Growing up in the Evangelical church, I was often told that I needed to “win souls for the Lord.” I needed to get out there and be bold for my faith and my God. If the world and the people in it were like those trapped in a blazing high-rise building, I was the first responder. And if I refused to lead the charge up the stairs, then what kind of rescuer would I be? A pretty horrible one, as I so often heard.
Like many others I’ve talked to, this was nothing but an exercise in futility, which then only led to spiritual, mental, and even physical exhaustion. Not only is it a set up against those, like myself, who are introverted and who struggle with social anxiety and depression, but it is a burden too great to bear. I mean, shouldn’t God be the rescuer? Isn’t God the trained firefighter? Well, not so much in the worldview that was handed to me.
In my former view, God was not only not the first responder, he was the one who lit the building on fire. Perhaps in this analogy it could be said that he was the one who trained us to be capable firefighters, but there was no getting around the fact that in order to continue be counted among the righteous, we had to be active in winning others to our team. If we got complacent, it was even said that it would be better to be trapped in the blazing inferno than be a lukewarm firefighter. I’m sure we all recall that passage that says it is better to be hot or cold for God than to be lukewarm. It’s not the hot or cold that get spit out from God’s mouth; it’s the lukewarm Christians who aren’t striving to save others (Revelation 3:15–17).
To be perfectly honest, I don’t quite understand where grace fits into this paradigm. I’ve often thought how absurd it is that the only difference between the saved and the damned is something the supposed “saved” did in order to gain their saved status. Think about it. Listen to most any Christian talk about salvation and they will always come back to something you must do. If you do the right thing, make the right decision, pray the right prayer, and/or live the right sort of life, then you’re good. Eternally so. But if you don’t do the right thing, don’t make the right decision, don’t pray the right prayer, and/or don’t live the right sort of life, then you’re doomed. Again . . . eternally so.
And sure, Christians will still talk about grace. They will likely suggest that it is by grace that you are saved, but then add that you still must maintain faith in that grace. But that’s not grace, now is it? It’s like the Christian who talks about God’s unconditional love, but then places a couple conditions upon it—do this but don’t do that; believe this but don’t believe that. Sorry, but that’s not unconditional, now is it?Now, please don’t misinterpret me. There is nothing wrong with telling others about something that you think is going to benefit their lives. There is nothing wrong with trying to help others out, especially if you believe they are going to be eternally tortured in a divine Auschwitz of sorts. The problem, at least for me, is that I always felt as if there was a gun to my head throughout the whole process. If I didn’t get out there and proselytize then the wrath of God was going to forever abide on me. If I didn’t sit with people and get them to “give their heart to the Lord,” then I better start sleeping with one eye open, if you catch my meaning.
To my mind, this picture of God is not unlike the many pictures of God religion has perpetually concocted throughout the millennia. But I thought the “God of the Bible”—as I’ve often heard it put—was “set apart?” That God was holy? This raises the question: If the one true God is actually set apart, why in the ever-loving-hell does he seem to behave just like us and just like the gods we create? I mean, is it God the Father or the Godfather? Is God like Jesus or is God like Don Corleone? Don’t get me wrong, I love that movie, but I’m really hoping it’s not a correct portrait of what God is like.
Obviously, I say that with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. I don’t, for even one second, believe that God is like that. God is not sitting atop a ladder that we must climb in order to experience her presence. That’s far too exhausting! God is, as theologian James Alison has put it, one whom we relax into. All we have to do—if we can even call it “doing”—is trust that we are going to be caught when we release our grip on the rungs. The Buddhists may call it “non-grasping,” and that description seems to fit best when we talk about divinity. It’s not about grasping or striving; it’s about letting go of the desire and need to grasp at anything, including—perhaps especially—God.
May we all experience this grace—this unadulterated grace. And may we trust that no matter what, God is there with us, for us, and continually works through us so that we may experience the benefits of what a life oriented towards grace brings.
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