25 Years in Church and Not a Christian

I always felt weird about sharing my “faith” because I always felt that it was a dishonest trick. I actually felt guilty about it… because if I had my choice, I wouldn’t be “a Christian”. Little did I know that this was evidence that I actually wasn’t a Christian.

So you’re saying,

“Wait a minute, didn’t you have a choice? You could have stopped being a Christian, rejected the Bible and the church, and gone your own way!”

Well there are actually 2 reasons why I felt I didn’t have a choice:

  1. This is hard to admit, but if I stopped pretending to be a Christian, then I would have to start from scratch. I grew up a PK (pastor’s kid) in a Christian school, with all my friends also Christians, or at least “Christians”. So I would have had to find new friends, start over at a new school, as well as convince a whole new set of people that I was worth valuing. (More on this later) So for practical reasons, it was actually the most selfish, easy thing I could do to keep pretending.
  2. The other reason was that I was, and still am, utterly convinced of the existence of God, that the Bible is the true word of God, that Christ lived and died and rose again, that we have extremely accurate records of his sayings and teachings, and that He is coming back again. I had complete faith in the Bible and it’s teachings.

“Now wait a minute here Richard, you said in point 1, that you were pretending to be a Christian, but in point 2, you are saying you had complete Faith that Christ was the truth. So doesn’t that make you a Christian?”

Actually it doesn’t…

Because I didn’t believe the Gospel. I didn’t actually have faith in the Good news, because I didn’t know what the Good news was! I believed that the Bible was true, but 25+ years in the church (and don’t get me wrong, a phenomenal church no less! #kccsunday) and I still didn’t know what the Bible said. Faith in the Bible doesn’t make you a Christian, it’s faith in the Gospel’s saving work of Jesus Christ!

“That’s messed up…”

Yeah… tell me about it.

So even though I believed in God, and had faith in the Bible, here is what I thought the gospel was:

  1. The Bible teaches the truth about right and wrong.
  2. Bad things we do in life have bad consequences.
  3. Good things we do in life will have good results.
  4. So, accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour, so we can have the inner power to good things.
  5. Now that we live according the Bible and are doing good things, we will be happy because good will result in our lives.

That is all a little abstract, so let me show you 3 scenarios of how my understanding of what I thought the Gospel was, had been practically lived out in my life:

Scenario A

  1. The Bible says “do not commit adultery”.
  2. If I fornicate before marriage, I will give away a piece of me heart that I can never get back. It will ruin my future marriage.
  3. If I stay pure, then I will be able to give my future wife all of my heart, and I will have a great marriage.
  4. Jesus will somehow help me stay pure, so I will believe in him.
  5. Now I will have a great marriage!

Scenario B

  1. The Bible teaches us to have a “Spirit of excellence” in everything we do.
  2. If we ignore this, we won’t live up to our potential, and will have poor self esteem, and won’t accomplish all that God has for us.
  3. If you have a “Spirit of excellence” you will achieve your goals, and you and God and others will think highly of you.
  4. Believing in Jesus will fill us with his Spirit and make us excellent.
  5. Once we achieve excellence, I will be able to accomplish so much for God, and be happy that I have done my best, and God will bless me.

Scenario C

  1. The Bible says, “love thy neighbour as thyself”.
  2. If I don’t love my neighbour, I am disobeying God and will be a mean person and no one will love me.
  3. If I love my neighbour, and give of myself sacrificially, then the people I help will appreciate what I do.
  4. Jesus loved me, and gave himself up for me, and so this gives me the power to love others!
  5. Now that I have the power of Jesus’ love and can help others, I can feel good about myself, and I will gain friends who will be there when I am in need.

“But Richard, all of those things listed above are basically true, and I have heard of all of these thoughts in Church before, so what is wrong with believing that?”

Nothing actually, for the most part these 5 steps are true… if you follow them, usually you will get the result you were looking for.

“Ok so then what’s the problem?”

The problem is that I thought that those 5 steps were the Gospel. But their not. They were just my religion. Consider the following 2 verses:

“Looking to Jesus the author AND finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:2 (Emphasis added)

“It is done. I am the Alpha AND the Omega, the beginning AND the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost.” – Revelations 21:6 (Emphasis added)

You see, I have come to believe that in order to have a full, personal, life-changing, heart-transforming, sin-destroying, joy-releasing, peace-bringing realization of the Gospel, I am convinced 2 things need to be completely understood, at the same time:

For one, we need to realize that the inner longing we have for a passionate love, the inner dissatisfaction with everything we are achieving, the feeling that there must be more, the crushing emotions of not feeling valuable… all of these come from ignoring the fact that the gaping hole in our hearts is evidence that we truly desire something, that nothing in this earth can satisfy. We need to realize that it is a relationship with God, through Christ that is the only thing that can satisfy this incredible thirst that is common to every human being.

Essentially, we need to realize that Christ must be our end.

Concurrently, we need to realize that we are so broken, so incompetent, and so sinful, that there is nothing we can do to erase the stain of our selfishness, let alone start to build up credentials that make us worthy of the kind of love that our hearts desire. We don’t even deserve the love our parents often give us, let alone the love of a perfect and holy and glorious God! The only way our debt can be paid, and we can be reconciled to our Creator is through the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

Essentially, we need to realize that Christ must be our beginning.

And that my friends, is the Gospel.

So back to my story, and why I always felt guilty about sharing my religion with others: It didn’t work! It was a sham! For some reason, despite all my best efforts, and attempts to have faith, and trying to live out a spirit of excellence, and in serving others, my heart was never satisfied. All of my faith in Jesus to help me get the good things in life was fruitless. Oh sure, things looked fine on the outside:

A: I wasn’t officially fornicating…
…but I couldn’t overcome my inner battles with lust, and bondage to sexual sin.

B: I was getting good grades, leading worship, and pursuing excellence in all things…
…but all I wanted to do was be lazy and play video games, and I could never stop procrastinating and truly invest myself fully in something of value.

C: I was always saying yes, and giving and sacrificing, and helping others…
…but never felt that I was receiving the thankfulness and gratitude that I deserved.

And yet, I was praying and speaking in tongues and believing that Jesus was going to help me in all of this! How slippery this slope is! How subtle my selfishness could be! What was the problem? Jesus was not my end, but rather was a means to my end. You see, I had no problem with Jesus as my beginning, as the only means to achieve what I wanted in life, but can you hear the problem with this kind of faith? It’s all about me! I came to him with selfish motives. Albeit so deep was my own self-deception, that I really thought my motives were pure, but yet, as my favourite song pointed out,

“Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think?
And yet it dominates the things I see”

Only by taking my desires, the things that were my end, giving them up, and instead realizing that the only thing that can really satisfy the longing in my heart is to hear my maker say, after He formed my heart anew, “It is Good, it is Very Good.”

And the amazing thing is that once we make our relationship with God the goal, we suddenly have that elusive inner power to transcend the desires that were either crushing us with the weight of trying to justify ourselves (Scenarios B and C) or were still leaving us unsatisfied, because our hearts want something so much bigger than any human love and recognition can provide! (Scenarios A and C). We were created so that God can delight in us! Now that is something worth blogging about!

Look at how the Good news is so practical for every area of our lives:

Even if marriage falls short of our expectations, or if God forbid we should never marry, Christ’s spousal love for His church is more satisfying than even the most glorious marriage. And even though my wife, is fun, is loving, is caring, is nurturing, is my best friend and closest companion, and is my perfect helpmate… if I put the expectation on her to fill the gaping hole for meaning and acceptance and love that only God can fill, she will be crushed under that kind of pressure. But knowing I’m more loved by God than I ever dared hope… can empower me to give without expecting return, to my wife, my friends, and even my enemies, because I have a fountain of living water, from which I will never thirst again!

So in conclusion, I finally have something to share, because I have received such an amazing gift. I no longer have to pretend, or feel like I have to trick people into coming to church with me, so they can learn how to be good. Because after 25 years of being in Church… I am finally a Christian. I finally know what the Gospel is.

Let me end with this thought: (which of course is not my own, but I owe to a great sermon by you can probably guess who)

If Christ is our end (the logos, the goal of all of our life’s journey)
And Christ is our beginning (the Grace by which we all entered this journey),
Then where do you think our middle (the things we do every day)
Is going to be?

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17 thoughts on “25 Years in Church and Not a Christian

  1. I love this because I had a similar revelation about two years ago. I would say I’ve always been saved, but my motives were wrong, and I didn’t realize it… I was doing (or trying to do) the right thing because it was the right thing, and because then I would benefitfro
    that, right? I started to realize I need todo the Jesus thing…. for Jesus, and not for my benefit. And as it turns out, when you do the Jesus thing, it’s really hard, and the benefits on the surface often seem non-existant (What do you MEAN I still have to give sacrificially to my partner when he hasn’t acknowledged/praised/given back??) but when you stick with it the blessings are huge, though they tend not to manifest in the way we anticipate (ie. I don’t get a perfect marriage straight away, but I get the character development needed to be a good wife even when it’s not perfect, and to have the strength to bless my husband even when I feel I’m the one that néeds the blessing.) And now, it IS something worth talking about, because now it is so real, and it really works!

    • This is awesome Na! Thanks for sharing. Isn’t that “Jesus thing” amazing! Care to share how you started to realize that? I am curious as to how people first come to encounter the Gospel in a truly transformational way… especially people like me who have done the “Church thing”, but haven’t seen the transformation that should accompany it. What started the heart change in your life?

      • Really I just started reading the Bible daily, because I desired a deeper relationship with Christ (rather than times before when I’d tried to fit it into my routine because I was ‘supposed’ to). It was about a week in and something just changed… I started praying differently, and God started revealing sin I didn’t know was sin. (ie in how I prayed even- praying for someone to see my point of view, which you could argue was ‘right’ according to Biblical standards, but realizing instead I should be praying for God to work on my attitude and response in the situation… Little things like that have caused a huge shift in my thinking, and hopefully in my attitude and actions aswell.

      • That’s awesome Naomi!

        I have had a pretty amazing experience of God revealing sin that we didn’t think was sin… Some things that totally surprised me as well! Remember in Grade 10 when I ran for student council and shared my “creed” that I wrote at a Passion conference? It only took about 15 years, but in looking back, after He set me free, he gently revealed to me through the Holy Spirit that my heart in that Creed was actually sinful.

        I went back to read it and everything that was said was “me, me, me, I, I, I”. It was a total self-salvation project… It was everything I was going to do for him, with none of it motivated by what he has already done for me.

        But God is so faithful, in that He didn’t drop this on my while I was in my self-saving sin, but rather, first he set me free, then so gently said, “Remember this? Where was I in this?”

        The best way I can describe it is a new freedom… a true freedom… “He whom the Son sets free is free indeed.”

  2. Hey Rich,

    One question for you. You say you weren’t a Christian, but I believe that you second point at the top proves that you were. What would you say to Romans 10:9-11:

    “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”” (NIV)

    If you say that even though you believed in the existence of God, that the Bible is the true word of God, that Christ lived and died and rose again, and you still were not saved, then what does that mean for me? Am I not saved? By your standards how can I be saved? What was this magical transformation in you that separates this time of being saved from the 25 years of not being saved. I also believe in the Bible and all its teachings and when it says I am saved I believe it. By you invalidating your salvation you are also indirectly invalidating my salvation and many others’.

    I would argue this: you (and I) were saved, but not yet mature. You were saved in that you were no longer destined for hell (though you still lived like a sinner). You were saved in that the barrier of sin that separated you from God was torn down and you were in relationship with him (though your conversations with him were one sided). You were saved in that the Holy Spirit resided in you and was working in you and convicting you of you sin (though you did not always respond with a repentant heart). However, you were not mature in your faith. You did not walk in your salvation. You did not receive the promises of God. You did not understand the main point that God was speaking to you, “…God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17, NIV)

    We need to separate how we are saved from what we were saved for. Just because you are not doing the very thing you were saved for does not mean you were not saved.

    Kenny

    • Thanks Ken, I appreciate your challenge, and your very poignant critique of my thoughts. Let me say once and for all, I am not intending to cause doubt on anyones salvation, although I totally understand why it can be taken that way. This is why I made the article as personal as possible, because I am describing what I thought the Bible taught about the Gospel, and how my mis-appropriation of the purpose of Christ’s work failed to set me free.

      Not to get overly semantic, but my article above doesn’t mention anything about salvation. To make it personal again, I don’t know if I was saved or not… maybe? I prayed the prayer, probably more than once, I believed Jesus was raised and yet…

      “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” – Matt 7:21

      This seems to imply that we need to do God’s will to be saved, which could incorrectly lead to a works Gospel. But taken in tension with Romans 10:9, I think that this balances a formulaic approach to salvation that often results from Romans 10:9… it’s not just saying words that makes you saved…

      So again maybe I was saved, but it’s not my saying words that makes me saved, it is by the Grace of God:

      “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” – Eph 2:8-9

      So standing where I am today, and looking back, perhaps I was saved, and I actually have some real confidence that perhaps I was, because I have confidence in the Grace of God… however, I don’t think I was a Christian. Again with the semantics, so let me define:

      Christian = A Christ follower, empowered by the Gospel of Grace.
      So if you can agree with the way I am defining a Christian, then you can see by my post, why I couldn’t really call myself a Christian. Christ was not my goal, but when I rolled away my stone, and examined my heart, I was really following my own dreams and desires, and trying to use a distorted gospel, as a means to my own end.

      So perhaps I was saved, and now am just moving into a deeper maturity of that salvation… but either way, I don’t need to hold on to any past experiences, and define them in any way, because today I can stand before you assured of my salvation, because I can plant my stake, marking the territory of this newly impassioned soul. I can look back at the journey of the past few years and say, wow, thank you God for your grace working and renewing my life, and bringing your kingdom of righteousness, peace and joy. Thank you for loosing the chains of bondage of sin in my life…

      And this I can articulate with clarity, that I know that I know him! And how did I come to know him? By actually seeing the glorious gospel good news in a real and relevant way for the first time in my life.

      This is why I want to talk about the Gospel… why I can’t stop thinking about the Gospel, why I am finally sharing the Gospel with others: “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”.

      So if that’s what the Gospel is, and I had my own messed up Gospel that I believed in… was I saved? Maybe… but that is not the point I am trying to make here.

  3. It’s beyond semantics – it’s about LIFE, yielding, transformation, etc. Is it happening or not? And if not, why not?

    Personally I hold tenaciously to the basic tenents (yes, orthodox Christian theology) but not to the point that this replaces a genuine conversion and personal relationship with Christ – which is what the Tenents are supposed to lead to.

    • Thanks for the thought Pat!

      And the highlighted word “LIFE” there. I love the conversion analogy of walking in the light vs abiding in darkness. When you have the light in you, the darkness has to flee, you can see clearly, fear fades away and you can walk with assurance!

      What an amazing message we have for the world. I used to think that the Gospel was ineffective for middle class North America, because everybody was just fine!

      Now I wonder how I even survived stumbling in a darkness. (Actually I don’t, it was the generous grace of God sustaining me despite myself) And I see just how succinctly even well-off Canadians with everything going great on the surface, deep down need the empowering work of the Gospel of Grace to just make it to tomorrow.

  4. Pingback: A Sinful Faith | thisisyourworship

  5. Pingback: 25 Years in Church and Not a Christian | HCS Learning Commons Newsletter | Scoop.it

  6. Because, this is in fact a form of procrastination at this point I will be brief (for me). Richard you stated that you were “curious as to how people first come to encounter the Gospel in a truly transformational way.” So I will just address that. I came to faith in the Bible because I could not defeat it. As a young man (and agnostic) I decided that I was going to visit different religious organizations and question their belief system, origins and so forth. I actually made a list of questions, and after visiting the various faiths made a chart comparing the similarities and differences. These questions included things like who created us, what are we asked to do, what happens when we die, how did this revelation come to man, and is their historical documentation for your claims? Well I rejected pretty much everything. I was starting to think that we were created by ancient Aliens..haha.
    Anyway I was attending University and working part time to pay the bills. I knocked on a door in the hopes of getting a job to lay some concrete. The fellow at the other end wanted me to work on a Sunday. I would not, he became angry, we argued about working on Sunday, he called me a zealot and some other things, asked me to wait, stormed into the house returned with a Bible and told me to read it. If I did he promised I would get the Job.
    What??? I know. I returned to my truck not knowing what to think (other than “I’m not getting that job”). The oddest thing happened though. I did read the Bible, and I tested it. Nebuchadnezzar,never existed right.. wrong he did. Jesus is there any proof. Yep, sure is. What about Moses, there is proof there too, crazy. Hmm what else can I find… I poked and prodded, that book is solid. I visited pastors and Christians, not many really had much in the way of answers I am afraid. I found quite a lot of shock from these institutions that I would be so bold as to ask questions like “You believe in the Trinity huh, prove it.” Often I never received a return call.
    So what happened? A few things. I met my future wife and her very stubborn mother (who I know more than disapproved of the long haired heavy metal listening agnostic that questioned EVERYTHING dating her daughter). She did what she could and I was introduced to a pastor, Bill Keyes, (an amazing man) who not only listened, but encouraged me to question him on everything, even during service if I needed clarification or found a contradiction. I am not sure he knew what he was asking for.
    Regardless, I received answers that lead from a cerebral foundation. However, that faith only became real when I noticed an indwelling and a change in my attitude towards studying the Bible and listening to His Word. There were no lights or big TaDa happenings. I was no longer challenging as much, because I knew I could trust His Word. When you know you can trust you allow your self to be vulnerable and I began to form connection. Now I agree with your statement that you had to come to a realization that not only was the Bible true and that God had come to dwell with us, die for us and reconcile our sinful nature. But that another act made my faith real.
    I now understand that although I might be able to show truth through the Bible I cannot complete God’s work to bring others to salvation. I need the Holy Spirit and His voice and movement as the empowering force to soften hard hearts. While I may point to a cerebral understanding of the Bible’s historical and logistical mastery and thus rationalize my faith in that manner, this would in fact be a very shallow faith. I needed to have a faith in something that had faith in me, that invested in me, and when I put forth the effort built a relationship with me.
    When I attended church and people would sing, I used to cringe mumbling the words waiting for the meat. Now I feel, and understand. It is so difficult to express because this relationship I have is inhuman, unlike anything else. So when I speak in this manner, those who lack such a feeling and understanding think I am speaking to myself or to the air. I will not be able to convince them with mere words, or by my own power. When did I come to realize I was a Christian? When I realized I had been transformed, not while I was being transformed. When I could claim to be one while my metal head friends laughed and mocked my belief (generally the most accepting people bar none I have ever known, they might given me a hard time but they never rejected me).
    I have always felt like Thomas wanting to put my hand in the side to “prove” that it is so. It is ironic that God, the Holy Spirit dwells in us then. He is here with us, and now when the worship portion of the service occurs I dance with my daughter. I do not need to put my hand in the flesh, God had placed Himself in us!
    Just because I feel it prudent I will include the verse from 2 Timothy 1 referencing the Holy Spirit within us.
    “8Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God,9who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity,10but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,11for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher.12For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.13Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.14Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.”
    Remember I said I would be brief…
    Blessings,
    Ryan Titley

    • Thanks so much for sharing your testimony here Ryan. It’s always amazing to hear the stories of how God builds faith in us, and one day we come to realize that He has truly captured our heart.

      I can personally identify with the “cringing” at the singing. There is a song we used to sing in our church called “My first love”… and to be honest, I couldn’t stand it. I felt it was cheesy musically, and campy in the lyrics. I was always faking the smile, even when playing the song myself being part of the band.

      An amazing way to describe the transformation happening in my life personally (and many others around me are identifying moments where God has done the same for them… which is cool) is that his love found me. And now I can’t stop singing… the amazing weight of God’s love has truly grabbed ahold of me, and in the joy, I can’t stop singing… it’s bursting forth. I think of the old hymn… ‘and the things of earth, will go strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace”. Circumstances can’t seem to alter what I can only describe as a well of joy, bubbling up and overflowing.

      And one of the songs, I can’t help but sing? “My First Love!” In fact, I got to lead that song in HCS chapel yesterday, with my siblings backing me up, and it was amazing! I realized in singing the lyrics, it’s his torrential downpour of love, that changes our hearts because of his irresistible grace.

      So I gotta blog… I have to try to articulate what God has done in me.

      Thanks again for sharing Ryan!

  7. After 23 years of a struggle pretty much exactly as you described, I stopped going to church.

    Rather than feeling guilty, or that I was missing something, I felt more complete and happy than I ever had.

    And at 28 I still do. In fact, each year has been better than the previous.

    Leaving church and Christianity filled the hole in my heart, like nothing ever would.

    I now know many people who have left church in a similar way and all of them say the same thing : we’re all happier and more complete than ever.

    I hope that some day that this happiness and… freedom.. (yes, freedom. Actual freedom).. can be yours someday, too.

    Mat.

    • Hi Matthew, thank you for being honest, and sharing your experience. I am curious because I felt that I was at the place where I [also] wished I could just walk away from it all, but I seemed to fall off the fence the other way than you.

      I am extremely interested to find out what hole was filled, and what did you fill it with?

  8. Hi Matt. I read your story with keen interest. If you are in Kelowna I would love to buy you a coffee sometime and hear your story in more detail. Maybe it will answer some questions for me. You see, I can’t imagine having been rescued by Jesus’ great love and grace from the punishment we deserve, being set free, made complete in Him and given an abundant life and yet not be absolutely thrilled / amazed / grateful. etc. And church, yes with all its shortcomings, still we are the most blessed people on earth to be given the honor and privilege of being part of His Kingdom, Church, Bride.

    So, because I am a creature of curiosity:) I would love to hear your perspective and feelings. Are you in Kelowna? Want to get together and share?

    Pat (patguerra@gmail.com or ph 250 899 1577)

  9. Pingback: My Testimony of Christ’s Grace for this Depraved Soul – Part 1 | thisisyourworship.com

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