Before becoming a follower of Christ, I was skeptical and critical of anything I considered to be “religious.” And, because I thought those calling themselves Christians were more intolerant and hypocritical than other religions, I was especially critical of Christianity, or at least what I naively thought was Christianity.
I wasn’t an atheist; I believed in a god, but my god wasn’t a judgmental god like I believed the Christian God to be. I cannot blame my negative attitude towards Christianity on my parent’s because they were two of the most non-judgmental people I knew. Nor could I blame my cynicism on the church I grew up in because I rarely went to church as a teenager (when I formed these opinions) and, when I did go, I didn’t really listen to the sermon. I was probably drawing pictures on the church bulletin or daydreaming, which is what teenagers did to “tune-out” before cell phones came along.
The truth is that I had formed a belief about an impersonal non-judgmental “anything goes” god because that was the type of god that suited the lifestyle I was living.
But, at the age of 21, while staying in a hotel for a week, I did the unthinkable – for the first time in my life, I actually read the Bible!
One night, while searching in vain for something to watch on TV, I noticed a Gideon Bible on the dresser next to the TV. I don’t remember what motivated me to turn the TV off and pick up the Bible; maybe I was looking for more reasons to ridicule Christianity, but I hope it wasn’t something that shallow.
I began reading the Gospel of Matthew and quickly discovered that the Jesus of the Bible was nothing like the pious preacher-man that I had created in my confused mind. The Biblical Jesus seemed to hate religion more than I did. And, unlike me, He actually knew why He hated religion and could coherently articulate His disgust of all things religious.
He told the religious leaders that they were, “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “fools;” He said that they were, “unmerciful,” “unjust,” “faithless,” “self-indulgent” and “self-righteous.”
I was cheering him on like a 12 year old boy cheering for his favorite superhero as he’s beating-up the bad guys. Then, it suddenly occurred to me – I was one of those bad guys! In my anti-religious zeal, I had become everything that Jesus accused the religious people of being; everything I claimed to despise – I was literally my own worst enemy!
Jesus defined religion as any worldview that “…replaces God’s commands (His word) with their own man-made teachings.” (Matt 15:9 NLT) His overall message was that religion doesn’t draw people closer to God, as it claims to do; it misrepresents who God is and therefore leads people away from God. Because it masquerades as hope (for this life and eternal life), religion is the ultimate tool of deception. Something the Apostle Paul later warned new Christians about;
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete…” (Colossians 2:8-10 NASB)
I did not commit to follow Jesus (“God’s commandments”) that day; I was (and still am) stubborn so it took me a few years of “research” (living for myself) before choosing to live according to God’s ways. But, I did steal the Gideon Bible and continued to read it over those 2 years (don’t judge me; I made a donation to Gideon’s a few years later when I got a conscience).
Over the next two years of searching for truth, I read my hot Gideon Bible and other books on faith and religion, but never stepped foot in any church. I was more skeptical of so-called “organized religion” than I was before reading the Bible.
Then I met a man at work that, with his thick black beard and gentle demeanor, looked and acted like I pictured Jesus or one of the Apostles looking and acting like. He was a quiet man in his early thirty’s and he knew the Bible better than anyone I’d ever met. And, like the Jesus, he associated with “sinners” and even the worst of them liked and respected him.
I began asking him questions about religion and the Bible and he gave me answers that helped to clear up my spiritual confusion. I also asked him what kind of church he attended and he answered me without elaborating. I was surprised that he didn’t try to convince me that his denomination had the correct doctrine and all others were mistaken. His reluctance to build-up his denomination and tear-down others caused me to think that maybe his particular denomination was the “right one.”
The following Sunday morning, I got out the Yellow Pages (for younger readers, that’s a giant phone book) and found the closest church of his denomination. I was reluctant to go in when I drove up and discovered it was just a small storefront church in a strip mall full of boutique shops and restaurants. After sitting in my car for several minutes, I finally decided to venture in.
As it turned out, I was early and the whole congregation (about 15 people) were having a Bible study. I thought about making a run for it, but a man quickly shook my hand and began introducing me to people.
It was a very casual atmosphere; a small group of “normal looking” people sitting with their chairs in a circle drinking coffee and eating donuts discussing the Bible. They asked me to get a cup of coffee and a donut and join them. I reluctantly agreed and nervously poured a cup of coffee and sat down.
Back then I had a difficult time forming a sentence that didn’t include at least one or two cuss words; not that I ever tried to form such a sentence, but I thought cussing might be inappropriate in Sunday school so I was trying really hard to be on my best behavior. I was doing great until I spilled my coffee all over the new carpet. The cuss words spilled out of my mouth quicker than the coffee had spilled out of my Styrofoam cup. I won’t repeat what I said, but sometimes people say SOB instead of saying the actual words like I did that day – not quietly either!
If those people had judged or lectured me about the evils of cursing that day, it would have confirmed my preconceived notions about church people being harsh and judgmental. But they didn’t do any of that; to my surprise, most of them laughed, but not at my spilling coffee or my cussing; I think they were laughing at the shocked “I’m going to hell” look on my face.
The few minutes that followed erased years of negative beliefs about Christians being self-righteous and judgmental. Several people jumped up and got paper towels and cleaned up my mess. The man that introduced me to everyone poured me another cup of coffee. And the Pastor’s wife assured me that it was okay, others have spilled before etc (I wanted to ask her if they cussed too, but I didn’t).
I don’t remember what the Pastor spoke about that Sunday morning 29 years ago, but at the end of the service he asked if anyone would like to come forward and pray with Him and commit to follow Jesus. I looked around at the 15 or so people in the room to see if anyone was going to take him up on his offer, but found that most of them were looking at me. I finally figured it out and accepted his offer.
Today that once-tiny storefront church is a thriving congregation, but I never went back. Not because I was embarrassed about spilling my coffee and cussing in Sunday school, but I began helping a friend run his restaurant on the weekends so for the next several months I didn’t go to church anywhere. But, the commitment I made that day wasn’t just the emotion of the moment; it was real and permanent. I bought a new Bible and began reading it daily, just like I do today. I promised myself that I would believe the Bible over any church’s doctrine that contradicted it. I made this vow to myself because even then I understood that this was the dividing line between genuine Christianity – hope – and hopeless religion!