It's been around as long as Christianity itself. And it's a lie.
When I first fell in love with God, I thought the initial starry glow would never wear off. I cared so much about being His; about pleasing Him; about dwelling in His presence. I loved Him. Besides, this warmth, this new reality, was so much more than emotion. It was spirit. It was life.
But I lost it.
I'm not sure when or where, but the glow wore off. Then it did worse: It turned around. As the sun set one day, I paused in the middle of sweeping our driveway to acknowledge a devastating truth: I was afraid of God's voice. I felt like Eve, hiding in the bushes. I had loved Him, deeply and passionately, but now love had turned to fear.
If you drift away from God's presence, I had often been told, you must have sinned — so now you must make it right. Uncover your sin, acknowledge it, get your life back on track. That will close the distance between you and God.
I took the advice to heart, finding and repenting of sins in the darkest corners of my soul. I tried my hardest to repent properly, but I couldn't seem to straighten myself out enough to truly change. My depression only deepened.
I had heard that the key to God's presence was prayer. We can "practice the presence of God" by praying constantly, in every situation. So I did. But my prayers felt shallow and distant. At night I would lay on my face on my bed and try my hardest to pray, to pray passionately, to pray with greater faith.
Greater faith. Perhaps that was the key. Or greater outward holiness. Or inward sincerity. Or something I hadn't even thought of yet. My depression started to affect my outer life. Others noticed. I felt bad — like I was just trying to get attention. But I couldn't fake joy where I felt none. I loved God, and somehow I had destroyed our relationship. That hurt more than anything.
But rays of light started to reach me, mostly through the Book of Romans. As they did, they revealed the truth. Somewhere, somehow, I had confused my allegiance and become a devotee of The Other Christian Faith.
The Other Christian Faith has been around as long as Christianity itself. Paul railed against it when he wrote, "O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you? Are you so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?" (Gal. 3:1, 3). Its backbone is a system of works. It shapes itself as we embrace many good and worthy things; it incarnates when we replace Christ with those things. Personal convictions, politics, homeschooling, ancient Christian disciplines, even right doctrine can become invested with the spirit of The Other Christian Faith — so long as we are capable of trusting in our own abilities, rules, practices, and traditions.
Slowly, I began to see the lie. God had never left me, but in all my strivings to find Him, I had left Him. All He asked of me was trust in His unearned grace, and that was the one thing I was unwilling to give.
In my case, The Other Christian Faith took the form of holy living — what we sometimes call sanctification. In trying to follow the reams of advice out there on living a true, vibrant, Spirit-filled Christian life, I forgot about grace. I did not trust God to make me righteous: I trusted the works I thought He had called me to do. When I hit a crisis point, not once did I simply throw myself on God's mercy and ask Him to help me because of His love. Instead, I tried to fix everything by fixing myself.
In the end, The Other Christian Faith is not even trust in works. Its lie is as old as Eden: We can do this by ourselves. The Other Christian Faith is faith in myself, couched in religion, bolstered by works, and totally dependent on my own righteousness.
There are several signs that The Other Christian Faith has set up camp in my life:
1. It can be spotted in how I treat other believers. If I am far more ready to judge and distance myself from others than I am to love and fellowship with them, chances are I have forgotten the nature of my salvation and theirs. If I see my fellow Christians as brands plucked from the fire, as lost sheep sought and saved by the Jesus who also found me, I will treat them with grace.
2. Likewise, The Other Christian Faith reveals itself in the way I treat myself. Like the Old Testament law, its demands are harsh and unflinching. Under its sway, I know what I want to become, and I strive in that direction. When I succeed, I rejoice in my own goodness. When I fail, I discover the law's age-old limits. The Other Christian Faith offers no hope and no comfort — just plenty of condemnation and pride.
3. The Other Christian Faith is revealed in the way I relate to God. Do I come to Him in gratitude and humility, or do I believe He owes me something? Is He my Father, loving me for no more reason than that His nature is to love, or do I see Him as smaller and less gracious than even myself?
Light came through my depression at last, reminding me of two important things. First, I began to see God again. His love, power, and infinite worth lifted my eyes. Psalm 5:3 became a theme verse: "My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O LORD; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up."
Second, I remembered that He loved me first.
And not only first, but more.
I had tried so hard to prove my love for God. He had already proven His by giving His only begotten, deeply beloved Son for my sake. He had sought and saved me. "What shall we then say to these things?" Paul asks in Romans 8:31-32. "If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? "
True Christian faith is trust in a person who loved us enough to die for us. It is a deep belief that we will never deserve what has been done for us, but God has done it anyway. Unlike The Other Christian Faith, faith in Jesus Christ sets us free from condemnation to dance in the great open pathways of His grace. It pours through us in love toward others, who are as helpless — and as rescued — as we are.
Incredibly enough, years after God broke through my darkness, I opened the doors to The Other Christian Faith again. Again, I hit a crisis; again, my misplaced faith condemned me. And again, graciously, lovingly, my Jesus found me. He lifted me, a pauper in spirit, and anointed me with the riches of His love.
Faith in ourselves traps us in a rule-based world of our own making, threatening us every moment with disgrace. True Christian faith begins as we beat our breasts and cry, "Have mercy on me, a sinner," and sweeps us up in a real mercy, a real grace, far beyond anything we could imagine. In small ways, I choose between them every day. And every day, the real Christian faith is more than enough to set me free.
Copyright 2008 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.