When I learned numerous beloved Christian leaders in my young adult life were living double lives, I reconsidered how my “Christian” community lived our faith. Many leaders I loved and admired lived with integrity, but I wondered why some had been so unhappy they’d tried to keep up appearances while living a lie.
I rejected the idea that they’d reverted to their “sinful nature” because when we follow Jesus, we become a “new creation”. And I’d known them long enough to know they genuinely wanted to obey God. Yet they hadn’t felt the freedom to ask for help when they were tempted to stray. Something was wrong with this picture.
My experiences with “fallen” leaders and my own internal questions made me ask – was my understanding of what it meant to follow Jesus correct? I was a poster kid for doing everything according to church rules. I’d studied and memorized the Bible, not just because it was expected but because I wanted to do the right thing. But I had been given a very specific filter through which to view God, the Bible and the world. Was that filter broken?
For answers, I dug back into the Bible and the life and words of Jesus captivated me in a new way. What I found changed the course of my life.
I’d always been taught I needed to be saved FROM hell by Jesus but as I studied, I realized what I’d been saved TO didn’t much resemble anything that looked like Jesus’s words or actions.
Jesus created personal connections that led to changed lives, seeking those most separated from society because of their “bad” choices (“tax collectors” and “sinners”), visiting their homes and eating with them.
We were taught to stay separate from “worldly” people.
Jesus walked among the most broken in his world daily. Those without food or homes or love had his full attention.
We mainly noticed these folks during holidays or on annual missions trips. God help them if they were foolish enough to apply for welfare or stand on a street corner with a sign. #lazy
Jesus reframed the law-focused view of legalistic religion through the lens of love. He commanded his followers to be defined by love.
To us love was a verb, a calling to enforce our “righteous” opinion on everyone around us. Love didn’t mean building relationships that “always believed, always hoped, always endured” and led to a lasting heart change.
Love was telling people, even strangers with whom we had no relationships and for whom we’d never shown affection, they were morally bereft and on the road to hell. Love was using our collective voting power to gain the political supremacy which allowed us to define morality for our neighbors, even if the way we did it meant they never wanted to hear the name of Jesus again.
Jesus met and spoke with people outside his ethnic origins. He told parables about showing compassion across ethnic boundaries.
We were content to be a church of mainly-white people with similar cultural experiences and perspectives. While we might be concerned about the plight of hungry children in Indian, Mexican or African, we were unaware, uninterested, unconcerned, even critical of the challenges people of color faced in our own country because of their skin tones. Rarely did many people of color attend our churches unless it was a missions visit. Yet, I don’t think it ever occurred to me to wonder why.
Jesus treated women, several of whom funded his ministry and worked beside him daily, with respect and equality. He let one woman touch his feet with her hair in an intimate act of pure, nonsexual love. He spoke with outcast, “fallen” women and offered them compassion and kindness.
We were taught women should submit to husbands, fathers and pastors solely based on their gender and to ostracize women whose virtue was tainted by divorce or sex outside of marriage, even if they’d been victimized by a male who’d used his “God-given” right of leadership to abuse them.
Jesus spent the majority of his ministry outside the established religious structure. He angered Jewish spiritual leaders while defending his disciples for breaking the letter of the Sabbath law in favor of its spirit. He skipped the company of “holy” men in favor of the poor, hungry, sinful, etc.
We followed Jesus by spending every spare moment (church Sunday morning and night, youth group on Wednesday and Friday nights and Tuesday night for visitation and more) on church property and creating fancy programs designed to attract even more people there. But rather than the orphans, the widows and the unloved, the people we attracted were often folks from other churches who thought our programs were cooler than theirs.
As I compared my “righteous” life, occasional but not regular care for the poor, a self-righteous desire to “share” the gospel with anyone I thought should hear it (even if they disagreed), regular church attendance, social life centered around “Christians” (I had no friends outside this world) with Jesus’s life, I found no real similarities.
When I realized how different my view of living a holy life was from Jesus’s, a horrible thought occurred to me.
What I’d been taught about faith at the churches and Christian school I attended looked a awful lot like the religion of the Pharisees who were always on Jesus’s case.
We followed a bunch of rules that didn’t result in more compassion or kindness or look anything like the person we said we believed was our “Savior”.
Could it be that what I’d been doing to “follow Jesus” wasn’t following him at all?