him, I have pretended to be what I am not. I have dreamed big, then gone back to my old ways of living. I have tried to take hold of God with the same demand Jacob made after fighting all night: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The blessing in Jacob’s case was a new name. The blessing in my case is knowing that God understands. He may not answer all my questions, at least not right away. When Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name” he only replied, “Why do you ask my name?” But Jacob, now Israel, knew. He said, “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

I think sometimes we believe that God doesn’t want anything to do with us until we have our lives and our thoughts in order. Doesn’t this prove otherwise?