Growing up in church, you heard these messages:
“This is how Christians live…”
“Once you’re in Christ, everything will be great!”
“He makes us alive in Him.”
And then you become an adult, only to realize how misguided the messages are.
For most growing up with these catch-phrase sermons, the message never circles around to what it means to truly have a relationship with The Lord.
Instead, you’re taught to be a “good” Christian.
Go to church every Sunday morning and every Wednesday night. Go to bible study. Serve the church. Whenever given the opportunity, sing God’s praises and convert as many lost sheep as possible. Avoid the “unforgiveable” sins.
Mark off everything on the checklist and feel alive in Christ. Never feel sad again.
You memorize bible verses without really studying the Word.
I know, because I’ve been there.
I was taught to be the “right” kind of Christian
I grew up going to church. I was in Sunday school every week. I sat quietly in the back of the room, listening to my parents’ small group discussions. I colored in the pictures of Peter walking on water and bread broken to feed thousands.
I knew all the words to “Jesus Loves Me” by age 4 and had John 3:16 memorized by age 6. I never doubted Christ’s love or God’s existence.
At the age of 13, it seems pretty straightforward. Avoid drinking, drugs and sex, and you’ll be fine. Ask forgiveness as soon as a curse word slips through your lips, and you’re back on His good side. Gossiping is bad, unless it’s your Sunday school teacher talking to your mom about one of the other kids’ parents (then it’s just story telling).
Eventually, we realize how unrealistic it all is.
Our eyes open to the gap between the “church world” and the “real world.”
There’s too much pain, hypocrisy and reality for the Sunday school mindset to hold up.
This realization leads to an inevitable fork in the road.
My heart was hurting, and I had a choice to make.
I could either walk down path one, stay in church and fight to epitomize the “good” Christian.
Or, I could walk down path two – say, “screw it,” and do everything in my power to avoid Christians and Christianity altogether.
At first, I chose to walk down path one – stay in the church
Fight harder. Sin less. Talk about Jesus more. Feel dead inside because I haven’t earned the right to feel alive.
The advice comes to “fight for your relationship” with Jesus. There must be unrepentant sin in your life, or you wouldn’t be feeling this way.
So, you put on a mask. The “good” mask. Always smiling, never in serious pain. When it’s time for prayer requests, it’s always about someone else’s pain or, at worse, a shallow personal struggle. Real pain is too dangerous because it might let the mask slip. Open the door for condemnation. Allow them to see the “truth” – that you’re just a common sinner.
I’ve realized some people can keep this mask on their entire lives. They can reach old age never admitting fault of any kind. Never letting the mask drop.
I tried walking down this path for a while. It seemed to be working. I sat with my youth group friends and made fun of the “bad” kids partying on the weekends or making out just a little too long in the hallways.
And then, my mask fell.
I commit one of the “unforgiveable” sins, and my friends made sure I knew it. I was out. Everyone knew. I was a sinner and there was nothing I could do to change that.
My only choice was to change course for the second path
The other side of the road is the “screw it” side. Living how you want. Avoiding “Christians” at all cost. They’ve made it clear you’ll never be good enough to get into heaven, so why bother pretending? You put on the mask of the “bad” Christian.
Your old youth group friends said skipping church would lead to drinking and drug use. Well, it’s expected, so why not? Dating an atheist or agnostic would lead to premarital sex. Well, it’s already been established you’re going to hell, so why deny yourself any of life’s pleasures?
I lived this way for a number of years. It worked out well for a while, and I made plenty of new friends and boyfriends while I was walking down this road. But, inevitably, even this mask became too heavy to hold up.
Two paths head off in different directions, but everyone ends up in the same place
A hard heart, a thick mask, and the realization that you have no idea who Christ actually is. That your entire life is built by other people’s expectations.
On one side, you fight every day to prove your place in church. To meet what’s expected of a “good” Christian.
On the other side, you do whatever it takes to avoid the Christian life. To meet what’s expected of someone who’s rejected Christianity and all it stands for.
And then, God intervenes.
He sees our hurting hearts. He hears our cries. He knows what’s behind the mask and how to break through.
But it involves breaking us first.
He tears down the walls we build around our hearts.
My friends, who I depended on for acceptance, all left my life for one reason or another. The guys I had clung to for affirmation and (what I thought was) love no longer wanted anything to do with me.
I was broken. I was alone. I had no one left to turn to.
And that’s when he lifted my chin off the floor and looked right into my eyes. He reached out His hand. He said he loves me. Always has, always will.
He’s been here all along. And now, I was going to find out exactly what it means to be like Christ. Not a “good Christian,” but a person whose focus is on Him, and Him alone.
All I had to do was take His hand. So I did.
And it hurt. A lot.
And that’s why so many people resist at first. Because His transformation isn’t what we’re brought up to believe.
It’s the exact opposite, in fact.
Yes, we’re being transformed so that we can be made alive in Him. But first, we have to totally die to our old way of life (Romans 12:1-2).
Jesus described the process as being “sifted as wheat.” (Luke 22:31)
Even David understood the pain of growing in the Lord when he said “many are the afflictions of the righteous,” but he reminds us, “The Lord delivers him out of them all (Psalm 34:19),”
We don’t want to leave path #1 because then we’ll be “found out”. When nobody knows the pain and the secrets, nobody can judge the mistakes. But hiding alone means suffering alone. There’s nobody to pray with and nobody to offer spiritual guidance.
We don’t want to leave path #2 because giving up the life we’ve built for ourselves is too hard. It’s just not fair. Our friends are still living as they choose. They don’t have to give up “fun” nights out to get up early for church. They don’t lose out on dates because of their convictions.
But they’re also missing out on the gift of truly knowing Jesus.
We’re giving up a few fun nights in this world, but gaining a renewed relationship.
It’s still hard some days
Life in the Word means opening your eyes wide to the hypocrisy, the pain caused by “Christians” in God’s name and the heartache so casually dismissed.
But you gain the peace and wisdom of God. That which is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere (James 3:17). You learn to test the guidance of leaders. You learn to discern the Lord’s voice from your own desires (Romans 12:2).
It’s pretty cool, actually.
To finally learn what the bible means when it calls you a “new creation” in Christ. Where sins aren’t tallied up for punishment and reconciliation is the standard (2 Corinthians 5:17-20).
To take off the mask and live authentically – as the free person He created you to be.
It breaks my heart that so many are brought up without truly knowing who He is. They’re told stories, memorize the verses and read the “do this, not that” instruction guide.
On the outside, they look shiny and new.
But on the inside, their hearts are breaking. Their hearts are hardening under the pressure of hypocrisy, unrealistic expectations and a misrepresentation of who Christ really is.
That’s why it’s so important to learn the Word for yourself
To question every sermon, to read the full chapter – not just the 140 character snippet or quoted verse.
To start from the beginning. To allow the Lord to sift your life. To help you die to the world.
It will hurt. It won’t be easy.
But it will be flooded by grace and overwhelmed by mercy.
Whether you’re a “good” Christian learning to be real, or a “bad” Christian learning to accept His forgiveness and love, there’s always hope.
He’s reaching out His hand for you.
All you have to do is take it.
Megan Foreman is author of Surviving The Real World, a Christian blog teaching fellow real-humans-in-training how to navigate the gap between what Christianity should be and what it currently is.
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