I am very thankful for the church where I grew up. And since all my friends knew I was a Christian, I always found it interesting some of the comments I received. I can’t remember how many times someone would swear around me and then apologize after remembering I go to church. Other times, while in church, after saying something that was not true, people would make comments like “don’t lie here, we're in a church.”
The message I got was clear. People thought that the church building was a place where you had to follow certain rules and that Christians wanted others to act a certain way around them. The implication was that swearing and lying are fine, just not in church where God is watching or around Christians who are supposed to be perfect.
Although I wanted to resist this kind of thinking, I found myself living alternate lives. I was a different person around my family, church, friends, and teachers. I became very good at playing the part. To my school friends, I was just like them, using the same language, playing the same games, getting into the same kinds of relationships, etc. The main difference was that I called myself a Christian. To my church, I was a follower of Jesus and a leader who tried to live a virtuous life. To my family, I was probably a mix.
As I went through high school and the years following, I started trying to really figure out who I was and who God was calling me to be. My life didn’t line up with what I thought I believed or what I told others. I grew tired of this disconnect and didn’t know my true self. I was afraid that people would see through me, that my friends would call me a hypocrite, and that my church and family would uncover some things I tried to hide.
As I continued down the road of discovering who I was, I began to understand that even though I could separate my life and be a different person in different contexts, I couldn’t fool God. God saw me as a whole person, not only the parts that I wanted Him to see. I learned that if I choose to put my trust in Him, I am a child of God. That is my main identity in any context.
God doesn’t care that we don't swear or lie in a church building if we do it anywhere else. God isn’t impressed that we can fit the stereotype of a “good Christian” at church if we act totally different when we are at work or school. We may be able to fool our families and friends, but God knows us at our deepest. He knows when we are pretending, putting on a show, or just going through the motions. Empty worship that doesn’t line up with the rest of our life doesn't please God. What God cares most about is our honesty.
Over and over in the Bible we find the people of God saying one thing and doing another. We find the religious leaders going through the motions and forgetting what faith in God is all about. Jesus confronted those corrupt leaders who seemed to be virtuous by following all the rules but had forgotten the intent of the law. Jesus didn’t care that the religious leaders looked pure and holy. He saw right through them and confronted their hypocrisy. He didn’t have much time for them. Instead, Jesus spent a lot of time with the forgotten and outcast who didn’t pretend, but were honest about their lives and who they were, warts and all.
In the Old Testament, God spoke through the prophet Amos to the people of Israel. They had their religious system in place. They had the synagogues and temple, a routine of worship, and leaders to guide them. From the outside, they were faithful worshippers, but God sent them this harsh message:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
- Amos 5:21-24
God saw right through a people who had forgotten what was most important to God. He's concerned with justice and righteousness. He's concerned with transforming our lives. When Israel forgot that, they lived a double life. They sang all the right songs and observed the religious festivals, but they were living lives of injustice, idolatry, and hypocrisy.
Every Sunday, churches fill with people who come to worship God. We plan a service for worship, we sing songs, pray, read Scripture, listen to a sermon, and fellowship together. I know from experience how easy it is to go to church and participate in all of it while putting on an act. If you grew up in the church, it’s even easier because you have heard this stuff your whole life. All this church stuff can be really good, but let me suggest that it is secondary to what God wants to do in our lives.
God is interested in relationship and transformation. He wants us to encounter who He really is and to walk with Him (as He does with us) in every part of life. He wants to transform our lives to look more and more like Jesus. Putting on a show on Sunday morning does not fool God. He sees right past our pretence and longs to dig deep into our heart. The question is, are we willing to be honest with Him?
Could you image what it would be like if we, as Christians, stopped going through the motions because that’s just what you do? Imagine what would happen if we let our pretence fall and no longer felt the need to simply fit the part. No matter who you are when you stop pretending, you are not too far gone in God’s kingdom. He has a plan, and it involves you.
Jon Foreman is the lead singer of Switchfoot. In one of his solo records, he wrote a song based on the Amos 5 passages above. It's one of my favourites. Enjoy as you reflect.