When it was about the gold star

It seems like yesterday. As soon as I entered the room, my eyes shot over to the wall. There it was. My name on the list with all the other competitors. The battle had lasted for six weeks but that day was my chance to complete my victory, vanquish my enemies, and reign supreme. I just needed one more gold star…

I’ll save you the suspense. I got that sticker and defeated all the other 3rd graders in Mrs Corely’s Sunday school class for the “Books of the Bible” contest. I could say them forwards and backwards in under a minute.

For those of you who grew up in church, I was that annoying kid in your Sunday school class who shouted out every answer, won every Bible drill, and had a collection of gold stars none could match.

If you didn’t grow up in church, I was that annoying church kid in your class at school who saw the world in black and white, was quick to quote Bible verses at you and let you know how you were sinning and where sinners went.

I have spent my whole life in church.  Like pastor and comedian Ted Cunningham, one of our recent speakers for The Great Date Nite, I grew up in an independent, fundamental, premillennial, King James-only, Baptist church.

I don’t want to diminish my upbringing. I’m eternally thankful that my parents were strong, active Christians who raised us in church. They both became Christ followers as adults and were raising their children the best they could. In those years I learned my books of the Bible,  memorized a new verse every week, and we never missed a Sunday morning… or Sunday night… or Wednesday night, etc. In those formative years I learned a lot about the Bible and, in the process, came to know a lot about being judgmental.

Legalism was my game, gold stars my prize, and I quickly became a champion at using my regular Bible reading as a weapon of truth against people rather than a tool to build them up. My competitive nature spurred me on, but there was also a looming sense of guilt and shame if any boxes on my chart were left unchecked.

At times, I still see this in myself and can easily recognize it in others who also grew up in church. Sometimes I recognize it in people who didn’t grow up in church but became Christ followers later as adults. There’s just something about our nature that makes us want to measure ourselves against other people and compare our progress by arbitrary or assumed checklist of what we think a good Christian looks like. The list we want to use is often of our own design and one that places us ahead of everyone else.

Off the chart

Fortunately for me, legalism and fundamentalism are curable afflictions. A great example is the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3:4-14. The truth is, our faith in Christ is not measured on a chart with gold stars. I won’t blame the chart or the teacher. The intent was to develop disciplines of reading, praying, and learning– all of them good and necessary if we are to own our faith and take responsibility for our walk with Christ.

What I needed (and later found) was a new, more honest understanding of my place next to a holy God and the sacrifice of Jesus.  We all suffer from “terminal humanism.” Our frustratingly perishable bodies are naturally bent on self-fulfillment, which is in opposition of God’s design and desire for our lives. It’s a disease that has no cure in this life but there is a medicine to aid our journey.

John Piper, a respected pastor, author and theologian, considers a better understanding on reading the Bible to be “out of desperation for the effects of this heavenly medicine.” He says, “Bible-reading is not a cure for a bad conscience; it’s chemo for your cancer. Legalists feel better because the box is checked. Saints feel better when their blindness lifts, and they see Jesus in the word. Let’s get real. We are desperately sick with worldliness, and only the Holy Spirit, by the word of God, can cure this terminal disease.”

Jesus wisely stated that it’s not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick (Mark 2:17). Likewise, reading scripture was never intended to imply superiority, but brokenness.

We all know how it feels to be sick or have aches and pains. And we all know the relief the right medication can bring. The message contained on the pages of the Bible is the grace-given prescription for our condition, and we should consume it and remind ourselves of it as often as we can.

Tear down the chart

The chart on the wall in Mrs Corley’s class has long been taken down. However, I will still try to read my Bible daily and attend church whenever it’s open. Some days, I’ll take a tiny little vitamin but on others, full-blown chemotherapy is what God has planned.

I’ll be honest,  there are days that dose of medicine gets left on the counter as I rush off to work or return to a home life full of commitments and distractions. There will be missed days. But what I understand now is that my studies, prayer, attendance, service, worship, and gifts are all actually meant to help me. My spiritual life isn’t meant to be put on display as proof that I have it all together. It all works together in a desperate attempt to connect with Jesus and find healing that only He can give. And in return, hopefully I can graciously offer this medicine to other people as I go.

At some point, I realized that there is no checkbox from God’s perspective. None of us could ever do enough to deserve or earn His acceptance and love. That is a gracious gift given the day I accepted His salvation and that grace can never be earned with a gold star.

Put up a map

Being relieved of my chart and setting aside guilt-ridden legalism does not alleviate my need for regular reading or prayer. There are a number of analogies that could be used here but for me the necessity for a connection with God is like looking at a map when going on a long journey. If my family is driving through the night on a road trip into an unknown area, you won’t have to guilt me into checking the map every step of the way. I wouldn’t just glance at it in the beginning and then “wing it” from there. I check and double check for direction and assurance of my route.

I encourage you to take your medicine. Check the map often. Read your Bible. There really isn’t a chart on how often it should happen. Just do it a little more… and then a little more. Paul told a young Timothy, “Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them” (1 Timothy 4:15). If we do this, even on the days where it feels like nothing is happening, we can trust that what awaits us at the end of our journey is far more than a gold star.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.
-2 Peter 1:3-9