God doesn’t use checklists

by Kristin on May 16, 2012

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by sunshinecity

I’m trying to make sense of the tangled mess that’s created when my relationship with God gets all confused with my relationship with Christians.

Somehow the wires get crossed, and suddenly part of me is thinking the words of (usually) well-meaning Christians are coming from God. Then my anger toward the well-meaning Christian gets projected onto God, and so the tangle begins. You don’t have to come up with very many examples of this in your own life to realize how easy it is to let this happen, and how harmful it is when it does.

There’s no question that our human capacity to love and forgive is so miniscule compared to God’s—that’s bound to be a key problem in this confusion. But there’s another significant problem, I think: how vastly different our human perspective is from God’s.

While we’re busy making checklists of behaviors and sins, evaluating how others are doing in a very black-and-white, methodical way, God sees each person’s whole heart, mind and spirit all blended together as a whole, in the context of all the potential he created in us. While we have a knack for focusing on one small piece of one small moment, God sees the enormously big picture—not just where we are, but where we’ve been and where it’s all ultimately taking us.

The checklist Christian compared to a big-picture God

Here’s an example. In 2006, a year after I met Jason and eight months before our wedding, Jason moved in. That’s right, folks, we were living in sin. We made that choice not because we think it’s the “right way to go,” or that waiting until your married is sooo outdated, but because it made a lot of sense to us then, in light of our specific circumstances. I’m going to put it another way, to be extra clear: I am not suggesting that living together outside of marriage is the right choice. It’s simply what we chose, as two people who had each been married before and had been traveling down a long road of pain, cynicism and healing.

And I do not regret it or feel apologetic. Because, do you know what? While some Christians might look at that decision—that time in my life—as sinful, plain and simple, end of story, I see that time in my life as one full of grace, redemption, and reconciling with God and his people (and myself, for that matter).

This is not to say that living with Jason made any of that grace and redemption possible; I’m just saying that those things coincided in my life, and that I believe, deep in my gut, that God was seeing the big, full picture. I believe he was celebrating my progress back towards him, even in the midst of my inevitable stumbling along the way. Because the fact is, I was much closer to God at that time in my life, and striving much more earnestly to be his servant, than I ever was during my first marriage—the time in my life that looked so good on paper to those checklist Christians.

So what do I get from all of this? Two key thoughts:

1. Stop judging others in our inevitably human ways. And since not one of us is capable of judging in God’s way, I suppose we can just leave it at this: Don’t judge. Stop making mental lists of sins and stop assuming that you know anything about a whole person, let alone their whole story.

2. Tell your story. Tell all of it, as it really is, not as you think it should have been or even as you wish it had been. God is bigger than all of our wrong turns, and he is so much bigger than all of the checklist Christians in the world put together. The Bible is full of redemption stories like the ones we have to tell—they certainly aren’t pretty, but they are powerful, because they ultimately point to the power of God’s love in a messy, human world.

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  • http://www.leighkramer.com HopefulLeigh

    “God is bigger than all of our wrong turns, and he is so much bigger than all of the checklist Christians in the world put together.”

    YES! It has been so freeing to realize this. It helps me affirm the beauty of my own redemption stories, while also asking the questions I need to ask to move forward.

    Love hearing more of your story, friend.

  • Kirstin

    “While we’re busy making check lists of behaviors and sins, evaluating how others are doing in a very black-and-white, methodical way, God sees each person’s whole heart, mind and spirit all blended together as a whole,”–YES!

    A chaplain at my mother’s hospice in the UK once said something that really struck with me: That if G-d DOES stand at the “pearly gates,” deciding who does/doesn’t belong in heaven, then the question he asks isn’t “how well did you follow my laws?” but “how well did you love my creation?”

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    There’s a Henri Nouwen quote about sin being a step off the path, as opposed to sending us back to square one. That comforts me when I screw up over and over again.

    I really appreciate your frankness here because I think we forget the process of redemption and healing. It’s kind of like my 7 years outside of the church. I was making progress “back to God’s people” even when I still couldn’t go to church. The healing and hope of year 6 was way different from year 2, but on the outside, it still looked like I wasn’t going to church!

  • http://www.10minutewriter.com Katharine

    This post comes in the middle of a two day (and I foresee much longer) online bicker-fest over politics in my homeschool support group. Fortunately, I’m not that attached to the group and I can slip away from their nonsense unnoticed. Unfortunately, words like “judgemental” and “condemning” are thrown around. I’ve decided I don’t really care about the policies that started the argument (the checklist, so to speak), I just don’t want to be around people who are hateful, in one way or another. The problem with checklists, if we want to be honest, is that they’re never complete. Is pettiness ever on a list? Gossip? Manipulation? They should be (here I go, being smug.) It’s a good thing God invented grace to call the list null and void, huh? (Great post. You never fail to teach me more about grace.)

  • http://my-plate.blogspot.com/ *Just Fran*

    Checklists and the inevitable judgment that comes with them are what drove me away from organized religion and forced me to look inside myself to find who God really is and what he wants from me. That ugliness, in a way, gave me the path to a greater peace and better relationship with God than I ever had before.

  • http://www.stephindialogue.com Stephanie S. Smith

    “Tell your story. Tell all of it.” This is great advice, for living and writing. Reminds me of so many of God’s people in Scripture that lived messy lives that would never meet the good Christian checklist. I know we cite this all the time in Christian circles, but it’s still different than absorbing and viewing ourselves and others through a lens that allows for crazy complicated humanity.

    Thanks Kristin :)

  • http://studentsofjesus.com Ray Hollenbach

    I’m so grateful for transparent grace-filled posts like this one, Kristin. Whether we take a straight-and-narrow or a meandering path, we find our way home only at God’s grace, and the Father sees us all when we are yet afar off.

    I’m especially grateful that you choose to pull the Biblical narrative into the closing of this piece. The great lifetimes recorded in the scripture are filled with examples of those who meandered their way to the Father’s house. It is sad (but predictable) that the Older Brother will be standing there, clipboard in hand, looking down at the checklist instead of at the celebration before him. Grace to you, and peace.

  • http://www.sarahbessey.com Sarah Bessey

    Preach, sister.

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    I tend to subscribe to the theory that many “sins” are in essence man-made. I let “love God and love one another” guide my actions, as well as the 10 Commandments, and ask God for guidance and forgiveness on the rest. It may be a dangerous approach, but I’ll take my chances.

    We’re all imperfect, and so who are we to judge one another? Like you said, God has the big picture that we don’t have the luxury of seeing, so I’ll let him take care of the judgment too.

  • http://katieleigh.wordpress.com Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams

    “Tell your story. Tell all of it.” Yes yes YES.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    HopefulLeigh, yes! You put the wonderful outcome of this realization exactly right: “It helps me affirm the beauty of my own redemption stories, while also asking the questions I need to ask to move forward.”

    Kirstin, your story about your mom’s hospice chaplain brings to mind the quote I used in my previous post: “Love God. Love others. Go.” It’s very much related to the “How well did you love my creation?” question. Of course, people have a wide variety of opinions about what love looks like, in terms of how they show it, but I think we all know what it feels like, on the receiving end.

    ed, your personal example of this is great: “I was making progress ‘back to God’s people’ even when I still couldn’t go to church.” Just sitting in a church (or being in a marriage) says very little about where a person is in relation to God. I just don’t get why people continue to think they know so much about others, based on their limited exposure to limited actions/choices.

    Katharine, I wouldn’t do very well in the situation you describe. Ugh. Prayers for peace and grace as you respond, duck out, or do whatever you need to do. And AMEN to this: The problem with checklists, if we want to be honest, is that they’re never complete. …It’s a good thing God invented grace to call the list null and void, huh?”

    Just Fran, I’m sure you are far from alone in your reasons for walking away from organized religion. I’m so sorry you had that experience, but so glad it ultimately led to “a greater peace and better relationship with God.” Thanks for sharing that part of your story.

  • http://www.troyduanesmith.com Troy D. Smith

    Confession: At first glance I thought your blog title was “God doesn’t use Chiklets,” and I was like, duh, who has fresher breath than God? Anyhow, as usual, I appreciate your perceptive observations…especially that “Tell your story, tell all of it” line. You are absolutely right, and we all need to remind ourselves of the fact we don’t have to “clean up” our own lifestory, especially when it was often all those messy parts that brought us to God.

  • http://manypinksneakers.blogspot.com Sarah Louise

    You are absolutely right, and we all need to remind ourselves of the fact we don’t have to “clean up” our own lifestory, especially when it was often all those messy parts that brought us to God.

    I love this post for many reasons, but mostly b/c it came on a day when I needed to start an email to a friend who thinks checklists are important. I haven’t finished that email, but reading your post gave me some of the courage I needed to make a beginning.

    I worry too much about what people think of me. Do I tell all of my story? Rarely.

    I am amazed at your courage, Kristin, and love that you audaciously tell your story, all of it. While I’m worrying about what to leave in or leave out, you are writing, ten or one hundred paces ahead.

    Thank you for being you.

    xo,
    SL

  • http://www.Iwouldntchangeathing.com Glenn

    Terrific post. Life is full of so many absurdities, so why must we allow ourselves to be burdened by what others think. The answer is simple, we shouldn’t! Although raised as a Roman Catholic, I have also found myself struggling with my religion. In the end, the way I live my life in the relationship that I have with God is sacred to me and me only. I refuse to allow defeatists point their fingers at me and tell me how I should live my life. There is a role for checklists in my life, but I use them to keep my own conscience focused and well-meaning.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Stephanie, isn’t it funny (and upsetting!) to imagine what the Bible would be like if a bunch of checklist Christians today were in charge of deciding which stories were “good” enough to be included? It would be a very short, very boring, and not very hope-filled book!

    Ray, amen to this: “Whether we take a straight-and-narrow or a meandering path, we find our way home only at God’s grace.” And I love your reference to the Older Brother in the Prodigal Son story. I’ve heard (or read) someone describe separation from God as just that: being right there, at the party, but being unable to let go of your own hangups and join the celebration.

    Sarah, thanks for your encouragement as I claim my story and voice!

    The Modern Gal, I think your approach seems pretty wise—focus on the clearest, great commandments God gave us, then doing a lot of praying and soul searching through the many grey areas.

    Katie, you are also a great encouragement to me. Thank you!

    Troy, I’m going to be laughing at your “who has fresher breath than God?” comment for a while! Humor aside, this is exactly right: “…we don’t have to ‘clean up’ our own lifestory, especially when it was often all those messy parts that brought us to God.”

    Sarah Louise, I’m glad you’ve found some courage to start a conversation you need to start. It’s those judging relationships that often trick us into thinking we need to cover up who we really are, and once we head down that road it’s tough to start making our way back. But you’re starting! And it will be so freeing. Blessings on you as you progress.

    Glenn, it’s really hard to hear what your heart is saying when there are so many other voices trying to tell you how to live, isn’t it? It seems like a very good thing that you’re able to separate your “religion” from your relationship with God. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  • http://rawfaithrealworld.wordpress.com/ Linda B.

    This last week was weird for me since I have a bunch of really conservative friends and a bunch of really liberal friends. The whole Amenendment in North Carolina / Obama coming out for gay marriage thing created a huge uproar. In the midst of all of that I was reminded of a few things… 1. Nobody died and made me Jesus where I get to wave my magic wand and make things work like I want them to. 2. I am called to love and model Christ’s love to the people who populate my world. That’s when I think real conversation can happen. We are all in the same boat. We all need God’s abundant love and mercy. :)

  • http://manypinksneakers.blogspot.com Sarah Louise

    “I was much closer to God at that time in my life, and striving much more earnestly to be his servant, than I ever was during my first marriage—the time in my life that looked so good on paper to those checklist Christians.”

    (I know this one, don’t I know it, so well.) I remember dating a man who came to church with me and it looked great to all my friends and even I thought it was great, until I realized the only reason he was coming was to garner grace with me. If he did all the right things, I would fall in love with him. And I thought, if he keeps coming to church, he’ll fall in love with Christ. We were both wrong.

    Kristin, you keep at this. Because if a single post can make me write you an email, a comment and another comment, you are going deep. I’m still writing that email I alluded to (above)…and in re-reading your post and re-reading the comments, it’s finally trickling to my brain, my heart, that this woman, the one I’m writing to, does not own my salvation. She is not the one that gets to choose what kind of a Christian I am. And all this time I was fearing her judgement, as if she could bar the church doors.

    And that is freedom. The Rahab kind of freedom. Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came a-tumblin’ down.

    Thank you.

    xo,
    SL

  • Ron S

    Sorry that I did not get around to reading this sooner. I very much appreciated the blog, and wish I could remember the quote that I will paraphrase and think came from C. S. Lewis. It would be a great God who could use all of our good deeds and ideas to further God’s purposes; it is an absolutely amazing God who can use our times when we sin, miss the mark, or step off the path to move God’s purposes forward in our lives. That’s the idea – of course, the actual quote is undoubtedly worded better. Your story is a part of that great big story of God and human history isn’t it? And, I enjoy the privilege of watching God do it in your life! – Ron

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