My faith has been through so many mini-revolutions over the years. Whenever I think about sharing it, I feel at a loss for where to start. I grew up in church, but my take-homes didn’t really encompass the core concepts beyond ‘Jesus died for you; now live for Him.’ For me, this translated into Good Behaviour™. A sense of ‘this does not feel like abundant life, this can’t be all there is’ has always lurked in the background. Lately, I’ve been coming at Jesus and His Kingdom sideways and finding that it’s adding up a lot better. So, instead of my usual, rather tangled linear narrative, I thought I’d share my lateral approach with you.
The first thing to understand is that accepting Jesus is not necessarily about religious observance. Religion is mostly about conforming to a culture and doing the ‘rules’ and ‘stuff’ that goes with it.
The culture of Christendom arises out of a desire to ‘do this well, please Him, make Him look good.’ But it misses the whole point, which is that doing well enough, becoming pleasing, being a credit to Him – these are all things out of human reach. It’s a beautiful bar, but it’s so high that none of us reach it. Thinking we can do it on our own pits our abilities embarrassingly against God’s.
Jesus Himself is key. What’s He like? He took everyone aback, casting new light on old events. He talked about God’s Kingdom in ways that showed what the King was like. He extended the invitation of citizenship and covenant. Notice His actions. He went about doing good, building relationships, meeting people where they were at, correcting their assumptions about God’s motives and actions, healing them. He was realigning things. He was God translated into human form and explained at our level. And it didn’t sound the way people expected.
Jesus’s apostles, who wrote the New Testament, talked about the mechanism and legalities of the citizenship offer, and about Kingdom civics.
Frequently, Christianity gets side-tracked into observing the Kingdom first, and the King second. Even when it’s not co-opted into political power or reduced to keeping up ‘righteous’ appearances, covenant tends to get swapped for contract. The goal of covenant is oneness. When we make it into a mere bargain, it becomes less about connecting with God and His ethos, and more about exchanging obligations. God makes us promises, yes, and sets conditions, but they’re not cold transactions so much as they are warm opportunities. He describes good behaviour because it’s good for us. But the minute we try to buy Him with it, we discover that we can’t afford Him. What He wants is our heart. Behaviour will naturally follow later. It’s love
It takes some humility to accept a free lunch. In this case, what we’re offered is a free relationship, a free peerage, and a free eternity. And all we have to do is admit we’re broke and thank Him for paying.
And that’s the crux of it, if you’ll pardon the pun. We usually want to earn our own way, have our cake and eat it too, and get there by the power of our might and determination and talent. And He says ‘No. That train doesn’t stop at this station. Only My train does, because it’s My station. This is not about your work ethic or your integrity or your honour. It’s about Me helping you out of a jam you can’t get out of by yourself. It’s about Me being a whole lot bigger and smarter and cleaner than you, like it or not; but it’s also about Me stepping into your shoes and serving your sentence when I didn’t have to.’
And this is why we call Him ‘Saviour.’ Because He paid our debt for us when He died on the Cross, and rebooted humanity when He resurrected. Because He absorbs our darkness into His vast light, and slowly begins to lighten us as well when we enter it.
What does God get out of it?
He gets His kids back. He gets to demonstrate who He is – Love personified. Love, like light, can only be observed when it bounces off a subject.
As for why we call Him ‘Lord’ – this is a word that more or less means ‘boss.’ This boss is one who asks us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength – but He reveals God’s nature to us in ways that tumble us into love with Him anyway. When you love someone with your whole heart, all of your allegiance is bent on them. Their wants become your wants, their plans your plans. You become a team. You don’t turn into them – you’re still you – but you become like them, in your own flavour. This is the intimate partnership that history’s most admired man offers us. And the fact that it is really God asking us, like a genius consulting a stick figure, is what’s so staggering.
So what about all the rules and conforming to Christian culture?
There’s merit in Christian culture, but it can’t come first. It has to flow out of our loyalty to the One we love. Faithfulness emanates from faith. Adherence can’t be offered instead of love. This Kingdom’s citizenship hinges on relationship with the King.
Much of what passes for ‘Kingdom’ culture is external: what you can and can’t do, drink, say, wear, attend, listen to, watch, and so on. Some of it has real reasons (safety, wellbeing, or fealty) behind it. A lot of it is bunk.
Some of it is internal: be careful what you dwell on, because it will shape you either toward or away from your allegiance to God. Paradoxically, although Jesusness will teach you to properly love yourself, and result in your ultimate wellbeing, almost all of it is completely upside-down from self-interest. That’s a big ship to turn around, which is why He has to revolutionise our heart.
A large proportion of the culture is relational. It goes to worldview: how we perceive and treat other people, inside and outside the Kingdom.
If we don’t filter all of this stuff through love – and specifically love for God, and living out His love for us and for others – we will screw it up by putting the cart before the horse, then judging the cart-builders.
What’s in it for you?
You get access to the Mind that dreamed up the cosmos and every meaningful and beautiful thing in it. You begin a journey of change that will have you reflecting the most sought-after virtues there are, because you’ll become more like Him, and that’s where those archetypes come from. You get the opportunity to be part of the innermost circle and the eternity-sweeping strategy to save humanity. You allow supreme, divine love, who already knows you intimately, to pour His expression upon and through you. You get His promises, His favour, His blessings, His actual enabling to do daily life (in all its harshness) with more inner resources than you’ve ever experienced. You get Heaven. You get the immense weight of guilt and shame and debt lifted off you. The pressure to perform dissipates into nothing. But best of all, you get the chance to know His heart personally. You discover that this is the meaning of life.
There’s much more to it, and in too many directions to include along this particular torch beam. But to sum up: He’s got to be first. He’s got to be freely chosen. He asks nothing but faith. And what He offers in return is astounding.
So where do we get this sort of faith?
It’s His gift to us, as His inventions. It’s that thing deep inside that clicks like an opening padlock when He calls us to follow Him. When we act on it by saying, ‘Yes!’ we find that what it has unlocked is a treasury called grace. Grace is, simply, the unmerited, unearnable favour of God. It’s a blank cheque that pays our spiritual debts both past and going forwards – not so we can clock up new debts, but so that we can live in the freedom of His favour. If faith is the ticket, grace is the train, and God Himself is the destination.
So much of my life was spent trying to be a good little Christian. It turns out that a real Christian is just someone who is in love with Christ, unashamedly dependent on Him, and letting that change them.