I was raised in a traditional, religious home and baptized as a baby. I attended a religious school for a season, met all the requirements and even had great memories of going to confession each week.
And yet, as a child my understanding of God was based on two words: fear and guilt. The only sermon I heard every Sunday growing up was a 3-point lecture that went like this:God is good, you are bad, try harder.
That recurring theme shaped my early view of God. My fear caused me to think that if I did enough good things I would go to Heaven when I died, and if I did bad things I would go to Hell. As a child I saw the world as black and white. You’re in or you’re out.
That is something my wife, Mardel, and I were sensitive to when raising our two children, especially since they were growing up in a pastor’s home. We wanted them to understand the relational aspect of God before they began focusing on the rules of God.
When our kids were growing up, all they knew was that our lives were centered on God and the church. We never missed it. The main reason my kids never missed church was because I was their pastor. In our family, each Sunday was, “Take your kids to work day.”
When we served at a church in Tacoma, we did several large outreaches throughout the year. Because we drew a public crowd, we would put ashtrays outside the building.
Our kids were young at that time and had been taught in Sunday School that Christians do and don’t do certain things. Smoking was one of those things on their “Don’t do” list. One Sunday we were pulling out of the parking lot and my daughter, Amber, the most vocal member of the family, asked, “Daddy, that man is smoking, will he go to Heaven?”
Her theology was divided into do’s and don’ts. In her mind, doing the right things would get you to Heaven and doing the wrong things would take you to Hell.
I said, “Yes, honey, if this man has a relationship with God and has received forgiveness, he will go to Heaven when he dies. He’ll just smell like hell when he gets there!”
For many people in our culture, when the topic of God comes up, the discussion is primarily about religion, the things we do or don’t do. That is too bad because that is not what God is about. He invites each of us to be in friendship with him and live in grace. Anything less than that is a man-made philosophy and will leave people with a religion based on fear and guilt.
Let the words of the New Testament ring true in your life today: “The obvious impossibility of carrying out such a moral program should make it plain that no one can sustain a relationship with God that way. The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God arranges for him.” (Galatians 3:11, The Message)