by Cara Colleen
The Western Church in general has turned the practice of Christianity into a set of formulas, regardless of what denomination we look at. It is far too easy to take shortcuts where Jesus is concerned... at least in our own minds. Charismatics practice one set of formulas. Evangelicals practice another set of formulas. Catholics practice yet another set of formulas. It sort of goes like this, "Well, in order to have a 'good' relationship with God, you should do thus and such. Be careful not to sin, by the way, or bad things happen to you." It is formula versus expression.
A musical piece can be written using a formula—theory, structure, rhythm, rhyme—but it is completely lifeless without the composer's heart seeking expression THROUGH the music as he writes, without the musician's heart seeking expression THROUGH the music as he plays. There must be dynamics. There must be energy and passion. There must be emotional interaction with the listener as he finds something previously unexpressed in his heart, expressed through that music. The same is true of the Christian faith. There are plenty of ways and means and practices of behaving the way church folk are expected to behave, but it is all meaningless religion unless the heart of the practitioner is behind the behavior. The most liturgical church service looks like rote to the Charismatic believer, but to one whose heart is in it, it becomes as meaningful an expression of worship and reverence to the Lord as the wildest Charismatic dance of worship.
To the one who passionately pursues God with all his heart, these formulas are at first a possible path, nothing more than a tool. But years of conditioning have taught us that "this" is the way to God. It becomes a means to an end. When the path/tool turns out to not get us there as quickly as we desire, we become easily frustrated. Our "shortcuts" turn into long, indefinite detours. We become so obsessed with results, that we forget the original object of our quest--intimacy with God... Not even that really. If intimacy is our goal, then we have taken another detour. Our goal should simply be God himself. All of the furor surrounding us tells us that if our lives do not look a certain way, if our activity does not bear certain fruit, and quickly, then surely we must not know God. By this standard, the passionate pursuer loses momentum and ability to believe that God is reachable. It becomes a hopeless quest as long as we insist on holding to what has been taught as "the way to get to God."
When the idea of formula is removed, and the practice of our faith becomes a natural expression of hearts seeking after God, then life begins to take on meaning. The youngest believer brought to the Lord an hour ago is equal in the sight of God to the elderly believer near death after decades of seeking the Lord. Perhaps older believers have more maturity in their views and practices, but it is the heart hungry after God which draws Him near. It is the passion of one who longs above all else to dwell in His presence which makes the new believer, newly trusting his life to God's hands, equal in the sight of God to one tried by fire during years of service to the Lord. It restores the humble acceptance of brothers and sisters as equals and removes religious pride. Yes, the new believer can learn much from the older believer, but the older believer recognizes that he is only where he is because the grace and mercy of God has sustained Him in His walk.
Older believers too often become comfortable with position and recognition and fail to acknowledge that God can speak as powerfully and as unexpectedly through "baby" Christians as through those they think of as their "equals" or "superiors". It hurts their pride when a young believer corrects them. The automatic response is, "Well, 'perhaps' they are right, but I've walked with the Lord so much longer than they. They're just babies, fanatics; they'll calm down later and realize that we all have problems." With a condescending pat on the head—sometimes literal, sometimes figurative—they smile and accept the correction and disregard it with the ease of long practice. Too often, they completely overlook the fact that God might be trying to jar them out of a long, deep, endless rut of religious practice which interferes with their relationship to Him. The younger believers resent that they aren't accepted by the older believers and thereby try to gain acceptance by adhering to the invisible (or visible) set of standards. They have a false understanding that being in fellowship with God, or having passion for Him, bestows instant maturity. In their quest to become "equal" by Church standards, to become accepted by those they admire and wish to emulate, they abandon their newly found passion for the Lord forgetting HIS unconditional acceptance of them.
I knew a church-leader once whose wife left him for another man. Even though he had given years of service to the church, the church rejected his ability to lead through the suffering and pain he was experiencing. He was ostracized, because divorce was an unacceptable event by their standard of "formulas". He was so wounded that in order to open up to the Lord again, he was forced to discontinue every religious practice he had ever learned—quiet times, reading the Bible, attending weekly services. He had to go back to the basic fact that God wanted to know him exactly where he lived. When he tried to use those formulas that everyone said were how one gets to "know" God, the very practice of them stood between himself and God. It was only for a season. He learned to experience God's presence in a new and deeper way. He listened to the Lord and talked with the Lord, not during the structured "quiet times", but during his working hours, his driving, his relaxation time before the television, etc. It was a new and fresh revelation for him that God cared to come down and meet with him where he lived--just as Jesus walked and partied and hung out with the "publicans and sinners". Eventually he came to a place where he was able to pick up those practices again, only this time not as formulas. The second time around those tools became EXPRESSIONS of his heart and his desire to know God more intimately. They were no longer a means to an end—ways to manipulate the Lord into performing for him. There were no more conditions: if I do this, then God will do this. It became simply an overflow of His desire to simply enjoy God's presence.
It feels like the church of the twenty-first century is finally waking up to the idea that we have bound up the Christian faith beneath a set of moral practices and how-to's, but it is only a beginning. We are realizing that in our attempts to quantify Christianity into something we can understand and grasp, we have alienated the general populace. They are looking for NEW life, for relevance, for people (and by inference a God) who can relate to them on their own level without judging everything they do as automatically wrong. If we love God unconditionally without expecting Him to give us everything we think He ought to give us... If we can thereby learn to love the people around us without expecting them to perform the way we think they ought to behave... People will begin to see that there is something deeper in our lives than just another religion. They will finally be able to see that there is realness about our God that outstrips every other "god" offering to be a vending machine to the desperate souls looking for instant gratification: problems solved, relationships mended, or circumstances which conform to the fairy-tale ideal American dream. Realness goes deeper than the appearance of "all is well". Anyone who has obtained those things they sought in an effort to find fulfillment apart from God, discovers only emptiness in the end.
What gives life depth is the ability to endure hardship and enjoy the good things and people we have in our lives. What gives Christianity definition is the reality that we cannot endure hardship and enjoy the good things and people without the sustaining power of God's presence. If we attempt to minimize suffering and live through life without God, it hardens us. We cannot feel... or, to the contrary, we feel so deeply that it discolors everything and everyone around us in our inability to see beyond ourselves and our own needs. Even people who give to others in a "selfless" fashion are often merely looking for someone (if only themselves) to recognize their "goodness". This is so they can feel justified in excluding God from their lives; life develops a drab sameness to it, however, without Him showing us the newness He brings to each day.
It all comes down to formulas again. Everyone wants to feel some sense of accomplishment. At its most basic, this sense of accomplishment can be defined as, "I did x and y, and the result was z." With God we can't do that. He wants us to recognize that He gives us z (His presence & companionship) regardless of whether or not we did x and y. Grace removes the ability to find fulfillment in self-accomplishments and formulas. It paradoxically draws people in and repulses their human pride. There can be no shortcuts when it comes to Jesus. Either we love Him or we don't. Either we know Him or we don't. The outward stuff has little merit EXCEPT as expressions of the heart. The long-held belief that we are not accepted unless we perform/behave a certain way must be tossed into the trash can. This is the real reason behind our efforts to make Christianity something definable by human standards—the performance of good deeds and morality using our own abilities and strengths instead of drawing from the strength of His presence and love for us.
This is not to say that those things have no merit at all. If our heart is truly hungry after God, then there MUST be outward expression. Such passion cannot be contained within. But the outward expression is not a way to "get to" God. It certainly is not right to use outward expression as a standard of judgment for other brothers and sisters, because after all only God sees our hearts. God DOES see the heart, however, and that is something we cannot forget as we seek Him. Forget the "formulas" and "shortcuts", but don't forget to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Begin with the heart. EXPRESS with all your being as an out-flowing of love. Love your neighbor as yourself. Express your love to God by giving to the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and in prison... worshiping him in spirit and in truth. Don't do those things to "prove" your love, or to manipulate God into closeness. Do those things as an expression of your heart's passionate love for Him.
©2003 by Cara Colleen. All rights reserved.
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