I didn’t know it. I thought I was a good little Christian. I was doing all the right things...checking all the boxes. I was getting all the pats on the back, and the “she’s such a great example among her peers”.
But I was still lost. Only now it was worse because I thought I wasn’t.
One day, I remember hearing the first “sermon” I’d ever heard about God’s affection for me. I italicized sermon because it was actually a short lesson at a Mother’s Day banquet that we were attending. It was given by a women, which back in that day and in my church was definitely not preaching. But that woman was preaching Gospel and it was the first time I remember ever hearing that God loved me...I mean, He really had affection for me.
I was so lost that I didn’t believe it. God loved rules. He loved rules being followed perfectly. He loved perfect behavior and outward holiness. If I couldn’t meet these requirements, I wasn’t acceptable.
The Bible stories I’d heard back in that day always pointed out the great feats and great faith of the people they were about. No mention of their dire and utter failures along the way. Oh, unless we talked about Gideon or Jonah or Thomas...but, of course those were only examples of people we shouldn’t emulate.
So condemnation became “the voice of God”, and anytime He would offer His kindness or compassion freely to me, I would immediately reject it. That had to be my own flesh, trying to excuse my weaknesses, trying to entice me away from the path of holiness.
Where would I be without that condemnation anyway? That voice that bellowed that I needed to do better at serving others, even if it meant laying myself as a doormat for their feet. That I needed to read my Bible longer and kneel in prayer for more hours. That I needed to remove more enjoyment from my life and carry as many crosses as possible. That I needed to give up all aspects of my personality so that God could actually use me.
If I let go of that voice, wouldn’t I slip into godlessness? If I believed that God loved me unconditionally and that Jesus’ sacrifice covered every bit of my screw up and that He was pleased with me simply because I believed and that there was nothing more I could do to draw His affection, wouldn’t that lead me to laziness and ineffectiveness? Wouldn’t it make me like that person over there who I enjoyed judging for their less stellar behavior or service than mine?
When I think of all the fruitless years that I spent protecting this religious spirit, it makes me want to scream. NO FRUIT. I was fruitless. Lost. Thinking all the while that I was sacrificial and holy and would reap some kind of great reward for all my righteousness.
Thankfully, the grace of God wouldn’t let me stop searching for what was missing. Why didn’t I have joy, peace, or patience? Why couldn’t I be gentle, kind, and good no matter how hard I tried? How was it that self-control and faithfulness eluded me often? I mean, I could speak in tongues, but what good was it doing me or anyone else?
It pains me to think about how many Christians in the church are where I was. That place where they might stand before God and say “But we checked all the boxes. We changed so much of our outward behavior. We spent our whole lives reading the Word, studying the Word, praying the right way, and going to church”. Yet, He will say “Depart from me. I never knew you.”
Why? What is missing? Why isn’t religion enough?
Because it misses the entire point.
The love of God...His mercy...literally saved my life. When I learned that I Corinthian 13 isn’t just some pie in the sky list of things we need to be doing. It is a description of the character of God. When I learned that the kind, merciful, compassionate voice was His voice. When I realized that I could spend my entire life doing things FOR God and one mess up destroyed my self righteousness completely. It was only that sacrifice on the cross that gave me hope. And only that sacrifice I can claim when I stand before God one day. SO. MUCH. LOVE.
And you know what? The freedom that came with kicking the voice of condemnation out of my life didn’t cause me to slip into sin. As a matter of fact, realizing the deep love and affection that my Father has for me makes me want to do everything to please Him. Living and serving out of love has finally begun to produce fruit in me...a little of which you are reading right now.
Love makes me want to learn more about God. I read my Bible for knowledge and instruction now instead of out of duty. Love makes me want to tell everyone around me. I give witness to my faith now because I want the whole world to know this kind of love. Love makes me stronger through the trials, even the ones from my own mistakes. I am assured that God will never leave me...He is with me...and He is amazing enough to work even those worst things for good. Love makes me enjoy even the little things in daily life. I see His goodness and His handiwork and it fills me with joy. Love makes me so much more of the unique person that God created me to be.
And condemnation still chases me down, y’all. Whether a book or a sermon or an Instagram post from a superior Christian who is trapped in the same cycle of sin that I was, I feel my tendency to long for Egypt. Into these times, the Holy Spirit whispers “Be not entangled again in that yoke of bondage. Whom the Son sets free is free indeed.”
And oh what a freedom it is to be found in His love!