I have been on a journey over the past three years that has been a hard one, but I am so thankful to God for bringing me through it.
I came to the faith about 17 years ago through the witness of a woman at my job. The funny thing is that she wasn't even trying to reach me, but my cousin. My cousin would come home and share with me Omega Church & Ministry Center tapes & materials this woman gave her. Somehow, when I heard these messages, I knew that I was hearing the truth.
God led me to go to a Christian bookstore and I purchased a Bible as well as other Christian books. Everything else in my life faded to black as I devoted my time to study and prayer; I was eaten up with a desire to know more about God and to be known by Him. I devoured every tape, every message, every book as a new world was opened to me via the preaching of the Gospel.
It turns out that this woman's husband was the pastor of that church and soon I became a member. As I grew in the faith, the pastor & his wife literally became like a father and a mother to me. I was craving life, and the source of the life I needed (Jesus Christ) was pouring through them. They opened their home to me, and in those years I likely spent more time with them than in my own home. This Body of believers became a family for me that in many ways was more real than my earthly family. I was so excited to be in the presence of the saints that I would show up about an hour early for almost every meeting, service, or social function. When those events were over, I lingered, attempting to delay going back to the loneliness of my own apartment. The closeness of this relationship meant the world to me. Their acceptance gave me a sense of belonging & security I hadn't known before.
I am not describing anything abnormal. What I am describing - and what they offered me - is true discipleship. A brother once stated the following about what it really means to be a disciple:
Because many of us have been indoctrinated by an institutional mindset, there is a tendency to look at our faith, the scriptures, the church, and Jesus’ commands to us from an institutional vantage point. I believe this is a major reason why we have had a wrong definition of discipleship. Jesus said when a disciple is fully trained; he will be like his master (Matthew 10:24-25). Not only does Jesus want us to be His disciples (be like Jesus), He has commanded us to make other disciples by teaching others about Himself and His commands (Matthew 28-18-20)....What is spoken of above is what I experienced. The pastor and his wife had their lives laid down in service to God. Therefore, as a babe in Christ, I was able to learn what it is to be a servant of Jesus by their living example.
True life change is something that is ‘caught’ by demonstration more than ‘taught’ by information...To the degree that we have received life and have lived by Christ’s divine life, will be the degree that we are able to give this life away to others. I’m afraid that many people will find this kind of a lifestyle too difficult because they have no spiritual life to give away. They are dry on the inside. Living this kind of a community lifestyle is sustained through abiding in the vine (John 15) as a way of life.
As the years went by, I grew in the knowledge of the Lord and my fellowship with the saints became even more precious. I had a "church family". I loved the structure & support, it was dependable, even comfortable to me...perhaps too comfortable. Church eventually became an idol to me. Instead of keeping my eyes on Jesus, I began to define myself (and my relationship to God) based on my interactions with the Body of Christ. If I attended service regularly, did what I was asked, and had their approval, then I was serving God.
Don't get me wrong; the issue was not with the church at all, but with me. I was looking for man to fill a hole that only Jesus could fill. It is so easy to look on the external for validation, direction, acceptance, & approval because interactions with man are tangible. People can give an immediate smile, a word of correction, or share spiritual wisdom to encourage you along the way. Plus, religious works can often feel like Godly works. After all, if I am accepted by my church family then I must be accepted by God...right?
Like children in the natural, God may place us in the care of others to help nurture our growth, but at some point we are expected to mature. There comes a time when our spiritual senses have to be exercised enough not to need the tangible reassurances of man. Our spirit is sharpened to hear from, be sensitive to, and be satisfied with the Spirit of God directly (and primarily). That doesn't mean we outgrow the need for fellowship. It simply means that we understand the need to be made whole in fellowship with Christ first.
The love and righteousness we see reflected in God's servants should lead us to seek even more the One whom they reflect: Jesus Christ. But somewhere along the way, I had become content with just the reflection. I began to use "the church" and my role in it as the barometer for measuring my progress with God. So because the Father loves us beyond what we can imagine - and because He is a jealous God - He began to show me my idolatry.
He began to take away my security blanket.
Bye Bye Blankie
Was I really hearing from the Lord?" I became torn between feelings of responsibility for representing "the church" versus representing Christ.
This should have been my first clue that the image I had developed of church was wrong. Everything that God allowed to happen at this time was for the purpose of showing me how I had given "church" a life and identity of its own, apart from Christ. In truth there is no disconnect between Christ and His Church, for the Body is merely a reflection of the Head.
God then placed me in a variety of situations where I had to choose. I could do what He was leading me to or do what others thought I should be doing. Submitting to others would at least give me the appearance of being submitted to Christ and allow me to retain their perceived approval. Yet the same would also mean I had placed man in a position which only God should have in my life, potentially putting me in disobedience to the Father.
It may sound like an easy choice - and perhaps it should have been - but it wasn't. It was a tortuous time and I often vacillated between obeying God and doing what others thought because I didn't want to be rejected by the only spiritual family I had come to know. What needed to be set aside was not the church, but my faulty impressions about it (and the need I had for man's approval). However I honestly wasn't strong enough to do it, so God did it for me. He yanked from my clutching hands the idol I had made of "church" by removing me from regular interaction with my church family.
I'll state it again: the issue was not my church family; the issue was me. Brothers and sisters in Christ may have the best of intentions, but we still need to seek to know and heed God's direction in all things. Because I had not made it a priority to be made whole in Christ first, I was being swayed by every impression, every expectation. I realized that I needed to "know that I know that I know" God's voice above all others and have the fortitude to obey Him in spite of.
I had to ask myself, "Was I willing to stand for God, even by myself? Was I willing to obey God, even when brothers & sisters may not understand? Would I conform to the opinion of men so as to appear "submitted" while knowing I was not doing the will of God?"
I had to face the fact: God was expecting me to GROW UP. I couldn't rely on others to direct my life, sign off on it, or tell me what to do. I had to become personally accountable before Him and seek the Lord myself to know His will.
Let me also clarify. Ceasing local fellowship is no sign of maturity. This was a specific process that God used in this particular case to address this idol within me. It is not like you reach a point where you become so "super spiritual" that you no longer need the Body of Christ. God says that we should seek to come together all the more as we see that day approaching.
Yet at the same time, getting together with other like-minded believers is not what makes us Christians. Neither are we called to live up or down to any man's perceptions of our walk with God. We are His sons & daughters when we are led by His Spirit to do His will. That is what God needed me to learn.
So I began the painful journey of walking out this aspect of my relationship with God. I say painful because being apart from my family for a while was like having to cut an umbilical cord. Truth is, I didn't want to stand by myself; I didn't think I was ready. Yet, even as I look back on it now, I know it was needed and for a purpose. God was making me into that which He had first used to reach me: a disciple.
As long as I saw myself as one to be discipled instead of one to become a disciple, then I would never take the steps to start doing the works of the ministry. If I only saw myself as one who was supposed to be fed, I would never fulfill God's command for me to feed others. I had become arrested in my development in Christ because of my own idolatry of "the church". So God had to send me through this test to prove me, to let me see for myself whether I was prepared to stand in Him, even alone.
Over the past year, God enabled us to put into practice what He has been growing us up for over the past three years. We were able to open our home to several people, including a new believer in Christ who stayed with us for most of this year. As was done for me, we have been able to pray with her, teach her God's word, encourage her in the faith, intercede for her deliverance, etc. She has indeed become an extension of our own family.
As we took her to the airport this weekend to return home, she cried wondering if she was ready to leave. She did not want to go. I smiled, understanding only too well her hesitations. I shared with her that - while we would always be here for her - God also needed her to grow in Him so that she can begin to put into practice what God had been showing her, learning to depend on Him completely. Like a child learning how to walk, God would make sure that there was support to teach us how to take our first steps, but at some point we have to learn to stand on our own. It is then that we can be free to fellowship with others in Spirit and in truth.
This is not about what we have done, but about what God has done (and is doing)! Through it all, I am able to see the cycle that real life generates. As God designs, each life type produces after its own kind. If we have been regenerated to life in Christ then we must bear the fruit of that life to others and be able to lead them also to it. This is the manifestation of eternal life and it is the life source of the Church.
Pastor Gary Price preached a message this past Sunday on "The Words of Eternal life" which addresses the false notions we can adopt about who and what the church of God is. The question he challenges us on is the same that God issues to His people, "Will you stand up? Will you be accountable? Will you go into the world and proclaim the Good News?"
There is no more time for playing church. It is time to become the Church. We must each consider whether we actually possess the transforming words of eternal life.
The Words of Eternal Life - Part 1
The Words of Eternal Life - Part 2