I had a friend in high school who was blessedly patient with me. She liked to use, ahem, colorful language and whenever she would do it around me, I would screech in a high voice, “Potty mouth! Potty mouth!” Let me remind you that this was high school, not kindergarten. I think, eventually, she would do it just to get a reaction out of me (something I would do now, if I was her and she was me…now)
She remained my friend, for some reason, despite my best efforts to form her like a ball of playdough into someone who outwardly honored Jesus with her mouth, regardless of how she felt about Him internally. It was pure legalism at its best, as if I, on my soapbox, stood with my arm outreached righteously, proclaiming, “Hear ye, ye sinner. Do as I do..and be SAVED!” and then I throw a giant ball of fire while I swish my cape for added dramatic effect.
Cue the second woe (from Matthew 23):
15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.
(PS- I’m not saying that my friend is twice a child of hell as I am. That metaphor ended when I said, “Cue the second woe”. Now we’re just talking about me. Capiche?)
Here’s the thing. I am haunted by this woe.
You see, my husband and I have been doing ministry with international students at UTD since 2011. We’ve hosted parties for people from all over the world. We just played our 3rd annual wiffle ball game. We’ve hit countless pinatas, dyed an indeterminate amount of Easter eggs, We’ve had some great discussions about Jesus.
I did a whole year of Bible study with three girls from China who were new believers. We’ve been slogging our way through the Old Testament with a group of about 8 expats this year.
And I grow more and more concerned that we (not just us but all Christians involved in their lives) are teaching them legalism instead of teaching them to truly follow Jesus.
Within the past year and a half or so, God has been pretty consistently showing me what it looks like to really take up my cross and follow Him. And it’s scary.
It’s scary because I was raised in a church culture that was black and white, easy to adhere to because it was checking things off a list. Good people do x. Bad people do y. God likes it when you do at least 30 minutes of quiet time every day. If you do x, y, and z, then God will like you and then you can do whatever you want.
It’s scary because, try as I might, that mentality has become a part of my psyche. It is so hard for me to truly, deeply, feel-it-in-my-bones understand the concept of grace because I just can’t see how God would love me if I didn’t “do good things”. In my mind, there has to be some sort of trade off.
So, it’s a struggle when trying to shepherd new believers, who come from a culture that values success and power and money almost above all else (and of course, I’m referring to human culture, because, well, humans). It’s hard not to frame following Jesus as, “(Good) Christians don’t…” instead of, “This (behavior) is what God intended for us.” Those might not seem that different, except that one attitude reflects legalism and the other reflects life change that should stem from a relationship and a deep understanding of how God sees us.
I used to think that helping people become Christians was easy- you tell them the story of Jesus, they believe, bada-bing, bada-boom, they’re invited to the next church potluck.
But it’s not easy. While the message itself is simple, so simple even a child could grasp it, actually living it out seems almost impossible.
Jesus seems pretty serious when he says that his disciples have to leave everything behind to follow Him. He doesn’t look like He’s joking when he tells the rich young ruler to sell all that He has and give to the poor. He wasn’t just hanging out with outsiders for kicks.
He meant business.
I’m not a dummy. I know that the words I say to the people we’re discipling mean way less than the actions that I take. If you want the truth as to how I see you when I interact with you, I could not care less about the words that you say. I watch your actions to see if you’re legit.
So why wouldn’t our newbie believer friends be the same way?
They see how we spend our money. They see how we use our time. They see what priorities are important for us. They see us get angry and forgive. They see how I talk about my boss and my coworkers.
Is my life pointing them to Jesus or towards a life of checks and balances that don’t really exist?
I understand that God isn’t sitting up in heaven with a dictaphone (for those of you that were born after the 80s, a voice recorder) recording every word and action that I portray to new believers so that he can zing me on my lifetime performance review. I think that my fear about leading newbies stems from that whole “working out my salvation with fear and trembling” thing.
If I wasn’t unsure and a little scared about how to do this, then I might lead them boldly, like Moses leading the Israelites, towards a lifetime of legalism and empty religion.
I’ve been there and I’ve done that and, let me tell you, the real Jesus is so much better.
(If you’re interested in reading more in the Fight the Pharisee series, please check out the rest here.)