Today's blog will be a little longer than ususal, but please bear with me...
Like many Christians in my generation, I was raised in the Church in a time when the spiritual atmosphere focused a lot on rule-keeping. Fortunately, (or not so fortunately, depending on one's point of view) the list of glaringly inappropriate behaviors was fairly short. It took comparatively little effort to avoid involvement in those activities, and if we were successful, many other things could sort of slip by unnoticed. Dancing was definitely out, but gossip was tolerated. Drinking and gambling were out, but racist attitudes were tolerated. Smoking and movie-going were out, but TV at home was O.K. The rule-keeping thing was not always rational, or, in some cases, even biblical.
But a pre-occupation with rules was even more prevalent in my parents' generation. By the time I came along, things had actually started to loosen up a bit. But there was still enough of it to put the fear of God into me as a kid growing up. I know it was well-intentioned, but like I said, it wasn't always rational, and it certainly wasn't always consistent. Whatever we may think of the Jews in Jesus' day, at least they took their legalism seriously. They had rules against virtually everything you can imagine--hundreds of laws that went beyond Scripture--and they worked hard at enforcing them. I wonder what it must have been like for a kid growing up then.
I was a teenager with just the beginning of a relationship with God. I really had no desire to be a bad kid or a "wild child," but I was still enough of a teenager to know that I didn't want to keep all the rules. The Church's rules were adult-imposed rules, and like so many kids, I resisted them. But my church had a strategy for dealing with potential delinquents like me. I was led to believe (thankfully not by my parents) that since God is holy and cannot tolerate sin in His presence, if I were to die with some unconfessed sin in my life, or if Jesus should return before I dealt with that unconfessed sin, I would be in danger of not being admitted to heaven. I could be a Christian, but if I told a lie and died before I could repent of it, supposedly I would be excluded from heaven. That's a really scary thought, and my constant state of imperfection caused me to make a fairly regular appointment with the Lord (usually at the conclusion of the Sunday evening service) so that I could get my passport to heaven once again stamped "acceptable."
Don't misunderstand me. Confessing sin when prompted by the Holy Spirit is always a good thing. But looking back, I'm just not sure that the pressure I felt was always coming from God. And, the notion that in the event of my untimely death, any unconfessed sin would keep me out of heaven...good grief! Fear was a frequently used motivator in attempting to control youthful behavior.
Since those memorable days of yesteryear, my wife and I have raised three children. I'm the first to admit that during those teen years kids are frequently not very receptive to calm reasoning and logical arguments. There are times when a good healthy dose of fear might be in order to motivate compliance. But, I don't think using questionable theology is a good way to bring about that kind of fear. It's quite a challenge to think of God as a loving Father if you're living in more or less perpetual fear of Him. When our children disregarded our parental guidance and made poor choices that were sometimes very destructive, it was heartbreaking. But we never stopped loving them because of their unacceptable behavior. The relationship was strained, but not broken. Later, when they realized their mistakes, and apologized for them, we were always ready to forgive them and restore the relationship. Our children didn't always agree with us, but they did love us, and they knew that we loved them.
Over the years, life has thrown many painful curves at my family and me. There have been times of great sorrow, and times of terrible fear and uncertainty. I have seen other people's lives come unravelled when facing similar circumstances, and I don't hesitate to say that it's because of God's love and grace that I'm able to write these words today. In those terribly dark times I have experienced the peace and comfort that can only be explained by God. Long ago I managed to leave the perceptions of my youth behind. When my world seemed to be falling apart all around me, I was not afraid to run to the Lord. I had no fear that He might turn me away from His presence because of some lapse in judgment on my part. No. In those times I heard Him say, "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest."
I've fallen short of God's expectations many times in my life, and, sadly, I still have those times when I let Him down. I regret those times very much, and I would never try to make light of them. But, I regret those times because of my love for the Lord and my gratitude for all He's done in my life. He deserves better that what I've sometimes given Him, but I know He's willing to forgive me. My regrets aren't tied to a fear of punishment. My regrets are tied to my love for Jesus--a love that has sometimes offended and disappointed Him. If He were not so wonderfully patient, He would have given up on me a long time ago. But I'm still here, and I'm still following Jesus, grateful for the many times He's been willing to give me another chance. My passport to heaven, so to speak, was stamped a long time ago with the word "forgiven." I have admittedly followed the Lord imperfectly, but from the day that I bowed before Him until the present there has never been a question as to who I am and whose I am in Christ.
And now another of life's curves has been thrown our way. Another challenge that has immediately driven me to my knees. The words of an old hymn have quickly come to mind: "O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come..." It has only been a week since we learned that my daughter-in-law has breast cancer. This very special young woman has been a wonderful wife to our son, and an outstanding mother to their two little boys. We have thanked the Lord so many times for her, and this news has been so painful for all of us. That word, "cancer," can immediately strike fear into the bravest hearts, but once again the Lord I love--the Lord who is so approachable--quickly spoke to my heart: "My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." It's a great comfort to know that He cares; He's intimately involved in our lives and this did not take Him by surprise. We're trusting that this cancer was detected early and that her treatment will be successful. But as the family stands together in the face of this challenge, united in Christ and in mutual love, we know that we are not alone. The One who made us and gave Himself for us is right in our midst.