C. S. Lewis may have been the first to tell about the little boy who was asked what God is like. The boy responds in words like these: “God’s the sort of fellow who goes around looking for someone who’s having fun—and tries to stop ’em.”
This picture of God, mistaken though it is, nonetheless captures the view of many people still today whom we might call “cultural Christians.” Folks like these have a passing acquaintance with Christianity and perhaps a tie to the church through a pious parent or godly grandparent, but no real grasp of the Holy Scriptures or of what our Lord Jesus truly taught.
Sadly, this picture of God has sometimes poisoned the original intent of potentially powerful customs in the church. Take Lent, for instance. We can tell what our culture thinks about it by watching the excesses of Mardi Gras. The drunkenness and other debauchery, lasting in some places for weeks, seems to say something like this: “Let’s get in all the sin we can before Lent arrives and God’s angry fist descends to destroy our fun.”
While some Christians observe Lent and others do not, we all do well to prepare our hearts for the glorious celebration of our Savior’s resurrection at Easter. Such preparation goes much deeper than a superficial decision to “give up chocolate” for six weeks. The early Christian church used the 40 days before Easter to rehearse the key teachings of Christ and all he has done to rescue us from sin and death. New believers were instructed in the faith; more mature believers made use of this time of preparation to review the basics of Christianity they had come to confess as truth.
Think of it this way: Medical doctors often treat patients with a newly diagnosed chronic illness. High blood pressure, for instance. After a week or two on medication, the patient’s symptoms begin to fade away. Some patients interpret this as a miraculous cure —and stop taking the medicine. The symptoms come roaring back, sometimes with disastrous results. Call it denial. Call it a failure to communicate. Call it what you will, the doctor shakes her head and the patient bears the consequences.
The spiritual version of this scenario may occur even more often. Pastors and other Christian workers face it all the time. The Holy Spirit leads a person to recognize her sin and her need for the salvation Jesus has won for us. She relies fully on the blood of Christ shed for us on his cross. True peace cascades into this believer’s heart and life.
Yet after a week or two, a month or two, life seeps slowly back into a routine, a kind of “new normal.” Satan subtly slips the key truths of repentance and faith out from her field of awareness. She—or should I say we, for it happens to all of us—fail to notice because we’re focusing on other areas of our busy lives. Without realizing it, we’ve stumbled back under the Law, back under the bondage of trying and of trying harder to please God.
Instead of recognizing the truth that in Christ, God is already pleased with us, we labor under what St. Paul calls in Galatians 3 the “foolishness” of works (vv. 2–3), the “curse of the law” (vv. 10–14). At heart, this curse involves primarily the burden of shouldering the doleful “have-tos,” “shoulds,” and “musts” that Satan hangs over our heads like an eternal sword of Damocles.
In Christ and his cross, God is already pleased with us—with you! He takes as much pleasure in you right this moment as he will on that day he welcomes you into his eternal presence in the heavenly home. His love is an everlasting love that began in eternity past and will never change (Jeremiah 31:3; Malachi 3:6; Ephesians 1:3–4).
Our culture, of course, fails to understand this kind of love and forgiveness. Even our own minds boggle at it sometimes. Consider, for example, Romans 4:5:
To the [person] who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness (NIV, emphasis added).
God justifies the wicked! Think of it! If we were good, we wouldn’t need a Savior! As we prepare for Easter, we do so remembering how much we truly need Jesus. We go back to the basic truths of sin and salvation. We recall that, though we once slaved for sin and Satan, we do so no longer. We instead revel in the deep, deep love of Jesus who died for us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NIV).
And we exercise the freedom that’s ours in Christ for all it’s worth! Our heavenly Father wants our spiritual walk to be the exciting, joy-filled adventure of being who we are in Christ. We no longer have to do good works to earn our salvation. Instead, we get to! We can! We want to! (And for those times when our sinful nature tempts us not to want to, we have the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit working in us to renovate our desires.) Only the children of God can understand the joy of the psalmist:
I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free (Psalm 119:32 NIV).
Like children at 3:30 pm on the last day of school as summer vacation begins, we race down the steps and out the front door, free from assignments and term papers and the tardy bell. We get to do what we want. And what we want to do is to run in the path of Christlikeness, because at the cross, our Lord Jesus has set our hearts free.