American Christianity is more cultural than biblical. This is not news for many of us, but it needs to be said until we come to grips with this reality. I’m not saying all Christians in America are cultural Christians. I don’t believe that. But I believe many people who claim to be Christian have a skewed idea of the Christian faith.
My wife and I moved back to our home culture in 2005, the same year a book called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, authored by Christian Smith and Melinda L. Denton. They coined the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) to describe a common form of cultural Christianity that continues to prevail today, even in many people who claim to be evangelical Christians.
There are five principal beliefs incorporated in MTD, but the gist of these beliefs can be summed up by saying—just be a good person. This common form of “Christianity” is a moralistic approach to evangelical Christianity. Back in the early Jesus Movement, we referred to it as works-based religion—trying to be a Christian by your own efforts.
Comedian Bob Newhart has a hilarious skit as a psychiatrist. His therapy was a simple, two-word solution for problems— “Stop it!”
If only solving life’s problems were that simple—to just stop doing something. Well, in some ways it is. But we know that many difficulties in life continue to trouble us after making a confession of faith to follow Jesus.
But why? Why don’t we just stop doing not-such-good things in order to start doing better things? The Apostle Paul addresses this in his letter to the Roman church (Romans 7:15–19). He states our dilemma succinctly—
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. (Romans 7:15)
What got me thinking on this line was my reading in the book of Hebrews. It’s a comprehensive look at how Jesus Christ fulfilled and superseded all that is written in the Old Testament Scriptures.
After remembering the many heroes of faith in Israel’s history, there is a strong exhortation in the next chapter.
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, (Hebrews 12:1)
Under the Old Testament Law, obedience was required, not just expected. But the Law required perfect obedience, which no person can perform (Galatians 3:10–11).
This is the general point of the book of Hebrews—we are to trust in Jesus, not in our own efforts to be good. So, we need to stop trying to be good Christians—as Newhart might say, “Just stop it!” We simply need to walk in the truth of who Jesus is and what He did.
Over the years, I’ve known many Christian believers who try to live as good Christians. When they’re frustrated in their efforts and come to me for advice (as their pastor), I basically tell them —“Stop it!”
Many would say, “But aren’t we to lead lives pleasing to the Lord?” Of course, but we go about it the wrong way. We don’t need to try being good Christians. It’s not an issue of our efforts to be better, to improve our behavior or thought life.
Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)
When we’re focused on improving ourselves or trying hard to be good—we focus on ourselves instead of Jesus.
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, Jesus says we are to deny ourselves if we want to follow Him (Matthew 7:24), not focus on ourselves. He wants us to focus on Him, to put our faith—our trust—in Him, not ourselves.
It’s all about relationship
Being a Christian is not about trying to do better, it’s about being in a relationship with God. The popular saying of the Jesus Movement of the early ’70s was, “It’s not about religion, it’s a relationship.”
Each of my children was born into our family, and although there was some labor on my wife’s part, they did nothing to become our children and do nothing to maintain their place in the family as our children. My children are my children, regardless of their behavior—they just are.
For a quarter of a century, my wife Susan and I worked with abandoned and abused children and young women. Without exception, the most important thing for each of them was being connected to their family. In many cases, they needed a substitute family through adoption. It is amazing how strong the bond between child and parent is.
With the abused girls or young women, Susan and I, along with the extended family at Rainbow Village, became a surrogate family. This was and is important. They knew us as “Mama and Papa” because of the relationship we had and still have with them. This was an important element in their recovery from abandonment and abuse.
The family of God
It works the same way with believers within the Body of Christ—the church community. The church is the extended family of God. It is to be a community where acceptance and forgiveness are found. A place of healing and restoration and nurture and growth—a place of belonging.
If you’re trying hard to be a Christian — stop it! Just be one. Be a child of God who trusts in Him with childlike faith. And remember, no family is perfect—neither is any church community. We just need to fulfill our part in this extended family of God.
What about moving forward in this relationship with the Lord Jesus? Is it possible to just stop it when it comes to our struggle with sin and personal issues? Just as in human life, spiritual growth and development is a process. It requires nutrition, exercise, rest, and other essentials.
Go back and look at these three verses together—Hebrews 12:1–3. Observe them carefully. There are a couple of important keys to running the race and growing in faith, and I’ll try to cover this in another post. Stay tuned!