In his book, On Writing, Stephen King opens with a section he calls his C.V. It is filled with short anecdotes about his life and how he grew up and what led him to be a writer. At one point he mentions that he believes in God but has "no use for organized religion.” I highlighted this line in the book because I kind of wonder what he means by it – what anyone means when they say that. The internet will tell you that organized religion by definition is, "religion in which belief systems and rituals are systematically arranged and formally established." But if you believe in God on some level, well then I would imagine you might want to talk about that sometime. And if you talk about that and have any really good thing to say about it, other people might want to join in. And when you have a group of more than about 20 people coming together to talk about anything, well then you have to kind of, well, organize it. What’s this going to look like? Is it a meeting? Who gets to talk at the meeting? There has to be a beginning, a middle, and an end to this gathering so what will each contain? Are there rules for the meeting? Any organization has rules. So there have to be rules for membership. Well then all of a sudden it looks like you’re organized - you've got rituals arranged and established. So you're gathering to talk about God and there are rules for doing so.
So if that’s what they mean, if that’s what people have no use for, then maybe what they really dislike are the rules. Maybe you just don’t like the rules and rituals put in place by these groups of people that gather to talk about God. But one thing you might want to consider is that, if you find yourself fleeing from all “organized religion” perhaps you're fleeing because you don’t want anyone telling you what you can and can’t do. Maybe you want to be God and you believe, instead, in yourself. You can tell yourself what to do – you don’t have to go to an organized meeting where they might press on you - on your ideas about what's right - or tell you that you’re wrong about this or that. In speaking about a critic of Christianity, G.K. Chesterton said, “The restraints of Christians saddened him simply because he was more hedonist than a healthy man should be.” Perhaps you are that man and the restraints sadden you - they press on you just a little too much. E. Paul Hovey said, "Men do not reject the Bible because it contradicts itself, but because it contradicts them."
Christianity will always press on you and me because we are not God and we will be constantly sanctified - shaped, molded, growing - in some way until Heaven. I wrongly believed that becoming a Christian meant you were done - like it was this one time moment and from then on you were ready for Heaven and everything was easy and there was no sin and no struggle, only perfection. Like maybe we just went to church because we wanted to glory in our perfection in Jesus. But the truth is I wasn’t perfect – I was a mess (and still am! Ask my husband!) And I didn’t know how to wrestle with my sin. I didn’t know about sanctification at all. I didn’t know that the whole of the Christian life is more of a two steps forward, one step back kind of deal. Belief in the gospel is an everyday need, not a one time prayer. I missed that in Sunday School. I think they left that part out.
So, if I grew up in church and didn't understand it, then I wonder about people who didn't grow up in church. When people say they don't like organized religion I wonder what gospel they've heard in their life that has made them flee. Because if the gospel is good news (and it is!), then it shouldn’t make you flee, it should make you cling to it, white knuckle death grip on those crutches carrying you through til glory. And if it’s not, then why not? What have you missed?
A lot of people have too many doubts to trust a god other than themselves. They'll tell you, "I just feel a lot of doubt about _____." Well, welcome to the club. We all feel doubts sometimes. I listened to a sermon on the plane ride home last month and he said it’s okay to have doubts, but instead of sitting in them, you must doubt your doubts and ask Jesus for clarity. It’s okay to have doubts. It’s okay to not get it. Jesus’s disciples walked with him in the flesh for three whole years every single day and still didn’t get it. It's what you do with your doubts that matters. Criticize them. Turn them over in your hand and ask why they're there. Dig down to the roots of your doubts and find out what it is you really believe. Don't just trust your doubts because then you end up believing in them over believing in Jesus.
Growing up in Christian circles and working in a church for several years and also just being a Christian myself, I find that a lot of times we have doubts because we think we can control God with our behavior and then one day it just doesn't work anymore. We follow Jesus and think it’s all great because everything is going just how we planned, and then one day it’s not and we’re left blindsided because we thought we were in control of this bargain. We start to doubt because the god we trusted didn't trust our plan. Whoa, whoa, whoa, Jesus. Who do you think you are? Didn’t you see how I tithed my whole life? Didn’t you see how I helped that homeless guy back there? Didn’t you see me when I went to church every week? Didn't you see how I always obeyed my parents? Hello? Didn’t you see my perfect family? Things were going great for us according to my plan, so what gives?
I believed for years that I could control God with my behavior. In 2011 I wrote,
“For YEARS and years I have been pleading with God. Begging and pleading with him for peace and comfort and all the freedom he offers. All the things he says he’s going to offer and give to those who love him. I do love him. I have loved him and tried to follow him, sought after him, tried to point kids toward him, given my money and time to him, prayed my guts out to him, read about him, tried to know him and understand him, listened for him, tried to listen to him, had discussions about him, cried out to him. AND YET, I feel I’ve been drowning in sadness and unmet desires and broken dreams.”
I believed that if I did all this then God would owe me - that somehow I could put God in my debt. Why the unmet dreams if I've done all this work for you, God? If that’s not bargaining with the Lord, I don’t know what is. But the thing is, God doesn’t do bargains. He doesn’t take negotiations. There’s nothing you have that he doesn’t already own. What could you possibly give him? He made it. Out of nothing. The breath in your lungs. The ability to read these words. These are things of God.
So I realized it’s not about actions and behaviors and bargaining chips. It’s about Jesus. It's about every person, circumstance, trial, or victory leading you to more of Jesus. I just wrote about this in one of my last posts. It’s not about your story or what you want or what you think or feel. It's not about the rules you follow or don't follow. It’s about Jesus and your choice is if you’re going to join in on the epic adventure he has written for you or pull back against it.
I was journaling on that same plane ride and I wrote,
I hope you know at the end of the day it’s really just you and Jesus. He’ll bring people into your life and you’ll invite people in along the way. Some won’t always stay. Some for a season, others a lifetime. But at the end of it all it’s just about you and Jesus.
What you believe about him, what you say about him, what you think about him, these are the things that are going to matter at the end of it all. It will shape your decisions, your thoughts, your actions, the leanings of your heart. What you think about Jesus will be the only thing that matters when you die. So you can pass on "organized religion" and that’s fine. But what are you going to do with Jesus?
Stephen King's book about the craft of writing was really pretty good. I think he wanted me to get more out of it about writing than about his one sentence worth of thoughts on religion, but for some reason that's where my heart was stuck. So he doesn’t believe in religious rules but neither does Jesus, so that’s pretty good news for all of us – for him, for the doubters among us, for me, for you. Oh, there’s value in the gathering of believers, yes. But forget the rules. Jesus just wants you, not your good behavior. He's after your heart.