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?


God is not a man.

You think you know where I’m going with this, don’t you? If you’re a Christian you might already be angry. But hold on, I’m not talking about Sophia.

I used to think of God as a man. Not fully God and fully man, which is a theological fact that’s impossible to understand. Because I couldn’t understand it I simplified it, and as a result I resented God. All this “for God’s glory” stuff–could he be more conceited? More insatiable? Why should I sing praises to one who doesn’t do what I want him to? That’s like five stars for no performance.

It took me years to recognize the flaw in my thinking. I was angry because mentally I had elevated God only to the top of my Hall of Fame. He was more virtuous than Abe Lincoln, more giving than Ghandi, more righteous than Job. But that wasn’t the right place for him. What he really needed was a hall of his own, a Hall of Holiness. He’s not just the best of all the men who’ve ever lived; he’s the sole occupant of a separate category.

That means I can ask new questions about him. When he says he should be exalted, a word whose roots mean raising something to a higher importance, he’s not saying he wants praise; he’s saying it’s necessary. Necessary for what?

Here’s the answer: “Jesus said…’Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” (John 12: 30-33)

Those words “lifted up” also mean “exalted.” Traditionally there are parallels drawn between Jesus being lifted up on the cross and Moses lifting up a bronze serpent on a pole when he was leading the Israelites through the wilderness. Looking up at the bronze serpent brought healing from venomous snake bites (Numbers 21:4-9). Looking up at Jesus on the cross can bring the start of healing from much more. When God is exalted, his loved ones are restored. And by “his loved ones” I mean us! Want to hear something amazing?

“…we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-20)

God alone is able to save us; he has done all the work necessary to save us; yet sometimes we resist him because we’re still thinking he’s a dude with an overblown self-concept. Take a day to think about him differently–not as a man, but as the only occupant of a category we can barely comprehend. He is “set apart,” which is what holy means. And yet he reached, and still reaches, across the space between us to reconcile us to himself. What do you think about that?