Mar 3, 2011

law and/or grace

This has nothing to do with this post, but I like it.
Here's something else I've been thinking about lately: why do I sometimes feel more loved outside the church than inside of it?

[Oh boy. Here I go.]

Sometimes when I go to church I feel condemned, not loved. I'm sure my experience differs depending on what church I go to, and is influenced by my upbringing and my own insecurities. But I'm finding out that it's not just me that feels condemned at church.

A lot of non-Christians who I talk to feel that way. I guess some technical saints might say, "Well, of course non-Christians would feel condemned at church. They are condemned, so that makes sense." And that makes me really sad.

Some people think that the church is really only for Christians. "The church is the Body of Christ, the Body of Believers," they'll point out. "We need to feed the sheep that are in the flock. We can't make even all the Christians happy, let alone try to make non-Christians happy." (I've had this conversation. That's what they said.) They believe that the church should be focused on Christians because it's Christ's body. They say that if non-Christians feel uncomfortable at church that's too bad because church is not for them anyways.

I don't think that's what the first church in the first century believed. When Paul was addressing the Corinthians about spiritual gifts, he told them to be careful in their meetings when they practice their gifts so that they would not confuse the unbelievers among them. I don't think that Jesus wants his body to be an exclusive social club. Church shouldn't be about making people happy, it should be about making people more like Christ. Guess what? Christ seemed to prefer hanging out with sinners over spending time with the saints who thought they had it all together.

Jesus hung out with tax-collectors and prostitutes while he was on earth. If he didn't condemn the woman caught in adultery, as those around him thought he should, why would he endorse behavior and attitudes that are condemning today? If it's true that there is more joy in heaven over one person who gets saved than over ninety nine who are already saved, wouldn't we want to welcome the non-Christians at church as kind of a preparation celebration?

In my opinion, today's body of Christ, the Church, doesn't look or act very much like Jesus did when he interacted with unbelievers. That is, if the body of Christs interacts with unbelievers at all. By droves Christians are pulling themselves and their children out of society in an effort to be "not of the world." The problem is, we're not even in it anymore to influence it.

I'm digressing. What I meant to say is that I feel condemned at church sometimes. Me. I've been a Christian since I was five. I grew up in a Christian home. Lived on the mission field as a missionary kid. Graduated from a Christian college. Went into full-time ministry with my husband. Prayed a whole lot. Fasted. Studied the bible. I know a whole lot about what the bible says. I've heard about law and grace since I was little. I've experienced a whole lot of law, but am not as well acquainted with grace.

I've grown up in the church - and I've felt condemned there.

I'm not thinking of anyone or anything in particular, just a general sense of: I must have it all together. If I don't have it all together, I must at least look and act like I have it all together. If I don't look and act like I have it all together, then I will not be considered together enough for [fill in the blank: leading, teaching, interacting with all the godly people who have their acts together, etc., etc.].

Or do they have their acts together? Sometimes I feel like church is all just one big Fake Fest.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Live Together:
The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everyone must conceal his sin from himself and from their fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!
We are all sinners. So why do I try so hard to not look like a sinner when I'm around other Christians? When somebody shows up with their faults at bible study, what if instead of admonishing them to pray more, or read the bible more, or cultivate the fruits of the spirit more, or DO more, what if we said, "yeah, but you know what? God loves you and I love you too." And let it go at that.

In fact, God loves us so much that He sent Jesus to die for us so that we wouldn't have to do anything to earn salvation. Because the fact is, no matter how hard we try, it can never be enough. How good is good enough? God relieved us of that problem when he sent His son, Jesus, as a sacrifice for our sins. We only have to believe that it's true. The apostle Paul wrote: "if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." That's it. That's all.

Too often people say with their mouths that Jesus is Lord, and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead, but then think they must [insert one of the good Christian disciplines here] to be saved. What's more, they advise others to do the same. Pray more. Read more. Eat less. Serve more. Parent this way. "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling," they'll say, admonishing others to do more. Not only that, but they'll downplay - even warn against - God's grace with talk of heresy and apostasy.
For a while I thought maybe it's just me. Maybe only I have fallen into this desire to do more and need to be perfect in order to feel loved by God and accepted at church.

But from what I've seen, from some conversations I've had, I think that it's not just me. I know quite a few people who have walked away from God because of the lack of grace and love in His body, the Church.

I can see how it happened: If there's no grace and love in churches, if it's apparently about doing [whatever] better in order to be acceptable to God, then eastern mysticism seems to make sense. And New Agey combinations of all the nice parts of the various world religions are an inviting alternative to a God you can never be good enough for - even after you've "confessed with your mouth and believed in your heart." If too much grace can lead to apostasy, so can too much law.

I almost rejected God, too, thinking Him harsh and punitive. Almost. But I didn't. I decided that would be a little presumptuous of me. Instead I'm learning to differentiate what is God's truth and what are the lies I've believed for various reasons as I've grown up in the church. They are sneaky lies because they sound so true. But they are worlds apart from the truth of God's love and grace.

I am working out my salvation with fear and trembling: It's hard work to believe I am saved by grace and nothing else. And that's the truth.


  1. I think this is a big reason our family has journeyed from church to church. We never expected to do this, never wanted to do this, have been condemned by some for doing this. . . but we absolutely had to find a place to be where we could BE. We now have Communion weekly and the pastor always says, "If you know Christ or if you want to know Christ, come." Breath out. Peace.

  2. Preach it, sister. The reasons you mentioned are why I don't go to church. I gave thirty years to feeling bad about whatever I was or wasn't doing. While I really miss the community of church, for me it isn't worth the rest. Liz

  3. There's an old timer (Spurgeon, or one of those other famous guys?) who said, that the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. And we're all sinners. Why do we think as Christians that as soon as we "pray the prayer," we no longer need the Gospel? It's a journey.....I've often times had those same feelings.

  4. Amy - Glad you've found a place where you can breathe.

    Liz - Totally get it.

    Diane - Glad to know I'm not alone.

  5. Awesome. Well written. Thanks for your courage to be honest! I wish the body of Christ as a whole would show the same courage to face fear and to be honest. We can hide behind the law, showing others and even ourselves how we dont measure up. But love and grace frees us to see God, others and ourselves as we really are. Thats when love shows up and drives out the fear, the fear that we can't measure up.


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