Posts Tagged ‘Performance-based system of acceptance’

Full Title: The Least, The Lost, The Last, The Losers, and the Little Ones: Revisiting the Parables of Jesus In Light of Religion Versus Relationship

The Lost: The Parable of the So-Called Prodigal Son (Or as I prefer to call it: My So-Called Life) Luke 15:11–32

Read: The Parable of the (So-Called) Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11–32

It has long been recognized that the commonly used title for this parable (The Prodigal Son) is less than the best. It does not accurately summarize the story as a whole or even the primary point(s) we are to take away. Even worse, it prejudices our opinion with regard to interpretation before we even read the story. This is a parable about a father and two sons—understanding all three of which is critical to understanding the parable as a whole.

(11) And he said, A certain man had two sons: (12) And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. [Luke 15:11–12 KJV]

As is often the case with such stories, there are details that are part of the initial premise that should arrest our attention. The first and most obvious of these details, the fact that the younger son requests his inheritance prematurely, should move us to ask: “When does one usually receive their inheritance?” The equally obvious answer is only after our parents have died.

From reading the parable even once through we are already aware of the fact that the younger son is likely foolish and arrogant, but this pretty much seals the deal. By asking for his inheritance prematurely, the younger son is indicating the depth of his contempt for his father—essentially declaring either “Would you just up and die already?” or, “You’re dead to me already.” Either way, he is rather clearly crossing a significant threshold with regard to his relationship (or more accurately his lack of relationship) with his father. This combined with what we will read in verse 13, most likely indicates crossing a point of no return.

What should really slap us in the face however is the fact that his father grants his request! For most of us, regardless of whether we are on the parent or progeny side of the equation, we generally understand the typical scenario to look something like this: Which ever parent dies first, the estate goes fully to the surviving spouse first. Then once the surviving spouse dies, the children will get their share. Although there certainly may be some variations on this theme, it is reasonably certain that this is how it goes down most of the time. And even if we take cultural considerations into account, primarily the right of primogeniture—the practice of the eldest son receiving a double portion in order to care for his mother if his father dies first—the younger son’s request is severely out of order. One does not inherit until your parents, or at least your father, is dead.

But not this father, and not this time. This father grants his younger son’s request and presumably sells off enough of his estate to pay him off in cash. The rest of the estate, from the context presumably a farm or other agricultural interest, goes to the older brother—a point that becomes critical later on.

I prefer the King James Version of the Bible for this text because of the translation of one particular Greek word. In the second half of verse 12, we read: “And he divided unto them his living.” The word his is in italics here due to the practice of the King James translators to call our attention to any words not found in the critical Greek text. But the word I want to focus on is the word living. Most other translations use words like wealth, assets, substance, or possessions—the WEB uses the word livelihood—but the word living is actually the most accurate, because in Greek it is ton bion—one of the Greek words for life. In addition, although no English version I am aware of tips us off, the Greek word for goods (v. 12—“give me the portion of goods that falleth to me”), is the word ten oisian, which can be translated either substance or being. The net result of these Greeks words yields the understanding that by giving them their inheritance early, the father is in effect “dying.” In other words the father is willingly laying down his life (being) for his sons. So in a manner of speaking, when his younger son said, “Hey Dad, drop dead”—he did. As previously indicated, and as is usually the case, this sets the stage for all that follows.

And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. [Luke 15:13 KJV]

As hinted at earlier, when we combine the fact that the younger son considered his father to be “dead already” with the now revealed fact that he wasted no time getting out of Dodge, and to a far country no less, it is fair to assume that he had some pretty significant “Daddy issues” and didn’t plan on returning. And now that his father is “dead” so to speak, there seems to be little doubt that we will never see him again.

But even before verse 13 ends we get a hint that this may not be so. We soon learn that the “get-rich-quick” younger son just as quickly squanders his existence on what the King James Version calls “riotous” living. We are not told specifically what his particular vices are, but again it is fair to assume that it is a least “wine, women, and song,” if not worse.

And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. [Luke 15:14 KJV]

I am particularly fond of this verse. Not because I wish any greater harm to fall on this insolent little twerp, but because this scenario, although fictitious, rings so true. I have little doubt that the younger son didn’t plan on running out of money. As a matter of fact, he may have held a small portion in reserve for when the major partying would eventually come to an end. But now the unexpected happens, a famine “just happens” to come along—and no ordinary famine—a mighty famine. If the younger son wasn’t “dead” (hint, hint) broke already—he is now.

And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. (16) And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. [Luke 15:15–16 KJV]

Although we are never told with any certainty the ethnicity of the family in this story, we are certain of who Jesus’ audience is—and it is fair to assume that Jesus utilized this portion of the story to deliberately provoke Jewish religious sensibilities. The younger son was clearly young and foolish, and most likely cocky or even flat out arrogant—but we can all relate to unforeseen tragedy, and famine in the ancient Middle East was a matter of life and death. Was the impudent whelp, young? Who hasn’t been young at least once in their life? Was he foolish? He certainly isn’t alone on that count. But a mighty famine isn’t his fault—is it? Did the young man deserve to perish simply for being young and foolish? And this can’t be an example of reaping what he has sown because it is affecting everyone. So for a Jew, or at least a Jewish audience, this is about as low as you can go. Working for a pig farmer is bad enough, but he is now hungry enough that pig food sounds appealing, and still no one would help him.

(17) And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! (18) I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, (19) And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. [Luke 15:17–19 KJV]

Shazam! Thank God he finally “comes to himself.” The younger son wakes up one morning and realizes that his life as he once knew it is now over—in other words, he wakes up dead. As a matter of fact, I have waited until now to take note of the fact that the substance he wastes in verse 13, is the same Greek word as verse 12 (ten oisian) meaning his being—his life. (He has wasted life.)

Furthermore, he realizes his folly and begins composing his confession to his father. And while I have little doubt that he is genuinely remorseful and this is truly a critical turning point in the story, we must remember to keep it within the context of the whole story. Take note of the content of his “confession” as it stands at this point.

• I have sinned against heaven, and before thee
• I am no more worthy to be called thy son
• Make me as one of thy hired servants

“Make me as one of your hired servants.” This isn’t confession—it’s negotiation. So apparently he’s not quite dead yet—but he’s close—he’ll be stone dead in a minute. But for now, with his last gasping breath, he is trying to make a trade—one life (albeit a wasted one) for another—because it may be as a servant, but it’s better than my wasted life—all without actually having to “die.”

And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. [Luke 15:20 KJV]

This is clearly one of the most important take-away points of the entire story—you simply do not see someone “yet a great way off” if you’re not looking for them. Despite the enormous price he paid, despite the fact that his son rather clearly considered him dead, despite the fact that for all he knew his son was dead, or never returning—the father has never stopped hoping his son would come home. And when he does (come home), the father does not “make sure he learned his lesson” first, doesn’t make him wallow in remorse, or even let him blurt out his confession first—he runs to meet him and smothers him with affection.

I have heard it said that culturally, elder men such as this father simply did not run in public—to hike up one’s robes and sprint through the pasture was undignified—even shameful. If this is so, it makes this parable all the more poignant, because it demonstrates that the father was willing to pay any price for his son—even taking the shame upon himself. Whatever shame and mockery the son felt in returning with his tail between his legs was trumped by the father dashing through the dust and dung to meet him.

And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. [Luke 15:21 KJV]

Take note of the distinction between his actual confession and his planned confession. The “make me as one of your hired servants” clause is conspicuously absent—no more negotiating, no more trading—finally—stone dead.

(22) But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: (23) And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: (24) For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. [Luke 15:22–24 KJV]

Did I say “Shazam” already? I guess I should have saved it for now—Shazam! Although there are many take away points from this parable, this is clearly the crux (pun intended) of the matter—death and resurrection. The dead are made alive, the lost are found. And right in the middle of it all—a veal roast.

The fatted-calf is a rather unusual “sacrifice”—because we usually don’t look at this as a sacrifice—just a good meal. But think about it. The fatted-calf has but one purpose in “life”—death. It stands around in a stall all day, getting well-marbled and waiting to drop dead at a moment’s notice so people can have a cookout. In my opinion this makes the fatted-calf the most conspicuous Christ figure in the whole story.

(25) Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. (26) And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. (27) And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. (28a) And he was angry, and would not go in. [Luke 15:25–28a KJV]

Angry? Why is he angry? Your long lost brother is home, your bereaved father who has never given up hope is beside himself with joy, there’s beef on the barbeque, and you’re angry? That’s carrying one huge grudge for an awful long time. Forgive me for being blunt, but here goes. This is where I believe the traditional title “The Prodigal Son” prejudices our interpretation from the start and we totally miss the point we are supposed to take away about the elder son—that the elder son had no better relationship with his father than the younger son.

(28b) Therefore came his father out, and intreated him. (29) And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. (30) But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. [Luke 15:28b–30 KJV]

Because the elder son wouldn’t go in the father comes out and entreats him. I imagine he said something to the affect of, “I know you’re upset with your brother—but please do this for me”—but the elder brother would have none of it. Furthermore, he feels compelled to explain to his father why he won’t go in, and in doing so describes his “life” and how he feels about it—and in so doing also describes his “relationship” with his father (again, or lack thereof). “Lo, these many years do I serve thee…” The Greek word for serve here is the word douleo, which is better translated slave—“Lo, these many years have I slaved for you.” Some relationship—huh? And furthermore, he goes on to whine, “I did everything right, and he did everything wrong, and yet you love him more!” Plus, “You gave him the most costly sacrifice of all and never even gave me a stupid goat!” In other words, “You never gave me anything!” And this is where he is dead wrong—not dead (and that’s the problem)—but definitely dead wrong.

Also take note of the fact that the elder son accuses the younger son of wasting his father’s living (“devoured thy living” v.30). But the father has been “dead” since the beginning of the parable. Therefore, the younger son could not have wasted his father’s living—he wasted his own living. But possibly even more important is the fact that the elder son implies “But I didn’t waste your living like my brother did.” But this is equally fallacious. The elder brother didn’t “not waste” his father’s living—he didn’t “not waste” what already belonged to him (since his father has been dead the whole time)—his own life. But there are two points we should take away from this. The first is that the elder brother can’t accuse the younger brother of wasting his father’s money and pat himself on the pack for not wasting his father’s money in the same breath—since in both cases, it wasn’t his father’s money. The second is, when we once again realize that they are talking about wasting their “lives,” the elder brother is under the mistaken impression that while the younger brother clearly wasted his “life,” that he (the elder brother) didn’t waste his! But the quality of his so-called life, “Lo, these many years have I slaved for you,” speaks for itself and betrays him.

(31) And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. (32) It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. [Luke 15:31–32 KJV]

Remember how I said at the outset that the father’s actions set the tone for the whole story? The father preemptively laid down his life for both his sons. From the moment he “died” the elder son (since his younger brother soon beats feet out of town) owned everything. In other words, the “father’s life” has always been available to him this entire time, but instead of living by the father’s life, he lived as a slave, overburdened by rule keeping and obligation.

Parties (celebration, weddings, festivals, etc) in Scripture are indicative of relationship. And there is no greater cause for celebration than resurrection. If the elder son cannot recognize this, it is genuinely too bad—especially because he doesn’t seem to realize that his life isn’t really much of a life, and that he too should probably just admit that he is already dead and thereby get a new one.

Isn’t it funny, when we encounter a season of significant adversity, and everything seems to be going south that we sometimes say, “I want my life back”! Although I can relate to the frustration because I have done this myself, the reality is that the Father would rather that we just admit that we’re dead already so he can give us a new one.

In conclusion, the younger son rejected a relationship with his father by rebelling—the elder son rejected a relationship with his father by “living” (if you can call it that) a life of rule keeping and obligation—in a word—religion. And what’s worse, the elder son absolutely refuses to give up his crappy so-called life for a new one!

The tragic irony is that when the father entreats the elder son, he is asking him to join the party—in effect saying, “If you’ll just die to your twisted idea of what life is supposed to be, you can have a new one!” Or to put a different way—just admit the fact that you’re already dead!

But the ultimate tragedy is the cliffhanger ending—we never know if the elder son goes into the party—it doesn’t appear as though he does. The parable has been a plethora of death—dead father—dead younger son—dead calf—dead everything except a dead older brother.

What does the father have with his younger son at the end of the parable that he doesn’t have at the beginning? An affectionate relationship. What does the father have with his elder son that he didn’t have at the beginning? Unfortunately we’ll never know.

God does not want the indentured servitude of slaves—he wants the extravagant affection of a relationship with sons and daughters.

The kingdom of heaven in not advanced by human achievement and worldly methodologies, regardless of how cleverly disguised they are as “Christian principles.” If human effort gained anything then the Gospel of Jesus Christ is pointless (Galatians 3:21). God simply does not define success the way the world defines success. The kingdom of heaven is advanced by paradox. The last shall be first. Losers win. The least are greatest. The lost are found. And the dead… are resurrected.

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For me, in my journey from religion to relationship, this revelation broke the back of the “Do good, get good—do bad, get bad” mindset.

In the story of Job, starting immediately in Job chapter one verse one, we are told that Job “was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil.” We are also told that he had a large family, and that he was very rich.

We also learn that Job’s children were apparently prone to wild parties, and that whenever this occurred, Job would offer sacrifices on their behalf, given the possibility that during their less inhibited state they may have “sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” Job performed this priestly function on their behalf whenever it appeared to be needed.

We are also offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the counsels of heaven and read that Satan was allowed to test Job.

And we all know what happens next…

Job lost everything. His flocks and herds were destroyed and his children killed. Then after another round in the celestial counsel chambers, Satan “smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” It appears that Job’s wife did not leave him, but she wasn’t much help or comfort. Job, to put it mildly, was afflicted. He had lost his health, his wealth, and his family.

Then in due course Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, appeared on scene and “made an appointment together to come to sympathize with him and comfort him.”

Initially Job’s friends did what was right—they offered their support by lamenting with him for seven days in silence because they saw that Job’s pain was very great.

But oftentimes what appears too good to be true is exactly that, and Job’s so-called “friends” soon turned on him. Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and later Elihu, effectively harassed and harangued Job for the remainder of the entire book—close to 40 chapters worth!

And although there is some subtle variation in their tirades, the essential accusation remains consistent—somehow Job brought this upon himself. The innocent do not suffer. God is just. God rewards those who are good and deals with the wicked. In other words: Do good, get good—do bad, get bad. And since Job has gotten bad, axiomatically he must have “done bad” (real bad, and lots of it!).

And yet throughout the entire scenario, Job maintains his integrity and his righteousness, refuting his friend’s claims that he has done something wrong, or has not repented of “unknown” or “un-confessed” sin.

In fact the paradox is stupefying—and this appears to be precisely the point—Job seems to be suffering in extraordinary disproportion to whatever sins he may have committed. Therefore, there can only be one of two logical conclusions: 1) If God is adjudicating a divine system of justice, and God is a just judge, and if Job is indeed receiving just recompense for his sins, then his sins must have been equally extraordinary. 2) God is not just. And since we know this is not true, again, Job’s sins must be extraordinary, and one of these extraordinary sins must be his pride and refusal to admit his wrongs, and confess and repent!

But to make things even more incongruous, consider this: Job clearly believed in the efficacy of sacrifice. And not just sacrifice as recompense for sins already committed, but in pre-emptive sacrifice in anticipation of possible transgression. Furthermore, if Job saw fit to offer sacrifice preemptively for his children, it is only consistent to believe that he offered preemptive sacrifice for himself. And this is on top of the plain reading of scripture that says Job was a righteous man, “upright, fearing God and turning away from evil.”

Job’s situation is already beyond paradoxical—and yet there’s more.

There is a word used to describe Job back in chapter one that pushes this over the edge…

Job was blameless.

Take note that neither the scriptures nor Job himself testifies that he is sinless—Job was human just like anyone else, and although scripture never records or emphasizes his sin, there is little doubt that Job sinned.

The word blameless is a judicial word best understood by our modern legal concept called “double jeopardy.” Once a person has been adjudicated “not guilty” they cannot be charged, or blamed, for the same crime (or sin), again.

So Job’s defense basically boils down to three significant points. 1) I (Job) fear God and avoid evil—I am not perfect, I am not sinless, but I’m pretty darn clean. 2) I (Job) have never sinned even remotely in proportion to the degree I am suffering. 3) If sacrifice is efficacious, then I AM FORGIVEN! And I cannot be punished for what I have been forgiven of!

So how is this possible? How can God be just, Job forgiven, and yet suffer so insanely?

The answer comes at the very end of the book—a verse I read many times and yet it never quite registered until a few years ago.

When eventually God appears on the scene and sets the record straight, note what He says…

It came about after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has. [Job 42:7 NAS, emphasis added]

Let’s repeat this for emphasis…

God is furious with Job’s “friends”—why? Because they did not speak rightly about God. In other words, their mindset of a divinely adjudicated system of “do good, get good—do bad, get bad,” is INCORRECT!

But more importantly, note what is also said…

Job did speak what was right about God! The implications of this are staggering.

First, we have to take note of the fact that there are sections of scripture such as Eliphaz’, Bildad’s, Zophar’s, and Elihu’s monologues, that although inspired by the Holy Spirit, record a incorrect human perspective of what God is like, and are therefore not necessarily a discourse on the nature of God.

Second, if Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu are incorrect in their appraisal of what God is like and their assumed system of so-called divine jurisprudence—then we do not live within a “Do good, get good—do bad, get bad” system. What many mainstream Christians believe is a just and fair system adjudicated by a just God is simply not in effect the way they believe it is. (And God is none too happy with the “Do good, get good–do bad, get bad” paradigm either.)

Finally, many Bible scholars now believe that the book of Job may have been the first book of the Bible to be recorded—predating Genesis and the rest of the Torah. Additionally, many scholars likewise advocate reading the books of the Bible is chronological as opposed to canonical order. If this is the case, then the book of Job would be the first book to be studied by the “new” believer. This would make the book of Job one of the most striking prophetic foreshadows of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Job knew (and contended) that he was forgiven and that no accusation could land on him because of it. It wasn’t easy, and he faced extraordinary opposition from those around him who believed otherwise. And yet this is merely a foreshadow, and we as members of the body of Christ have the privilege to live in the authentic new creation reality—we are forgiven, and no accusation, past, present, or future, can land on us and stick.

Unfortunately, this does not mean that our negative circumstances are just going to magically drop away, but it does mean that we can recognize them for what they are—negative circumstances caused by the enemy, not the consequence of our sins. As members of His body, no sin we have committed, or the sins of our ancestors provide the “open door” for the accuser to do his dirty work. Even our own wrong ideas about God do not provide the open door. We live in a very broken world and unfortunate circumstances beset us all, oftentimes in what seems outrageously unfair proportions. Like Job we may suffer affliction, but we can rest assured, and rest in Christ, that God is not punishing us for being human.

On the journey from religion to relationship, one of the obstacles we must deal with is our innate desire for significance.

On one hand, it is only natural for a devoted Christian to want to “do something significant” for God—but ironically, therein lays the rub. At the risk of being blunt, doing “something significant for God” more likely than not is an indicator of a performance-based mindset foreign to the New Covenant. As followers of Christ and members of his body our significance derives from our identity—who we are in Christ—not from what we do, regardless of how “significant” it may appear to be.

One of the consequences of the fall is shame. And by shame, I do not mean feelings of simple embarrassment—I mean an innate sense of inadequacy, insecurity, and low self-worth. Deep down we do not feel we have any value. Hence, it is our sense of shame that drives our desire to perform or produce. The reasoning becomes, “If I do something that has value, then I am valuable—If I do something significant, then I am significant.”

Unfortunately, religion doesn’t heal our sense of shame, but rather exploits our desire for significance by providing a method for achieving significance that we are told “comes from God”—and this is a powerful motivation indeed. If we believe that we achieve God’s approval (acceptance, affection, affirmation, etc.) by doing something significant (whatever that thing is, especially biblically sanctioned activities like prayer, Bible study, fasting, evangelism, etc.), then we are going to keep doing whatever that thing is, since the more I do it, the more significant I must be.

Furthermore, religion deftly camouflages itself by using “spiritually correct” terminology (kind of like “politically correct” except “spiritually correct”), while the substance of the matter remains quite different.

While most Christians are sincerely interested in “saving the lost,” or “advancing the kingdom,” sincerity is not a guarantee of truth. It is all-too-easy for these labels to be a clever disguise for a deeply entrenched performance-based system of acceptance that we are using to placate our need for approval and soothe our sense of shame.

The irony and the tragedy however is that this quest for significance is not necessarily “evil,” just human. Who doesn’t want their life to count for something? Who doesn’t want to be involved in something bigger than themselves? And as hinted at earlier, “doing something for God” and believing that you are racking up points with the Man Upstairs is big medicine. But the key of course is in how this all gets worked out—by human wisdom and man-made systems? Or by relaxing into the reality of Christ’s completed work?

Confusing the matter is unfortunately easy to do. The scriptures clearly encourage Christians to engage in a wide variety of “authorized” activities (such as prayer, Bible study, assembling together, evangelism, etc.), but the question we must ask ourselves (and be prepared for a potentially uncomfortable answer) is: “Am I doing these things to earn God’s approval (and thereby be deemed significant), or am I doing these things from a place of approval and significance—my position in Christ?” Christianity is rife with well-intentioned believers endlessly searching for that “new thing,” or “fresh word,” that sets them apart from others (and hence, more makes them more significant).

The distinction is between performance and relationship. True significance must be understood in the context of relationship. As soon as we define significance by performance we put it in a context that is impossible to understand and even harder to live up to. Furthermore, when significance is determined by a system, it isn’t actually “real,” since it is based in a thing and not a Person.

I cannot think of a single example in scripture of Jesus affirming anyone’s need for performance-based significance, in fact exactly the opposite. Whenever a person postured for performance-based significance He disarmed them—and those who could not posture for significance He exalted simply because He loved them. And this is precisely the point. There is little doubt that Jesus’ life was significant and that the people He loved felt significant. But Jesus’ ministry (despite what some may attempt to claim because of the “good works” He did) was not performance-based. Jesus never gave his followers instructions on how to perform properly—He spend the entirety of His earthly ministry teaching His followers how to live in relationship to Him as he lived in relationship to the Father. Jesus’ good works flowed from His relationship with the Father, not from an agenda to do good works, or even “advance the kingdom.” On several occasions people questioned Him, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?” And yet Jesus was not the rabbi of a synagogue, was not the mayor of Nazareth, or a priest in the Temple. Jesus did not operate from any recognizable position of authority, influence, or significance apart from His relationship with the Father.

So we can see that significance in and of itself is not a bad thing—but whose definition of significance? Our desire for significance is the driving force behind many personal agendas designed to deliver us from our insecurity by finding value in achievement.

What makes this even worse however is that the value of achievement is always relative and comparative—I have achieved more than you, or you have achieved more than me—turning relationship into competition. Furthermore, our old man/fallen nature does not allow for the “win-win” scenario but insists that significance by achievement means only a few, or one, can rise to the top.

It is in this context that we can begin to understand why so much of Christianity is merely an Old Covenant paradigm with New Covenant labels.

The Law of Moses is the perfect example of a performance-based system of acceptance. Just keep all 613 ordinances and one achieves right standing before God—and if one has right standing before God—one is valuable. Furthermore, even if “I” cannot keep all 613 ordinances perfectly, if I can keep more than “you,” then I can conclude that I am more valuable than you.

The Old Covenant was an external law written on tablets of stone—in other words—a religious system. But the New Covenant is an internal “law” written on the tables of the heart—in other words—relationship.

But in practice, much of Christianity is just as performance-based as the Old Covenant.

Although we no longer (are supposed to) have a physical temple, our church buildings are our sacred spaces. We compete with each other over who can build the most lavish “church”—all “for God” of course. We spend literally millions of dollars on bigger and better buildings that can hold larger audiences, and have better sound systems and spectacular multi-media displays. Bigger and better equals performance, which equals achievement, which equals greater value.

Within a performance-based system of acceptance, bigger is always better, because “bigger” equals more value, and more value equals greater significance.

In addition to the size and beauty of our buildings, and the numbers in attendance, how much money we contribute to the building fund demonstrates levels of achievement and therefore, greater value and significance. This is despite the fact that under the New Covenant, the temple of God is people—valuing relationship over performance.

Although we no longer (are supposed to) have literal “sacrifices,” our church programs are our sacred rituals, and our financial giving and acts of service are considered sacrificial. Some local assemblies value “sound doctrine,” others value evangelism, and others still value “praise and worship.” Regardless of which (or all) programs a local assembly promotes, conformity to these programs is a measurable indicator of performance. Support for programs equals greater value and significance.

Although we no longer (are supposed to) have clergy and laity, and many “pastors” even preach this from the pulpit, most Christian “churches” function according to a hierarchy utterly foreign to the “priesthood of every believer/every member functioning” paradigm described in the New Covenant. Pastors, worship leaders, and other highly visible members of local assemblies become celebrities with loyalty and supporting the “vision of the house” translating into greater value and significance.

The presence of any performance-based system of achievement, by default, generates comparison and competition between members of the community. Each member is able to determine their own, as well as other member’s value based on obedience and conformity to the system. This is of course regardless of how well camouflaged the system is with “relational” vernacular. Plus, when we teach that such a system is God’s design, we up the ante. When we believe that we are validated in God’s sight by obedience to a system, genuine relationship is undermined if not down right impossible.

Furthermore, one does not have to have a genuine relationship with Jesus in order to be a “law-keeper”—in other words, someone who supports all the programs, is loyal to the pastor and the vision of the house, and pays his bills (so-called tithes and offerings). That’s just keeping a system. Unfortunately we are often taught that supporting these things either “is” relationship, or opens the door for relationship, or forms the basis of relationship, etc. This paradigm is precisely Christianity practiced as a religion.

Here’s another way of looking at it—God is first v. God is central.

In our quest to do something significant for God, many of us were taught to prioritize our activities according to “spiritual” priorities. Usually something like this:

1) God
2) Family
3) Church
4) Work
5) Friends

Whether you agree with this prioritization or not is not the point—the existence of such a list is the point. If we live according to a list of priorities, this is just another version of performance-based achievement and acceptance. If (according to the above list) I have a choice between a Bible Study at my church, or hanging out with my friends—if I believe in this scale of priorities, I had better choose the Bible Study in order to stay in right standing with God, and with others who follow this list. Furthermore, I (and others) can then use this list to judge who has greater value due to obedience to the list. This is a performance-based religious mindset.

Ironically, God never asks us to put Him “first” on any such list. What God asks, and what is relational, is that God asks us to keep Him central in all that we do—family, friends, work, church, recreation, etc. Imagine a children’s wind driven mobile. God is the central hub around which all other things rotate driven by the wind of the Holy Spirit. This way we are free to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our hearts as we engage all aspects of our lives with God at the center, instead of having to consult our priorities list that essentially makes the decision for you. When God is central however, unlike the list of priorities, there is no immediate answer to “which one is more important?” and instead becomes an exercise in following the voice of the Holy Spirit—“Where does God want me to be?”

Furthermore, when we follow a list of priorities, regardless of how right and godly it appears, the higher priorities compete with the lower priorities, which results in our neglecting the lower priorities so that I can feel good about myself. But when Jesus is central, He infuses all things with His life. He infuses my marriage, infuses my job, and infuses my church and recreational activities.

One is a system—one is a relationship.

But all that to say this. How does one transition from religion to relationship? Easy—die. Religion and performance-based systems of achievement are endemic to the old man, and he’s dead.

More to come…