WHAT EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS BELIEVE PDF Print E-mail

I’m a pretty normal guy.  I have a wife and children, a home, a yard with moles I am obsessed with getting rid of.  I live in a neighborhood where everyone knows everyone else.  We stop and chat in the street about the weather and kids and sports.  For twenty-five years I’ve been a commercial litigator in a downtown law firm of fifteen to twenty lawyers.  My partners see me as a highly skilled litigator and as a leader within our firm.  They see me as a source of wise counsel and some have said I am the glue that holds the firm together.  I’m not involved in politics; in fact, I’m kind of sick of politicians and have a huge amount of cynicism over whether politicians can improve our lot.  I do volunteer with organizations that serve the poor and homeless and those who can’t escape their dysfunctional past.

The reason I tell you this is because I don’t fit the mold of how you may think of an “evangelical”.  I’m not what you would consider an “extremist” or a “fundamentalist”.  I don’t have a list of do’s and don’ts I expect the world to live by.  What I really care about is a genuine search for truth.  I believe I have found truth: about God, about people, about our purpose.  I believe this truth is for all people.  That may bother you.  However, I am not demanding that you accept what I believe is truth; I am asking that you consider whether it might be truth.  I am asking, to the extent anyone is able to do so, that you suspend your own belief system for a time and ask yourself whether what I have written below could be true.  What I have written assumes you believe in God.  So I am also asking you to ask God to show you whether what you read below is true.  I believe God cares that we embark on a genuine search for truth.  By genuine I mean searching with an open mind, at least attempting not to let your biases and experiences and preconceptions block you from considering something else.  If God really loves us, the only thing that makes sense to me is that He would reveal His truth to us, at least the core truth about who He is, who we are, why we are here and what will happen to us after we die.  In the end, you must choose what you believe and what or who you will live for.

WHAT IS TRUTH?

The vast majority of people believe in God.  So then what?  What good is a belief in God if we are left to grope around in the dark for answers to life’s most basic questions?  Can it really be that everyone is right in whatever concept of God they have?  For many people, what they believe and who they are comes from a variety of sources like science, movies, TV, magazines and people around them.  Can we know God?  Can we know anything about Him?  Does He have a purpose for us?  Does He communicate with us?  Does He care about us?  If God simply made a ball of matter, caused the Big Bang and then stepped back to watch, it doesn’t really matter in our day-to-day lives whether He exists or not.  What is the use of believing in God if He has no purpose for us or, if He does, we can’t figure out what it is?  The answer to whether we can know God and His purpose for us is found in answering another question:  Is there truth?  By truth, I mean truth that never changes, that is the same for all people throughout all history.

Truth is either absolute or relative.  That is, it must either be unchanging, not dependent upon context or circumstance, or else you must know the context or circumstance to know whether something is true.  There are many laws of science that are absolute.  If you drop a rock, it will always fall to the ground.  In math as well, one plus one always equals two.  How can there be laws of science and math that are fixed and never change but no moral law that is fixed and unchanging?  Many, many people believe that moral truth is relative.  That is, what is true for me may not be true for you.  And what is true for you at one point in time may not be true later.

Here is an unsolvable problem if all truth is relative:  no one can claim that their truth is right and someone else’s is wrong.  To take an extreme example, no one can say Hitler’s “truth” was wrong.  It may not be truth to 99% of the world, but no one has any moral authority to say his truth was wrong.  If no one is right and no one is wrong then what is “truth” is decided by whoever has the numbers and/or the power to make it truth.  The fact that Hitler lost WWII doesn’t mean good triumphed over evil, it just means that enough people with enough power forced their “truth” on his “truth”.  Suicide bombers who blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces certainly don’t lack conviction or passion and, for one moment, they have the ability to force their “truth” on others.  If all truth is relative, how can that act be condemned?  If truth is relative, how can history condemn Stalin or the Inquisition or Wounded Knee or Joseph McCarthy?  But we say the extermination of Jews and Russians and Native Americans, and the blacklisting of “communists” was wrong.  And we say it was wrong because the victims were innocent of any wrongdoing and the perpetrators used torture, murder, intimidation and force to impose their will.

If something is always wrong, then an absolute must be admitted.  Without absolute truth, truth will always be decided by the majority and/or the ones who hold power over others.  If all truth is relative, then the most that you can say is you disagree with someone.  Then you try to figure out whether you have numbers or power on your side.  If this is accurate, then the world is an insecure, unpredictable, volatile place to live.

Everyone believes in absolute truth.  Everyone has a core set of beliefs and values that they believe the world should live by and believe that most people do live by.  Absolute truth can only exist if there is some authority outside of any one person or group of people who establishes the truth.  Otherwise, it is just my personal truth or the truth of my group.  God is the only one who could have such authority.  Unless truth is based on God’s authority, Hitler is not a monster, just someone whose truth differs from yours.

HOW “GOOD” IS GOOD ENOUGH?

If God has established moral law, then He has established right and wrong.  People are very resistant to being told that their behavior is right or wrong.  “Who are you to judge?” they say.  Yet, as I said above, everyone has a core set of beliefs about what is right and wrong.  Everyone also has a sense of justice.  They believe everyone should be held to account for their actions at some level.  Almost everyone believes a murderer should be incarcerated, both for the safety of society and for punishment.  Restitution to the loved ones of the victims is also expected.  Everyone expects a fair trial; many believe in attempting to reform the murderer during incarceration.  But no one would think it was right to let a convicted murderer go free.  This is reflected in movies and books throughout the ages.  We love stories in which good prevails and the bad guy gets defeated or killed or has a redemption experience that causes him to see his evil ways and change.  We have already looked at the impossibility of calling the murderers’ actions wrong if there is no absolute truth.  Let’s assume for a moment that there is absolute truth established by God and look at whether we should be held to account for violating God’s moral law.

Many believe that if they do their best to do what is right and good, that will satisfy God.  Of course, this begs the question of what is right and good.  People have a general sense that if they are kind to others, help the poor, take care of the planet, teach their kids the same, and the like, then God will be pleased.  Most people have an idea in their head of the good they want to do, and most will admit that they sometimes fall short.  Most people, if pressed, would not think it was fair or just that everyone get into “heaven”, however that is defined.  Take Hitler again, for example.  If everyone did get into heaven, what would be the point of doing good in this life?  Think carefully about what motivates you to do good.  Do you have a sense that you will be rewarded in some way?  That bad people will get what they deserve in the end?

How do we know if we are good enough?  If we are honest, we have hurt our share of people, we have lied, we have done things when no one was looking.  There is incredible need in this world:  people are hungry, homeless, orphaned, without health insurance, tortured, enslaved, had limbs hacked off, been falsely accused and imprisoned, oppressed by corrupt governments.  What argument can you make that you have done enough?  What have you sacrificed?  What income and possessions have you given up?  Why should you live in such comfort while others suffer so terribly?

Where does God draw the line on what is good enough and what is not?  Do you know if you are doing enough or do you hope that, by continuing to learn and improve and do your best, that is enough?  Perhaps what God cares about is that you genuinely want to do enough.  But where does God draw the line on how much desire is enough?  What happens to those who don’t do enough or don’t have enough desire?  If it would be unfair to let a murderer go free without punishment, isn’t the same true of those who fall short of the standard God has set?  Unless we are held to account for the way we live our lives, and if there isn’t enough of a consequence if we fall short, what gives us the incentive or motivation to consistently and continuously do what is right and good?  There has to be some kind of justice or we might as well live it up and not care about how we affect others, our planet, or future generations.  Most of us believe there is a God who cares about how we live our lives.  But what certainty do we have that we are living the way He wants us to or what happens to us if we don’t?

You may be surprised to know that the defining characteristic of Evangelical Christianity is their belief that no one can do enough good to meet God’s standard or escape His justice and punishment.  Evangelical Christian’s believe that, no matter how much we do and no matter how hard we try to do what is good and right, we can’t do enough to satisfy God.  This is because of the nature of God and humans.

THE NATURE OF GOD AND OF PEOPLE

God’s nature is hard to describe because of the inclination to think of Him like we do people.  We cannot conceive of His perfect purity.  We can only think of ways in which we or others have been good and then imagine that God simply does it better.  We also assume God cuts us a lot of slack because we cut each other slack.  We assume He sees we’re trying hard and that He really appreciates that.  But He is not like us.  If He were, He wouldn’t be perfect and He certainly wouldn’t know what is best for us.  He wouldn’t be worthy of our love and devotion.   God is outside of creation, He is the Reality out of which all reality flows.  We exist only by His will.  He made everything and He rules everything.  He has a right to expect that we will do things His way, in ways that are not offensive to His perfect, holy, undefiled nature.  God made us for the purpose of having a relationship with Him.  Doesn’t He have the right to set the terms on which we have relationship with Him?  If we refuse those terms, do we not deserve His wrath?  As we will see, He does not give us what we deserve if we accept a gift He offers us.  But you will not see or understand this gift until you understand your nature and the nature of all people.

What about the nature of humans?  I think the easiest way to describe our nature is in our natural tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe.  We really are selfish and self-centered when it comes right down to it.  Have you ever noticed how easy it is to think the worst about people, to criticize, to gossip?  Isn’t your impulse to want to lie when you get into certain situations?  How many times do you get annoyed with people in traffic or a hundred other places because they have inconvenienced you in some way?  Think about how often you justify or excuse something you do or say but criticize or condemn the identical behavior in others.

Let’s look at society and the world.  What evidence is there that the world is morally better now than in the past centuries?  Don’t confuse medical, scientific, or technological advances for moral advancement.  Look at AIDS in Africa, genocide, civil war, terrorists, look at the ever increasing number of laws being passed to address corporate greed and labor abuses.  Look at statistics published by Amnesty International.  Every day the most incomprehensibly gruesome, perverted, twisted acts are committed.

I recently read Night by Elie Wiesel, a man whose belief in God was extinguished by his experience during the Holocaust.  In much of the book he describes his efforts to keep his father alive in the concentration camp.  Yet, he is wracked with guilt over the relief he felt when his father died.  We can say without judging Wiesel in the least that this is not what we aspire to.  But it is what we become when we have everything taken from us.  Perhaps the most shocking part of the book is how the Jews would viciously attack each other like animals when food was thrown into the cattle car.  When people are disaffected, when they have had dignity taken from them, when they feel they have nothing to lose, and especially when a mob mentality develops, they become vicious, cruel and ruthless.  At the other end of the spectrum, why is it that fame, power and wealth always have a corrupting influence on people?  It is because our natural tendency is toward self-centeredness.

If we’re honest with ourselves, our default position is to see ourselves as the center of the universe and to look at events and people through the lens of how it affects us.  Certainly we are capable of much good, but it takes effort where selfishness just comes naturally.  Of course, everyone is capable of selfless acts.  Even beyond the acts of heroism and bravery in the history books, there are everywhere countless acts of kindness and generosity committed every day by ordinary people.  For people who believe in God, these acts are evidence that He is calling us to something higher and greater than ourselves.  Yet these acts are the exception in our lives, not the rule.  Mostly, our self absorbed acts are evidence of the fear, worry, doubt, busyness, dashed expectations, disappointments, annoyances and stress that we battle and that consume us each day.  If we kept a balance sheet of selfish v. unselfish acts each day, which way would the scale tip?

Evangelical Christians believe that the natural tendency of people is toward doing bad rather than good.  The issue is more than just whether we are loving, kind, generous, honest and brave more than we are mean, stingy, deceitful and uncaring.  Evangelical Christians believe that people’s natural tendency is to be their own god, to be in control of their life, to be master of their own destiny.  People whose physical needs are taken care of, who enjoy safety, security, shelter, food and clothing generally do not sense that they are morally or spiritually needy.  They become complacent and self-satisfied.  On the other hand, those who live in chaos, violence and poverty have a tendency toward bitterness, rage and despair.  Surely if our natural tendency was toward doing good then greed, war, poverty and crime would have long ago been eradicated.

Let’s look at some examples of when people become aware of their moral and spiritual neediness.  Probably the best example is the weeks that followed September 11, 2001.  As someone who was born after WWII, I can say I have never seen this country more united, I have never seen people demonstrate such kindness and good will toward each other.  I have never seen such an outpouring of generosity.

When I lost one of my closest friends to a sudden heart attack, immediately things that seemed like a big deal no longer mattered.  When friends and relatives gathered at his widow’s house, you could have cut the love with a knife.  As horrible as his death was, there was a sweetness to how deeply everyone cared for each other, how tender and soft everyone was toward each other.  It was as if a veil had been lifted and the pettiness of every day life was swept aside, leaving only what really mattered.

Events like these rip us out of our routine and force us to face our mortality and to scrutinize our lives.  In these times we realize that physical comfort, security and safety are not enough and can be taken from us in one horrible, terrifying instant.  We realize we are spiritually needy.  We feel like our lives lack something, like we don’t quite measure up.  We are filled with good intentions, we vow to do better.  Church attendance went up dramatically after 9/11.  Our entire way of life was threatened, we were afraid, we no longer felt in control of our lives or our destinies.  But how long did it take for us to return to greed and partisan politics and cynicism and being stressed out by things that seemed petty for awhile?

The point is that, absent some extraordinary event, when we are left to our own devices we will always drift toward self-centeredness.  Sometimes this self-centeredness is displayed in overt ways that hurt people around us.  Other times it takes the form of inaction in circumstances where we know we have a responsibility to act.  The fact is, if you have a conscience, a set of principles and morals your try to live by, a sense of responsibility toward others, you probably feel most of the time like you fall short of the standards you set for yourself.

WHAT DOES GOD WANT OR EXPECT FROM US?

So how does God respond to our self-centeredness and its impact on others and our world?  It is probably not difficult to see that hatred and acts born of hatred are sin in the sense that they displease God and are deserving of punishment of some kind.  We can probably accept that the same is true of attitudes that we have in our hearts.  Like, for example, when we wish, even for a moment, that something bad would happen to another person.  We may think as long as no one knows and no one was hurt, it doesn’t matter.  We may not realize the backpack full of jealousy, envy, bitterness, unforgiveness and ill will we carry around every day.  What is difficult to accept is that God is displeased when we believe in Him only on our own terms, terms that rarely involve giving up control or comfort, terms that allow us to see ourselves as a “good person” without really looking at how self-centered we are.  It is difficult to accept that what He really cares about is not whether we do more good than bad, or whether we desire to do good and to do our best to make our actions line up with our desire.  What God really cares about is whether we want what He wants more than we want what we want.

Giving up control of one’s life is very, very difficult.  Even if you could be convinced that you should do it, the thought of actually doing it would fill you with fear.  But you probably don’t see why you should.  Since no human being has the right to control another, why would I give up control to God?  What does that even mean?  We will look later at how much God loves you and all the good that He wants to give you and do through you. First, let’s look at what your having control of your life has done for you.

BEHIND THE SECRET DOOR

Everyone has a secret door in their heart that they are afraid to look behind.  They know that behind that door they will see who they really are and what they are worth.  No one wants to look behind that door so they pretend like it isn’t there and they devise all kinds of ways to avoid opening it.  Everyone has a suspicion about what is behind the door.  They suspect that if they open the door they will see that, at the core of their being, they’re no good, they’re defective, they’re worthless.  This creates an insecurity in people that they try to mask in one of two ways.  The one group I call “over-compensators” and the other group I call “embracers”. Overcompensaters tend to be characterized by:

  • Pride
  • Arrogance
  • Conceit
  • Strident
  • Competitive
  • Won’t admit wrong
  • Not vulnerable
  • Use weakness in others to their advantage
  • Self-reliant
  • Appear competent
  • Must win

 

Embracers tend to be characterized by:

  • Pleasers
  • Enablers
  • Codependent
  • Introspective
  • Shame based

 

Embracers don’t have to be convinced they don’t quite measure up.  They tend to compare themselves to others and to inwardly beat themselves up for not measuring up to either their own impossible standards or their perception of other people’s standards.  Over-compensators appear to be confident; they often do not see themselves as others do.   They avoid reflection because, when they reflect, they fear what is behind the door.  Neither category has an accurate awareness of self.  Over-compensators won’t look at their behavior, they won’t admit fault, they blame others, they wall off emotion.  Embracers, on the other hand, think of themselves in broad conclusory terms like “I’m a loser”, “I’m no good,” “I can’t do anything right”.  For both, there is not a willingness to take an honest look at themselves because doing so confirms their depravity which creates more and more fear without offering hope of any way out.

The insecurity caused by our fear that we are no good causes us to try to control everything around us.  In the extreme, this takes the form of perfectionism, being a workaholic and the like.  Some who cannot control the insecurity turn to alcohol and drugs.  Most of us simply try to create some sense of order and routine.  We have formed all kinds of social structures designed to affirm that each of us has worth, that the core of our being is good.

Evangelical Christians believe that if you look behind the secret door you will find that, in fact, you can never measure up to God's standard.  They believe that trying hard to do good and to be good will only make you exhausted and will not take away the insecurity.  They believe that the effort to control your life will only mask the fear and insecurity.  Of course, God created us with a capacity for doing good.  But we are caught in a no-man's land between knowing the good we ought to do and knowing that we fall woefully short of doing the good we ought to do.  Worse yet, we know that far too much of what we do causes hurt to others and, ultimately, separates us from God.

I have done my best to lead you to the door.  I don’t plan to leave you there but we can’t really go on unless you look behind the door and see your depravity and that all your effort to control your life only creates more insecurity, unrest, fear and exhaustion.  What is ahead is, I believe as all Evangelical Christians do, the best news you have ever heard or will ever hear.

It has to do with the longing in you for acceptance and to belong and to have peace about what will happen to you when you die.

THE DEVIL’S MESSAGE TO US

But first I have to cover one more subject.  We are fascinated by the subject of evil.  In fact, we have a much easier time accepting the existence of supernatural evil than we do supernatural good.  We have conceived of endless ways of depicting evil:  werewolves, vampires, monsters, demons.  We have a whole movie genre called “slasher” films that are full of psychopaths who commit every form of sick, perverted, grisly act on innocent victims.  Why are we so afraid that something or someone is lurking in dark places?  This begins from early childhood and never leaves us throughout our life.

In literature and movies, and in most of our minds, the devil is the embodiment of evil – tempting and antagonizing us in life and then tormenting us through eternity. Evangelical Christians believe the devil is an actual, living being.  He is bent on separating us from God and His love.  His chief means of doing so is through our fear that we are no good at the core of who we are.  He uses the systems of the world to deliver two messages – one message appears obvious but actually disguises the second, more subtle message.

Let’s look first at how advertising delivers these two messages.  The obvious, surface message of almost all ads is, “You deserve more, you deserve better.  If you buy this product, your life will improve, often dramatically.”  This plays right into our obsession with self and our natural tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe.  The deeper, more subtle message is “You’re not good enough the way you are.”  Look at who is used to deliver these messages:  young, extraordinarily attractive people.  This fits with the double message.  On the surface the message is that you can look like the ad model or be as successful as the ad model if you buy the product.  But on a deeper level, this is a set-up for failure because, in the end, the model sets an impossible standard and leaves us feeling continuously inadequate.  Isn’t this the perfect trap?  Wouldn’t this be an effective way to keep us perpetually trying to get our identity and worth from things instead of from God?  In our heart of hearts, we know that things don’t satisfy and, in fact, possessions, fame and power feel good for a short time but then leave us feeling empty and craving more and more.

Whatever year it is as you read this, it is guaranteed there are many examples of the truth of this in Hollywood, government and business.  The natural temptation, and the easiest path to take, in any of these arenas is toward greed, corruption, lust and all manner of other vices.  Why?  Because success in these arenas produces an inflated sense of self and reinforces our natural tendency to believe we are the center of the universe, the hero of our story.  Of course, not every Hollywood star, politician and corporate tycoon succumbs to these vices.  But it takes great effort and strong moral principles to overcome this natural tendency.

Now consider the influence these three areas have on us.  We idolize, admire and envy Hollywood stars, politicians and successful business people.  We watch and read about these people as a way to escape our own lives.  Truthfully, isn’t it absurd how obsessed we are with knowing every detail of their lives and how much weight we give to their opinions?  In idolizing them and giving them so much attention, what we are really saying is that we want to be like them and have their life.  This is only another way of saying we feel inadequate, we’re not good enough the way we are, we want and deserve better than what we have.  The ironic thing is, we know deep down that its all just illusion, that the people we idolize are often insecure and their personal lives are a wreck.  But we cling to the illusion.  What does the illusion cause us to focus on?  Self. The illusion sends us the same double message I describe above:  on the surface the illusion causes us to yearn for the “good life” but under the surface is the message that you’re not good enough the way you are.

Evangelical Christians believe the devil is orchestrating and manipulating TV, movies, magazines, newspapers and books to create the illusion that each person is the center of the universe.  He uses highly successful people to set an unrealistic and impossible standard.  He tempts us with the lie that we deserve better, that we can have a better life.  Then he makes us slaves to people and things that cannot fulfill our true longing for acceptance and belonging.  Once he has us trapped, he preys on our fear that we are no good; he keeps us isolated, lonely, fearful, insecure, distracted, exhausted and, ultimately, separated from God.

There is another way the devil keeps us separated from God.  Think about how much time you spend either dwelling on the past or speculating about the future.  We mentally live in a distorted past either full of regret over past behavior and lost opportunities or in which we idealize past events (“I was happy then”).  Or we mentally live in the future by either making up nightmarish scenarios about what may happen (“what if I lose my job?”, “what if I my spouse leaves me?”) or fantasizing about a future that will never happen (“If only…”, “I wish…”).  Isn’t all this distractedness just another way that we are separated from God?  If there is a devil, wouldn’t it be a perfect strategy to keep us distracted so that our focus is on self and off of God?  Evangelical Christians believe the purpose of reflecting on the past is to remember how faithful God has been to take all the circumstances and events of our life and use them to bring growth and maturity and bring us closer to Him.  They also believe that we can make reasonable plans based on the foreseeable future while always being ready to modify those plans as God directs.  But we can only meet God in the present and we can only receive His love, grace, strength and peace in the present.

Consider carefully and honestly whether your experience of the world is consistent with the existence of an evil being who is manipulating the world’s systems to push us toward our natural tendency to be self-centered with the goal of separating us from our true center:  God.  What evidence is there to the contrary?  Whether homo sapiens have existed for 100 million years or 10,000 years, if our natural bent is toward being kind, generous, caring, loving and brave we have had more than enough time to eradicate poverty, war, prejudice and other forms of hatred and inequality.  But inner cities remain war zones, millions live and die in the most incomprehensibly horrendous conditions while the ruling power lives in opulent splendor, prejudice and bigotry are prevalent around the world.

Understandably, we tend to look for the good in life or we would become hopeless.  As I write this, Barack Obama has been elected president, unquestionably a significant step forward for persons of color.  World history is full of such examples of apparent forward progress.  But is this evidence that our natural tendency is toward doing good?  My goal is not to answer the question for you but to try to get you to look with new eyes at your own life, at what you see around you in every day life and at what you see in the world and its systems.  Ask yourself whether what I have described regarding people, the devil and the world is consistent with what you see.

HOW PAIN DISGUISES OUR DEPRAVITY

Let’s return now to my statement that, as we have long suspected, it is true that we are no good at our core.  It is hard for us to accept that we are capable of the worst acts of depravity and that we have, in fact, exhibited terrible depravity through our words, our actions, and in our hearts and minds.  One of the main barriers to our looking at the depth of our depravity is our pain, both real and perceived.  By pain I mean the hurt that is caused to us by the cruelty or neglect of others, particularly those we are closest to.  When the depravity of others causes us pain it often disguises our own depravity.  Pain is much more obvious than depravity and, in that sense, is much easier to see.  In fact, you may rightly say that many people have had pain inflicted on them through no fault of their own.  But it’s what we do with the pain that reflects our depravity.  We turn pain into anger, hatred, bitterness and unforgiveness; we use the pain to justify and mask our depravity.  And because it is not our fault the pain was inflicted on us, people are reluctant to point out how bitter and angry we’ve become or how we’ve walled ourselves off from emotion and relationships.  The other thing we do with our pain is we turn it in on ourselves in the form of self-hatred.  We think self hatred only affects us because we’re not expressing anger or hatred toward someone else.  But it hurts those around us and it says to God that His creation is defective.  Surprisingly self-hatred is a form of pride and arrogance.  It says, “I am the only one who is capable of being perfect.”  Many people are defined by their pain; it is their identity.  Pain can keep us from taking an honest look at ourselves because to look at ourselves would only confirm our depravity which, in turn, creates more fear and surfaces more pain without offering hope of any way out.

GOD’S RESPONSE TO OUR DEPRAVITY – IS HE A LINE DRAWER?

How do we take an honest look at ourselves?  The place to start is by looking at how God responds to our depravity.  As I said earlier, God is the author and creator of all that we call reality.  He is outside creation and therefore is not subject to the laws of nature.  He set the natural laws in place and also set moral laws in place.  What He wants with us more than anything is a relationship.  He loves us perfectly, He created us to have a relationship with Him and He knows what is best for us.  But He also gave us free will.  We have the ability to choose whether we have a relationship with Him or not.  How can we genuinely make that choice unless we understand our nature, our tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe, and our ceaseless striving to prove we’re good enough?  Evangelical Christians believe that when we come to God on our own merit, He considers us worthy of only condemnation.  In His eyes, we are disobedient, rebellious, apathetic and self-centered.  What we have always suspected is, in fact, true:  we are no good in God’s eyes.

Evangelical Christians believe that only if we are perfect will God accept us.  Because we are not perfect, God will not allow us into His presence, He will not have a relationship with us.  Evangelical Christians believe that, after we die, we are deserving of eternal separation from God.  We are also deserving of punishment for all the wrong we have done.  Many people find it unacceptable that a loving God would punish people and banish them from His presence for eternity.  However, this would only be unloving if God did not provide a way for us to reach the state of perfection He requires.

Let’s return for a moment to the idea of us keeping a running balance sheet of all the good and bad things we do.  If what we do determined what happens to us after we die, God would have to be a line drawer.  In other words, He would have to draw a line at the point where we did enough good in our life to earn His love and earn our way into “heaven” however that is defined.  But how would we know where He draws the line?  How could we know if we did enough?  This feels like a frightening and insecure way to spend our lives, especially as we become elderly and death is in sight.  Do we cross our fingers on our death bed and hope we did enough?  How is it loving for God to put us in this position?  Wouldn’t the loving thing for God to do be to give us a clear path so that we could know for certain that He accepts us and will bring us to be with Him when we die?  If He gave us a clear path, and someone chose to reject or ignore that path, what should God do?  We have so many things in life we think are unfair:  when someone cuts in line in front of us, when an employer or professor plays favorites, when we  do all the hard work and someone else takes the credit.  If God gives someone a clear path to Him but they reject or ignore Him, why should that person get a free pass?   How is that fair and just?

It comes down to this:  if there is no absolute truth, then what is true depends on either who has the majority on their side and/or who has the power to impose their truth.  If this is our reality, then it really doesn’t matter whether God exists or not.  There is no definition of “good” or “bad” that we can rely on to guide our behavior.  There is no way to know whether we have done enough to get into heaven, or whether there is a heaven at all.  We are simply a product of billions of years of random chance with no reason to ignore our self-centered impulses.  Even if there is a heaven, then either all of us get into heaven (including Hitler) or none of us get into heaven.  Otherwise, God is a line drawer and we are left to guess not only whether we have done enough good, but also whether we have picked the right definition of “good.”  Evangelical Christians believe that God has established an absolute measure for us to live up to and that we can never measure up on our own merit.  Therefore, based on our own merit, based on our thoughts, words and actions, we are doomed to eternal separation from God and to punishment.  Evangelical Christians believe that this view is consistent with a loving God because they believe that God accepts them based on something other than their own merit.

GOD OFFERS US A GIFT

We all know the power of both forgiveness and unforgiveness.  When we deeply hurt someone we care about, we feel remorse, sorrow, separation from that person.  Perhaps we feel lonely or full of self contempt.  The person we have hurt holds a certain kind of power over us:  the power to forgive us or not to forgive us.  We can say we are sorry, we can try to make restitution, we can hope that our history with the person will influence how they exercise that power.  We may feel we deserve to be forgiven.  But the nature of forgiveness is such that our words or conduct have created separation between us and the one we hurt and we must wait to see how that person exercises the power they have over us.  If the person chooses to forgive, we feel relief and joy that the person will not hold our words or conduct against us and that our relationship has been restored.

This is a picture of a gift that God offers us.  If its true that we have a secret fear that we are no good, and if we in fact are no good; and if we are made for relationship with God but we are separated from Him because we can’t live up to His standard; and if the fact that we are no good and are separated from God produces insecurity and fear in us and we are exhausted by the effort of trying to prove we are good, then wouldn’t it be the greatest news in the world if the stain of all the ugly, hurtful things we ever said or did was washed away and we were restored to a relationship with God; if we could have a new image of ourselves as beloved and as having great worth and purpose; if we could experience lasting peace and joy and hope?  If this were true, if it was really possible, wouldn’t it be the best news you ever heard?

What Evangelical Christians believe sounds strange and too good to be true.  They believe that as Jesus Christ hung on the cross an exchange occurred.  Jesus took on Himself the punishment for all the selfish, hurtful, vengeful, mean spirited, vicious, dishonest things we have ever said and done.  In exchange, the blood He spilled washes us clean of the stain of all those things.  Through Jesus taking our punishment and washing us clean our very nature, the core of who we are, is changed.  It’s not like the change that occurs when we learn and grow as a result of going through a difficult time in life.  The change has nothing to do with our effort or striving or persevering.  It has only to do with Jesus and what happened when He hung on the cross.

I hope you’ll stay with me as I explain this further.  You may have heard words like Jesus died for our sins or Jesus died so our sins could be forgiven.  It may sound like gibberish.  You may be put off by too many people who call themselves Christians but who are hateful or intolerant or judgmental.  Try to put that aside and consider in a fresh way who Jesus is and what He claimed to do.

Jesus claimed to be our Savior.  But what did he save us from?  He saved us from ourselves.  We have rebelled against and ignored God.  We have not truly considered who He is but, instead, have created Him in a way that is convenient for us, in a way that justifies the choices we have made.  We have done things our own way and have either hoped it is good enough to get us into “heaven” or ignored the question of what happens to us after this life.  Our choices have produced in us a deep-seated guilt about what we’ve done and shame about who we are.  This, in turn, produces fear and insecurity and an anxious churning inside that we try to mask through ceaseless striving.  Some are able to keep performing at a level that keeps the shame, guilt, fear and insecurity pushed down.  Others exist in a state of living death and medicate their pain and emptiness by trying to get life from people or things, e.g., alcoholism, materialism, perfectionism, workaholism and co-dependent relationships.

It all amounts to separation from God.  Which is why Jesus is a savior who not only rescues us from something but brings us into something.  He brings us back into a relationship with God.  He brings us back into the reality and experience of God’s love.  He brings us into rest and peace.  When we know that our primary purpose in life is to love God and have a relationship with Him, and when we know that the punishment we deserved for our past words and actions has been placed on Jesus, and when we know that Jesus’ blood has washed us clean on the inside, then shame and guilt are removed and peace and a sense of purpose and fulfillment are restored.

THE CHOICE YOU MUST MAKE

How are we saved?  How does this exchange occur?  How are we reconciled to God?  How is peace restored?  The answer involves a choice you must make.  First, you must acknowledge what you have always suspected:  that you really are no good at the core of who you are, that left to yourself you will be selfish and self-centered, and that you have rebelled against and ignored God.  Next, you have to accept that Jesus is your Savior, that He hung on the cross for you, to take the punishment that you deserve in order to make you clean and give you a new identity.  This is what Evangelical Christians call "accepting God's grace through faith".  By God's grace He offers us the free gift of salvation through Christ which we humbly accept by faith.  Finally, and this is the hard part, you have to give Jesus control of your life.  Evangelical Christians believe that Jesus is alive and literally lives in the hearts of those who ask Him to live in them and take control of their lives.

Every fiber of our being resists giving up control of our lives.  It goes against everything the world tells us about what we deserve and what we can accomplish if we put our minds to it.  We’re taught from an early age that we are free and we have rights that no one can take from us and we are the master of our own destiny.  The only reason you would give up control is because you are sick and tired of doing things your way, of trying to fill the emptiness with people and things that don’t satisfy, of the endless striving to reach something that is always out of reach, of the inner turmoil and fear that never goes away.  You would give up control because you are desperate enough to take a step of faith and find out if God really loves us and accepts us and has something better for us than we have ever had.

Here is what happens when you accept that Jesus is your Savior and give Him control of your life.  The deadness and numbness inside of you starts to thaw and you begin to come alive.  God gives you new eyes to see what is important to Him:  what people are like on the inside instead of the way they look or how much money they have or what power or status they have.  God gives you direction and purpose.  He gives you a new kind of strength that is nothing like the way you used to white knuckle your way through the day.  He shows you unhealthy patterns of behavior and ways of thinking in your life and you begin to gradually change through His power, not yours, under His tender, patient, gentle guidance.  For the first time, you know you are loved and accepted and that you belong.

Asking Christ to take control of your life actually leads to freedom.  By freedom I mean the ability to take an honest look at our sinful behavior and attitudes without hiding behind pain and without it affecting our confidence that we are loved, cherished and valued, and that we belong.  We can look at the past without shame and regret and we can look to the future with hope.  Only by accepting the gift of salvation given by God’s grace can we stop looking at ourselves through the distorted lens of our pain and become the person He created us to be, unencumbered by the burden and stain of shame and guilt.  Overcompensators can quit trying to prove themselves; they can get their identity from Christ, not accomplishment; they can listen and try to understand others instead of always having to win.  Embracers can stop being so introspective and start being more aware of what’s going on around them; they can believe they have something to contribute; they can quit looking to other people for their identity and worth; they can stop enabling and pleasing all the time.

I’m not going to try to fool you or trick you.  Its hard sometimes to give up your old ways, your addictions, your idols, the people and things you’ve always looked to to give you life and your identity.  God will ask you to do hard things.  He will ask you to trust Him in situations that look impossible and trust that He knows what is best for you, that He will give you the strength to do all that He asks and that when you trust Him you will begin to experience far more joy and peace than if you continued the death march you used to be on.

What God offers is a gift.  What God requires is a step of faith, a leap into the unknown.

RESTORATION AND CONNECTION

Evangelical Christians believe that God’s two greatest commandments are to love Him and to love others.  These commandments are about relationships and connecting.  His primary way of connecting us to Him and to others is through stories:  the Bible is the story of God’s love; Jesus spoke in parables which were simple stories of every day life used to teach lessons.

When we accept Christ as our Savior, our relationship with God is restored.  We begin to connect with each other’s stories because all of our stories are the story of His goodness to us and His love for us.  When we come together as followers of Christ to share stories of His faithfulness:

  • We acknowledge that we are part of the larger story of God’s faithfulness to His people
  • We acknowledge that we are not the central figure of the story, we are not the hero
  • It defeats the devil’s purpose to isolate us and feed us lies
  • It allows us to take an honest look at our sinful behaviors and attitudes in the safe company of people who love and trust each other
  • We can look at our stories accurately through the lens of God’s truth
  • We are encouraged by the commonality of our struggle and the assurance that we can overcome through Christ
  • It demonstrates that we love God more than we fear being humiliated by our vulnerability
  • In prayer, God’s truth is sealed in us and His power is released to transform us
  • Our prayers give God glory and acknowledge Him as the author of our stories, as the source of truth and as the perfector of the work He is doing in us


If you have accepted God’s gift of salvation through Christ, the next section explains how to have the abundant life He promises and how to live in freedom.