The Naked Church – Chapter Five
The Naked Church – Chapter – 5. Of Course, I Love God
These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
She had called me 20 minutes before on a friend’s recommendation, needing to see a pastor. She was barely 20, a willowy brunette. “You have to help me!” The look in her eyes confirmed the desperation in her voice.
“What can I do for you?” I asked, trying to feel out the situation.
Tears began to flow. “The man I’ve been living with moved out on me a month ago. To get back at him I’m having an affair with his best friend. I’m so torn up inside. I can’t sleep at night. I’ve got to find some peace.”
Amazing! She didn’t seem the least bit concerned about her immorality or vengeance. “Why did you come to see me?”
“I’m a Christian,” she said, looking shocked that I had asked. (I’m sure I looked as shocked at her answer.)
“What do you mean, you’re a Christian?”
“I love God, you know. Even went forward a couple of years ago to be born again. I believe he died on the cross and all that.” I couldn’t believe my ears. “You see no conflict between your confession of Christianity and the lifestyle you’re living?” “Should I?” Her shocked look returned.
The Naked Church – Chapter Five – I’ll spare you her excuses, but I tried to help her see the disparity between the Christianity she professed and the life she was living. I told her that Jesus wanted to come to her in the midst of it all and set her free. But she didn’t want to be free of her sin, only her pain and in the end decided she would seek it another way.
Regrettably, she is not an isolated case. For too many people Christianity is only a creed to confess or ritual to follow. Its impact is only mental, far removed from the realities of everyday living. Such Christianity is full of form but devoid of substance, and God never intended it to be that way.
The Naked Church – Chapter Five – Abstracting Reality
A.W. Tozer saw how little Christianity was built around the practical presence of God:
If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95% of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church 95% of what they did would stop and everybody would know the difference.
Today God is an abstraction, existing in an unseen and unfelt spiritual realm. People can only please him by following his rules—going to church, tithing, and being good to their neighbor. But God wants to be so much more real than that. He wants to be closer to us than our best friend and to participate in our daily lives.
Walter Wangerin defines abstraction as “the removing of God from experiential life.”2 Some people do it out of ignorance, never having heard how practical God’s presence was meant to be. Their theology might be right, but they’ve never understood the implications of their beliefs. Wangerin continues:
It is not hard to argue the immanence of God. Why, it is one of our doctrines… There’s the sticking point. So long as it remains a doctrine alone, a truth to be taught, immanence continues an abstraction and he is not immanent.
The Naked Church – Chapter Five – But even to those of us who do understand how closely God wants to be involved in our lives, abstraction is a trap that can catch us again and again. Israel fell into this trap often. During one of those times God gave Isaiah a strong rebuke for them, in effect saying, “I no longer participate in your rituals, and no one missed me.” To help us understand how challenging his words were to them, and how applicable they are to us, let me substitute in this passage some of our forms of worship for theirs:
The multitude of your tithes and offerings—what are they to me? I have more than enough of your good works, evangelistic crusades, and missionary teas. I have no pleasure in your uplifted hands or your singing in tongues. When you come to meet with me who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your services are detestable to me. Sunday morning services, Wednesday night prayer meetings, and your retreats, I cannot bear your evil committees. Your Christmas pageants and Easter musicals my soul hates. They have become a burden to me. I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you (Isaiah 1:11-15).
Even though Israel’s forms of worship were ones that God had mandated for them, he was angry because their hearts were no longer in them. Long after they had turned from obeying him to seeking their own pleasure, they had continued the guise of worship.
How easily religious forms outlive the reality that spawned them! We continue the motions, but God is no longer the object of our pursuit. When that happens our actions become lifeless traditions and can easily become more sacred than God himself. David Duplessis saw this danger: “Every church has its traditions, and they would rather sacrifice the truth of Scripture than sacrifice their tradition.”
Obviously this is abstraction at its worst, but its impact is felt in so many more subtle ways. It allows us to push God out of our lives without admitting to it, because his name and activities still fill so much of our time.
Nowhere is this seen more pointedly than in the popular definition of agape love. Many are teaching that God’s agape love is a love that transcends feelings. It is based on a commitment to do what’s right even if one has no personal feelings for the object of that action. We are even told that agape love is what Jesus demonstrated on the cross. What a weakened view of God’s love!
The Naked Church – Chapter Five – God loves you with affection that runs deeper than any human could possibly have for you. The cross was not a token—a dying commitment to people he was supposed to save. The cross was love—full, rich, and emotional. He saw us in the anguish of our sin, and because he had compassion for us he took our sin to the cross that we might be free of it. We see Jesus’ agape love when he wept over Jerusalem’s rejection, when he touched a leper with healing, and when he let a prostitute pour perfume on his feet.
He loves you the same way. He’s not just committed to you. He wanted you before you ever knew he existed. When he fills our heart his Spirit in us cries out with the extremely personal “Abba Father”—”Daddy.” God’s love to us is that personal and that real. It overwhelms us with the magnificence of his goodness. Some may mock that as sloppy agape, but that is the love God wants to heap upon you.
And that’s the love he wants us to have for others—deep affection for other believers and compassion for the world. Commitment is a cheap substitute by comparison and is only the last gasp of a generation dying in abstraction. Because feelings supposedly don’t count, we can with all piety say we love some people even though we can’t stand them and our stomach lurches every time they walk into a room.
This kind of thinking produces a false spirituality that insulates us from God’s work in our lives. One morning a few years ago a young woman from the church I pastored phoned me just to tell me what a lousy pastor I was, and she did so with a vengeance. She had misunderstood a conversation I had with her husband. Her accusations, based on secondhand information, were far from accurate. She was hurt and angry and in my mind unjustifiably so.
Explaining that to her, however, proved to be impossible. She reacted with such harshness that I knew the only chance for healing lay in confession rather than eloquent defense. I weighed my choices: apologize for the misunderstanding or defend my actions. “I’m sorry you’re hurt,” I finally said; “will you forgive me?”
“Oh, Wayne, I already have,” was her reply, and she said it so piously I felt like gagging. I was speechless. If I had already been forgiven, what were these verbal lashings for, recreation?
Obviously she had not forgiven me. What disturbed me most was that she genuinely thought she had. That’s what happens when Christianity becomes an abstraction. It deceives us into hypocrisy and keeps us from letting God heal relationships, filling them with his warmth and affection.
Christianity removed from human experience ceases to be Christianity. Abstraction trades the real work of God in our lives for words and rituals. The effects are devastating, leaving us with a Christianity that exists in the mind only, and not the heart.
No longer do we look for God’s leading. Instead we pray, plan, and hold services, only assuming that God will bless them. While reading a professional journal for church leadership, I came across an article about making decisions in the church. Four ways were given by a college professor: voting, appointing an expert, statistical averaging, and consensus. Not one of them told how a group of people could hear the voice of the Lord together and move in confidence. We have followed Israel into the sin of assumption: “Their priests did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord?’” (Jeremiah 2:8).
The Naked Church – Chapter Five – Don’t we do the same thing by launching into our day with a prayer that Jesus will bless what we’re going to do? Don’t we believe he has anything more to say to us than what our own minds can reason out? Abstraction reduces spiritual growth from following God to mere observance of law, or, as we call them today, “principles.” But God wants to be as close to you as your own breath, with the reality of his presence guiding you and transforming you by his love.
Nothing turns off the next generation quicker than believers
whose words don’t match their experience. Children and new
converts easily see where we deceive ourselves, just like the little
boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes. They will not tolerate form
without substance, and many of them reject Christianity because
they see nothing real about it.
The Great Divorce
Regretfully much of what passes for Christian living today is nothing other than people pretending to be what they are not. Instead of being authentic with God and others we are too busy trying to act like Christians. When we do that we divorce the truth of the gospel from the reality of daily living. Even though this results in a lifeless Christianity, sometimes that is easier to endure than facing reality.
1. Reality won’t let us substitute religious tradition for personal sacrifice. Religious routine is the first thing we grab when the freshness of God’s presence dries up—and who hasn’t experienced such dry times? One day our relationship with God is fresh and alive, and then suddenly our prayers and Bible reading feel empty; even going to church becomes a chore.
We have two options here: We can just learn to be content with rituals, trying to make the best of them; or else we can throw ourselves before God to find out why his presence seems so distant. Isn’t the second option infinitely better?
Answered prayer is a good example of this. If God doesn’t move in response to our prayers, we have a number of readymade reasons why this shouldn’t bother us.
• God doesn’t answer prayers today; that was only for
• We just have to trust God’s sovereignty. One can only
hope for the best.
• God knows that not answering this prayer will make
me a better person.
• God doesn’t answer selfish prayers, so my prayer must
have been selfish.
Abstraction creates a Christianity that can run without God’s involvement. If he answers, fine; if not, we can go on without him. Reality, on the other hand, forces us to seek God’s face with greater fervor. But this risks finding out what God wants to change in us, and something in all of us would rather slip into the comfort of religious ritual than risk the personal sacrifice which God might ask of us.
2. Reality demands effectiveness. If we are going to say that salvation in Christ offers people a personal relationship with God, then we had better see them through to it, since this doesn’t just automatically happen. I know many people who have gone forward to receive Christ, and who yet continue under a deep weight of guilt, or else they admit that their spiritual life is empty. Abstraction tells them to just press ahead, ignore their feelings and accept their new relationship “by faith.”
The Naked Church – Chapter Five – Reality cannot accept such a misapplication of theology. How can the King of Glory ride into someone’s heart unnoticed? When I meet someone like that I usually assume that Jesus hasn’t entered his heart—yet!
I faced this very thing with a young man I met after a midweek service many years ago. He had been prayed for many times to receive Christ, but he still carried a deep guilt that paralyzed him from growing in Christ. I tried to encourage him with 1 John 1:9 and other Scriptures to help him accept the forgiveness I was sure he must have had. But he persisted. He had tried that before and it hadn’t worked.
We agreed to meet the next day to explore his problem more deeply. Eventually I discovered that he had major reservations about serving God. He enjoyed his life in sin, and only wanted to be saved to escape eternal punishment for his sin. No wonder he didn’t feel clean—he wasn’t! God’s not in the fire-insurance business, he’s inviting people into his presence. In the end he decided to fully submit to Christ, and then he knew the full release of forgiveness of sin. “I really feel clean!” he beamed.
It’s not easy to confront someone who is feeling unforgiven, but when you take ministry out of the abstract you have no choice. Platitudes do not suffice. In ministry the outward responses of A + B + C don’t always equal D. Often there are unseen ingredients that need to be searched out carefully.
3. Reality won’t let us substitute saying for doing. Years ago I read about a university study that measured the difference between what people say they will do and what they will actually do. A random sample was split into two groups. The first was notified that they were being polled to measure community spirit in America. They were asked to donate three hours of their time on Saturday to help collect money in their neighborhood to fight cancer. The second group was not told they were being polled, but they were asked to give three hours of their next Saturday to help collect for a fund drive.
Something like 73 percent said they would be willing if
asked, but only about 5 percent of those asked to do it said they
would—an astounding difference. Anyone who has worked with
volunteers knows how accurate this statistic is. We’ve confused
confessing with being and willing with doing. Saying “I forgive”
58 ~ The Naked Church
is easier than actually forgiving. Going forward is not the same
as giving your life to God.
Looking back at the Scripture from Isaiah, we can see that Israel sought to establish God’s presence by their sacrifice. He said to do it, and they were doing it, so he must be present with them. There’s no more validity in that reasoning than there is in saying that just because we put lots of believers in the same room and sing songs to God that we have experienced his presence.
The Naked Church – Chapter Five – I’m convinced that someone who really understands the way of the cross will find legalism to be an easy course by comparison. It is one thing to read the Word ten minutes a day and quite another to actually feed on it. The former is automatic and takes nothing more than ten minutes of the day while the latter demands attention, concentration, and openness to the Spirit.
4. Reality is often painful. It’s amazing to me how many people who really believe that a personal relationship with Jesus is essential to salvation will fudge on that matter when a close relative or friend dies. “After all, they were sincere in their own way and went to church when they could.” In many ways reality faces us with difficult implications we would rather avoid.
To avoid reality, however, is to diminish God’s presence in us and miss out on his working even in our most difficult circumstances. It settles for platitudes over power, a choice God never wanted us to make.
Back to Reality
I am always challenged by people who are ready to abandon abstraction for a vital Christian experience. Richard Foster records for us such a personal moment over unanswered prayer: “I determined to learn to pray so that my experience conformed to the words of Jesus rather than trying to make His words conform to my impoverished experience.”
What a risky but powerful pursuit! Moses was adamant about it: “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here” (Exodus 33:15). He wasn’t going to proceed with any religious charade if God wasn’t in it.
Jesus was adamant too. The Pharisees claimed to be children of Abraham, with all the status they thought this deserved. Even though they talked of righteousness, tithing, and God’s mercy, Jesus didn’t indulge their pretense: “You belong to your father, the devil” (John 8:44). Their self imposed deception had to end, not only for their own good, but also to stop the bad reputation God was getting at their hand.
And so do we deceive ourselves when we persist with religious traditions that have long lost their life. Christianity does not exist in words and rituals unless it first thrives in the heart. Moving back from abstraction to honesty can be difficult, but the rewards far outweigh any cost involved.
Elijah was one of Israel’s most powerful prophets, and he wasn’t afraid to be honest. Yet in 1 Kings 19 we find him hiding in fear of Jezebel. “I’ve had enough,” he laments to God. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” He tells God how much he has labored for him, and that he is the only faithful one left.
Elijah is fortunate that he didn’t come to me for counseling a few years ago! I know how hard I would have tried to get his mind off his feelings: “You can’t run on feelings, you know. God is always with us no matter how bad it looks. Just trust him and everything will work out okay.” In doing so I would have robbed Elijah of perhaps the most powerful moment of his life. God instructed him to go to Mount Horeb and stand on the edge of a mountain as he watched a mighty wind and a devastating earthquake. Then in a gentle whisper God came and Elijah stood before him.
The Naked Church – Chapter Five – Elijah knew he needed the presence of God, and he found it. He trusted God enough to risk being honest and vulnerable before him, and found God was bigger than his own doubts or fears. The same opportunity is yours.
Come, feast of God’s presence. You’ll find that he wants to be a practical part of your life, and that reality is nothing to fear at all.