Nothing breaks my heart more than meeting someone who invested years of their life in religious service and for some reason never discovered how real God is and how deeply he loves them.
The latest research by Josh Packard, author of Church Refugees, shows there are thirty-five million Americans who have left their religious institution and abandoned their belief in God at the same time. I’m fine with them leaving. Religious institutions can often impede our spiritual growth rather than encourage it. Nearly thirty-one million other Americans have left their religious institution and continued to explore what it means to know God and share his life in the world.
But for those who left not knowing a God worth loving, my heart goes out to you. That means despite all the all the meetings you attended, prayers you offered, and good deeds you have done, you never came face to face with the most endearing Presence in the universe. You never recognized his voice wooing you, or recognized his hand at work in your life.
I understand why you would miss that. Insecure religious leaders who try to rule with an iron fist or simply don’t know him themselves, and legalistic religious traditions that substitute rules and rituals for helping connect people to the transcendent God, can be barriers to the very faith people want to explore. Some say you can’t have God without religion; it’s a package deal. If you want to be one of his you have to jump through someone’s hoops to prove your sincerity.
But those who say so are usually trying to build or sustain an institution for their own purposes. It isn’t true. While some congregations can be very helpful in helping people discover God’s reality, many others are a deterrent. Jesus didn’t start an institution, or a religion, for that matter. He came to reveal to us what it would be like to live in his Father’s reality—how his love would change us and how our loving others in the world would let his kingdom unfold around us.
That’s why the Apostle Paul didn’t try to win people with “wise and persuasive words”, because he didn’t want peoples faith to “rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” If your spiritual passion was only based on following someone else’s teachings it wasn’t meant to last anyway. It was always going to fail you.
So I’m looking for those of you that it failed. Everything I’ve done for the past twenty years have sought to help people not become one of these thirty-five million people. Religion will fail us, but God never will. If I could sit down to lunch with any of these thirty-five million people, this is what I would want you to know:
- Realize religious obligation is a conformity-based system that operates by fear and manipulation and that’s why it could not promote the love of God growing in your heart. But don’t give up. Walking with God as he really is, is the greatest treasure life offers.
- Separate the failures of religion and religious leaders from the reality of God. Jesus did. The Pharisees had God wrong, which is why they didn’t understand his love for sinners or his refusal to conform to their traditions. It is why they killed him.
- Consider the possibility that you were given a disfigured view of God especially if you’ve come to see him as an angry tyrant wanting to rule the world through terror. He is actually a gracious Father who loves you more than anyone else on this planet ever has or ever will.
- Recognize where God is already reaching out to you. That voice inside your head that invites you away from the anxieties of this life is his drawing you to himself. Those transcendent moments when you knew you were not alone in the universe and that Someone endearing holds you and this world in his hands were his doing, nudging you toward the relationship he desires with you.
- Please know that God has not been the cause of your best friend dying, or financial difficulties, and your disappointments in life. He wasn’t punishing you or them for some broken place in their lives. This world is out of sync with its Creator and the effects of that touch us all with sin, sickness, and pain. God is not its cause. He’s the rescuer in the story, inviting us away from the mayhem and into the knowing of him.
- What if you knew there has never been a day when God has been ashamed of you or disappointed in you as his child? He doesn’t love every choice you’ve ever made, but he’s always there to invite you to freedom and life in him.
- Every morning when you wake up ask him to reveal himself to you and if need by to send you someone who can help you know him.
All that Jesus said was true. There is a place for you to be at home in God, and for God to be at home in you.
If you don’t know a God of love and affection, you might enjoy Wayne’s book, He Loves Me. If you want to consider other options for engaging the church Jesus is building in the world, you might find his Finding Church helpful.