journey post 15: My Old Man in the Sky (The grammar school of freedom, Part II)
Self-righteous, judgmental, legalistic, hypocritical, irrelevant jerk.
These are strong words, heard loudly and often, especially in speaking about evangelical Christians. Some Christians simply dismiss such talk as “persecution for Jesus’ sake.” But thoughtful Christians—and many non-Christians—recognize that those words are not without validity, that those broadly termed “evangelicals” do not quite fit the picture of salt and light that Jesus had in mind, that they are not known for reflecting him by love for one another in sacrificial servanthood.
A popular pastor in Manhattan, Tim Keller, has gone so far as to say that the “greatest hindrance to people becoming Christian is other Christians.” He’s not alone: he cited G.K. Chesterton to the same effect. I ran across a similar quote from Gandhi. Gandhi spent years in Great Britain when younger in the company of Christians. Gandhi got much of his inspiration for his nonviolent strategy from Jesus. But he was not treated very well in “Christian” Britain. Among his words are these stingers: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”*
Gandhi…the way you might picture him, and as he was as a young man
I’m not here to bash Christians or defend them. I am one. I am here to explore why, not long ago, the words at the top could have referenced me…. Well, maybe not “jerk.” I was “courteous and kind,” and other Boy Scout words, but inside the heart (the thing God sees), those words really did apply.
Previously, I mentioned that I set myself up to buy into a legalistic version of evangelical Christianity while reading C.S. Lewis on the “law of human nature,” the moral law in our conscience. But I also made a point of saying that it was not the Church that made me a legalist. I arrived at the Church door with my legalism already in place. That’s why I’m writing about it now, before continuing with Lewis.
What made me a legalist? I’d better define the word. The term is thrown around a lot among Christians and by others to refer to them. The word refers to a person who strictly adheres to some law or moral code, to the letter of the law rather than its spirit. In a religious context, it generally is used in two ways: First, it refers to a person whose reliance (faith) in attaining salvation is based on how well they keep the law. Secondly, it refers to a person who judges conduct—their own or others—by the law. The Pharisees, who clashed with Jesus so much, have given their very name to the idea behind legalism. Their conflicts with Jesus were about man-made tradition and performance-oriented minutia used to make themselves (and their followers) acceptable. They missed God’s intention entirely.
A Pharisee (portrayed by actor Anthony Quinn)
Talk with a legalist for long, and you’ll see that they strive to look good in their own eyes by comparing themselves with others. (I was a “kind” legalist, but still l tried to justify myself.) Legalists may feel smug about their ability to do what their law demands. Yet, since even the legalist is human, there will be times when, as in Lewis’ explanation of the great “unease,” they know the imperfection within.
Another way to describe a legalist is as a person with a performance mindset—a person who is seeking acceptance with God, others, or even themselves by their behavior. You may know an adult child who lives their life seeking to earn the approval of a parent. No matter what, no matter how well, it’s never quite good enough. That verdict may be only in the mind, may not be conscious—but it’s there.
That was me. Only, I didn’t know it. I could have debated you up and down how I was a Christian, saved by “grace” (a free gift from God), received by faith. Yet, in the quiet moments, I too had this “great unease.” In those moments I wondered whether, if I looked over my shoulder, would I see his smile or that critical eye? Like anyone else, I wanted to hear a “well done!” but expected a “not good enough.”
So how did I get that way? For some 35 years, I never once thought myself a legalist. I did begin to see my performance mindset clearly about eight years ago. I’d long known that I tended to be a “people pleaser,” i.e., I tried to please people by my behavior, but I figured that’s just the way I am. Then I saw how much a cloud of uncertainty hung over my relationship with God: it would never have occurred to me that God was pleased with me. Oh, I knew that I would go to heaven because Jesus paid for my sin, but I assumed I would become a permanent occupant of some back seat, some lower shelf, some divine dog house (no humor intended), while God enjoyed spending time with the others. Why I thought this way remained a mystery to me until, a couple years ago, I had to write a story for a writer’s conference.
I wrote about my relationship with my dad, and how I had grown up believing he favored my older brother over me. My dad died when I was 13, just a few weeks after my brother left to join the navy.
At the conference, the story was returned with this comment: “You’re flying over at 10,000 feet, looking down on someone else”—a detailed snapshot without feeling. That night, I fell asleep praying and awoke remembering a discovery: a drawer filled with family photos. I was six or seven. One photo stood out: my brother, Fred, perhaps a year and a half old, sitting on my dad’s lap, pecking away on a typewriter, my dad’s obvious delight captured in time, inscribed in my mind.
I kept going back to the drawer looking for a picture I was sure must be there: the one with just me and my dad. I never found it.
The hurt from that “missing picture” hit me like an unexpected wave. I didn’t exist to my dad, it was obvious, evidenced by him dying shortly after my brother left. That hurt was buried in the baggage I carried when I became a Christian. I see clearly now how that perception (true or not) tied in with my performance mindset, my compulsion to please, to prove myself better than my brother, and I’ve spent much of my life trying to figure out who I am. Little wonder that, when we learned how God the Father has adopted us as his children, it made no impression: research confirms intuition that children gain their initial understanding of God from their parents’ model, especially the fathers. My model was distant, seemingly uninvolved, not much caring, probably disapproving.
Lo and behold, this is the very picture that most Americans—even most evangelical Christians—have of God: the old man in the sky, the judge who sits on his throne in heaven. Jesus may be my friend, but God is my judge. That is, indeed, great unease.
Jerry Bridges, respected Christian author and discipler now in his 80s, has pointed out that, in his experience, most evangelical Christians live on what he calls a “performance treadmill.” They are sure of heaven but unsure of God’s acceptance. The more committed Christians, he notes, run faster on the treadmill, feeling they are falling behind. They are looking over their shoulders, looking for a smile but expecting that critical eye….
That was me. And that was my old man in the sky.
*http://thinkexist.com/quotes/mahatma_gandhi/ (accessed 2/19/11)