I get up early every morning before my family does. It’s the only time I can find quiet in 800 square feet living in a city that never sleeps.
The other morning during my devotional time, the house went crazy. My daughter woke up early, screaming. Andrea woke up early. I hadn’t had much sleep the night before either, and... oh my... we had also run out of milk and paper towels.
All of a sudden, a perfect storm was upon me, and I began to drown quickly.
I bounded out of my study where I’d spent the prior hour caught up in the blissful presence of Jesus, and in an instant had now become moody, angry, and intolerant.
What a paradox.
Do you ever observe all that’s going on in the world and wonder to yourself, “Wouldn’t the world be a more peaceful place without religion? Without religion, there’d be no war, right? Without religion there’d be no more persecution of other peoples of different belief systems and cultures, right? Why are religious people often so cruel? So bitter? So sectarian? So unlike anything that God should be?"
Brennan Manning said,
“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
Did you know that Manning was also a closet alcoholic? He would travel the world preaching about the love and grace of God, totally hammered. He died because of a private struggle with alcohol that he could never quite shake.
Does that make his God a sham, then?
One of my closest friends is an atheist. He is a good man. He is an open minded man. He is a fantastic father to his daughter (who he takes to church every Sunday, by the way). If I knew I was going to die soon, I’d seriously consider this guy to take my place as a parent. I know that this sounds strange for a pastor to say, but I mean it. He’s top notch. Open minded, ethical, humble, caring- he has it all. But I’ve also seen him lose his emotional equilibrium many, many times.
Just like me, he’s very far from perfect.
Does that invalidate his atheism and validate my Christianity?
Does a person’s behavior prove the beliefs that they hold to be true?
The easy answer to this question seems like it should be, “yes,” but only if we zoom in on one pixel of the picture and refuse to look at the whole. After all, a picture is comprised of millions of pixels.
My faith is a system. Manning’s faith was a system. My friend’s atheism is a system. We all apply our systems to our lives, and yet the visual evidence of what we believe often looks like it contradicts our system.
This is honesty to say things like this.
This is accepting reality to accept things like this.
This is truth based on observable fact.
The Apostle Paul wrote:
I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.
It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.
I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?
The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.
-Romans, Chapter 7: 21-25
So what is that, then? An easy out?
You might be thinking, “That’s your lesson, Ryan? - that the bible gives us an excuse to do whatever we want because well, we’re human? You want me to just throw my hands in the air and say, 'I’ll never do the right thing, so I’ll just live however I want, then!'”
But we do need to get the delusion out of our heads that we will, someday in the future, lay down at the end of the evening, place our phone on the night stand, and laud our ourselves by thinking, “Wow. You know what? I was perfect today.”
We will never see a day like that as long as we are alive. That’s not an excuse, it's a reality- and until you acknowledge it your faith will never be real. It will just be a list of things you are ever failing to practice in your ongoing search for the perfect system of behavior modification.
There is much more to “God” than behavior modification, and when we can accept this as truth, we (strangely) find ourselves becoming less rigid. We spend less time tracking the failures of the world around us, and we become busy with things like genuineness, simplicity, authenticity, openness, and diplomacy- the very things that living in “un-reality” robs of us. We give people the space that we have begun to give ourselves.
It's all about waking up to the fact that God loves us so much that he is ever refining us. His love refuses to allow us to be casual about our mistakes.
Like it or not, we are becoming the “God” that we believe in.
What God do you believe in?
A God of order and lists?
A God of abstraction and irrelevance?
A God who wants a world theocracy even if he has to get it at gunpoint?
An open God who "gets" us, because he became one of us?
No God at all?
What do you want to be like? What do you want to become? Perfect, or real? You can’t be both, but you do have the freedom to choose which path you take. One is a falsehood. The other is a reality.