As I speak with people about discipleship, the Essentials and the Spiritual Health Assessment (if you aren’t sure what this is about, go to www.essentialfaithproject.org) I frequently receive two different reactions—from the same people.
The first is positive: “This is great!” “We could use that here!” “Wow, I know a lot of people who will be interested in that.” “We really need that!” It is encouraging to hear these responses and I hope they prove to be true. However, there is a danger which is highlighted by the second common response.
“This could become mechanical and legalistic.”
And they are right. So, how do we avoid this?
The Essentials are things God Himself has told us we need: worship, prayer, Bible study, service to others in and out of the Church, relationships, giving and sharing our faith.
So how can these things be bad?
They become bad when we begin to think that our faith is about doing these things, instead of the One who gave them to us.
I have seen this happen with many people. Maybe I’ve even flirted with it myself. But I avoid it by remembering Who faith is about. Let me share this with you briefly.
When I encountered Jesus I had already done a lot to mess up my young life—and a number of others as well. By today’s standards I was an alcoholic, though because I was only 16 ½ no one then would have used that label. I used other drugs when available. I feared others, so I became very good at physical violence and used it to keep people away. I felt I belonged nowhere, to no one, and yet I wanted to desperately, so at my young age I was very intense in relationships, especially with girls. One night the most recent of these told me she didn’t want to see me again. I was crushed. I had heard over and over from adults that these were the best days of my life. I remember thinking, “if this is as good as it gets, who needs it?”
I tried to end it by killing myself. (NOTE: In later years I became a specialist in suicide prevention, intervention and grief. Never take a threat or attempt lightly. They are cries for help, and the best way to ensure destruction is to ignore the cries.)
I didn’t succeed, and I found myself trying to explain to some friends who had intervened why I had tried. They weren’t Christian, but they cared and they knew I had “dabbled” with the idea of faith, so they asked me why I didn’t turn to Jesus.
I couldn’t answer the question. I had “prayed the prayer” before, but it had been an intellectual affirmation only. Now I needed Him. I understood that I sucked at running my own life, and I asked Him to—more like begged Him to.
And He did. He took me, and He became my King.
He forgave me. He healed me. He made me belong to Him, regardless of where I was and who I was with. In the years to come He gave me Donna and my family. He gave me the ability and opportunity to serve Him. He gave me years of belonging to Him. He changed me, and piece by piece made me more and more like Him.
He’s still working on that.
A few years back I shared with the congregation I served at the time that I had been diagnosed with a rare blood cancer. It is incurable and has a median mortality rate of 18 months. At the time we didn’t realize how early it had been caught, so we had to face the likelihood that I would soon be dead. We decided to take the only treatment available, which carried a 20-25% mortality rate of its own.
I told them I was fine. And I meant it.
My faith is in Him. He forgave me and gave me the reason to live. He took a worthless, selfish bent young man and used me. He gave me years with Donna, my kids and my grandkids. How could I complain? If I die right now, I have nothing to complain about. And when I die, I will face Him and fall to the ground in front of Him. Not in fear or guilt or despair. But in simple awe of Him and the joy of being with Him.
And I am still here.
Not everyone has a dramatic story. In fact, I have worked very hard to ensure that my children, their children and others I have worked with haven’t had to experience what I did. But we all come to the point of knowing that, without Him, we are nothing.
The secret to avoiding legalism is love. Love for the one who forgave us and gave us life to live for Him. Worship Him, talk to Him, study His Word, serve others, love others, give and share what He has done in your life because He is faithful. Do these things for Him.
Know Jesus, Be Faithful.