Excerpted from “Fresh Air: Trading Spiritual Obligation for a Life-Altering, Energizing, Experience-It-Everyday Relationship With God” (Tyndale)
DO YOU LOVE ME?
God loves us the way we are, but too much to leave us that way.
Like a lot of people in the Deep South, I grew up going to church every time the doors were open. I don’t think I ever missed a Sunday in church in my life—ever. In addition to the two services on Sunday, we attended Wednesday night prayer meeting. But the Sunday morning services are what I remember best. My dad, the church organist, played the three-keyboard Wurlitzer on the right-hand side of the platform across from the pianist, Mr. McCutcheon, who was seated to the left of the pulpit. In her burgundy choir robe, Mom sang soprano in the church choir, which consisted of a couple dozen members.
From these vantage points, both my parents could keep their eyes on my siblings and me during the service. Sure, we whispered and giggled and pinched each other and chewed the gum that my grandmother would give us (even though Dad didn’t like it), but we were always aware that if we got too loud (signaled by Dad looking over his shoulder in our direction), there was going to be some serious discussion when we got home.
Just because I spent all that time in church didn’t mean I necessarily liked it. I knew it was probably good for me, like running wind sprints in gym class or eating Brussels sprouts, but I assumed that meant I wasn’t supposed to enjoy it. It was just what you did if you were a good family in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the seventies.
RELATIONSHIP NOT RELIGION
I never doubted God’s existence or the need to trust Jesus to save me. As I got older, I prayed and read my Bible, and I often responded to the altar call at the end of the service. But even though I tried to learn more about God and the Bible and what Christians were supposed to do, I always felt that no matter how much time I put in, it was never going to be enough. Every time I went to church, I either heard about the things I shouldn’t be doing that I was doing or I heard about the things I wasn’t doing and needed to do.
This was the only approach I knew to having a relationship with God. I tried to please him by doing the right things and by not doing the wrong things. Sometimes I wondered if it was even worth it.
The truth is, I really didn’t like church—and I didn’t enjoy too many Christians. While they smiled, nodded, prayed, and said, “God bless you, brother,” they seemed just as frustrated as I was underneath their good church faces. It was probably because they didn’t want to be there either. Or at least that was my theory. I had so many questions. Why was it such a struggle to do everything right? How could I actually enjoy this so-called wonderful, joy-filled Christian life? And why, despite all my efforts to do everything right on the outside, did I still feel so empty, numb, and lifeless on the inside?
Since then I’ve discovered that when the focus is on doing spiritual things and avoiding sinful things, the motivation is all wrong.
That realization happened in my sophomore year of high school. By the time I turned fifteen, I had secretly checked out on God but still attended church every Sunday and went through the motions. Then a friend of mine invited me to a youth service at his church. The worship there was like nothing I had ever seen before. In some strange way, I was both attracted to it and scared to death at the same time. People seemed genuinely happy and excited, and they passionately praised God and worshiped. Not only that, but the youth pastor taught in a way that I understood and that seemed relevant to my everyday life.
I had never seen young people so in love with God. I couldn’t believe it! This was so different than anything I’d ever experienced. I asked myself, Is this real? Or is this some kind of cult? If this is who God really is, then I want to know him, love him, and follow him for the rest of my life. When I got home I opened my Bible, determined to discover for myself what it really meant to be a Christian. I’m thankful the church I was raised in taught me enough about the Bible that I could search the Scriptures for myself.
I started with the Gospels, opening to the book of Matthew, and began reading. My goal was simple: to find out what the Bible says about how a person gets to heaven. And then it happened. The verses in Matthew 7 jumped off the page and answered my question—and it was completely different from anything I had ever heard before!
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
Matthew 7:21-21, Emphasis Mine
For the first time I realized that God wasn’t keeping a checklist, marking down what I was doing and not doing. He just wanted to know me. My eternal destiny wasn’t about religion but relationship. And so that December night in 1978—Christmas break of my sophomore year of high school—I gave my life to Jesus and told him that if he would give me another chance, then he would never find another person who would follow him with more passion than I would. It may sound clichéd, but truly, that night my life changed forever.
Five years later, at the age of twenty, I wound up on staff at the same church I had visited with my friend. After that night in December, I had fallen in love with God and had committed myself to him. I wanted to serve him, and it made sense to do it at the place where I first experienced such an alive, dynamic faith.
However, as I grew in my relationship with God and served in ministry, I discovered that I had a tendency to fall right back into the same spiritual numbness I felt before my conversion experience. When Tammy and I were still fairly new parents, I was serving as a youth pastor in Colorado Springs. Every morning I spent time in my little office in our basement, reading my Bible and praying. One morning after about a half hour down there, I heard Michael’s and Sarah’s footsteps as they ran squealing across the kitchen just above me. Their laughing voices made me want to run upstairs and join the fun.
Right then I got real honest with my heavenly Father. “God, I don’t want to be down here right now. This is work, and I’d rather be upstairs playing with my kids. Why is that?”
I sensed God’s voice telling me, “Because your relationship with them is different from the one you have with me.”
“Lord, what do you mean?” I asked.
“You treat me so formal … everything is timed … everything is out of obligation. You don’t even talk to me the same way you talk to them. What would it look like if you talked to me like you talk to them? What would it be like if you were just in love with me?”
It’s difficult to describe the weight that was lifted off me once again. God was reminding me that I could either try to get closer to him by doing the right things and hoping it would “take” on the inside, or I could fall in love with him on the inside, knowing that everything would then happen naturally on the outside.
There seems to be something in our human nature that draws us away from a life-giving relationship with Jesus because it feels more comfortable to focus on what to do and not do. That tendency robs us of real joy and peace. As a young pastor trying to live up to people’s expectations, I had fallen back into the pattern of trying hard to do everything perfectly—which I couldn’t do, of course.