Perhaps the most important lesson I ever learned is that the Christian faith is a relationship, not a system.
When I was younger, I was convinced faith was a system made up of logical rules. I thought all I needed to be a good Christian was to spend x number of minutes praying and read y number of chapters in the Bible and do z number of good deeds every day. Being a follower of Christ, I believed, was sort of like being a member of a club. All that was needed was to meet the minimum requirements.
To put it simply, I believed Christian living was just about doing stuff.
I was wrong.
For years I felt vaguely anxious, guilty and perplexed. Praying was awkward. Reading the Bible was tedious. Doing good things, and not doing bad things, seemed pointless.
I prayed, but not to know God or to help anyone. I read the Bible, but not to learn. I did good deeds, but not to be honor God or to serve others. I went to church, but not to strengthen my faith. I did these things simply because they were what Christians did.
I’d gotten the how right, but I’d totally missed the why.
Faith isn’t a system. Treating it like one will only lead to confusion, disillusionment and pain.
What, then, is faith?
It’s a relationship!
Granted, it’s more formal than most relationships. A relationship with God is sort of like a parent-child relationship and sort of like marriage.
We’re dependent on God, just as children are dependent on their parents. He provides for us, protects us and sometimes disciplines us, just as parents do for their children.
As for the marriage example: there are rules that guide our relationship with God, just as there are rules that guide the relationship between husband and wife.
It’s not enough just to “pray the prayer” to become a Christian. That’s the first step. A marriage relationship is more than just a wedding! The wedding is only the first of many, many steps.
In our relationship with God, do we make mistakes?
That’s when we realize why a relationship is a thousand times better than a system. In a system, mistakes demand remuneration, atonement, compensation. In a relationship, one person simply forgives the other.
However—as in all other relationships—the whole thing falls apart if one person tries to take advantage of the other.
In a marriage, the wife can be the kindest, sweetest woman ever, but the relationship won’t last if the husband is selfish or unfaithful. A father can be the most patient, loving man in the world, but he can’t care for his children if they insist on running away from home.
God forgives us when we make mistakes. However, if we insist on disobeying him, he eventually lets us go our own way. To quote C.S. Lewis, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.'” God doesn’t force us to obey him. He gives us the freedom to choose, even if our choice is to turn away from him.
If we turn back to God, he will always accept us. Just look at the story of the Prodigal Son!
If we want to accept God, however, we must accept him on his terms.
One those terms is that God speaks to us indirectly. As nice as it would be to chat with him face to face over coffee every morning, he chooses less direct methods to communicate: the Bible, literature, nature and people, to name a few.
This is admittedly frustrating. I’m not sure why God isn’t more direct, but there is one thing of which I’m sure: this indirectness is temporary. Quoth the Apostle Paul, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
All this is fine theoretical stuff, but what does it mean in practical terms? How does it affect how we live?
It means we must understand the why of Christian living as we live out the how.
We should pray in order to help others and build up our relationship with God. We should read the Bible in order to learn. We should obey and serve in order to be useful. We should attend church in order to grow closer to each other and to God.
Faith isn’t a system, and God doesn’t ask us to do things for no reason. Understanding that faith is a relationship, and Christian living is part of that relationship, is probably the most important lesson I’ve ever learned.