“Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.” (Luke 11:44)This is an interesting word picture. In the first century, if you were a Jew, and you walked on someone’s grave, even if you did it accidentally, you were considered unclean for a week.
What Jesus is saying here is that one of the elements of an unhealthy religious community is that it claims to make people clean, save them, and set them free. Yet in reality, it’s full of unmarked death and actually enslaves people, makes them sicker, wounds them, brings them into even greater bondage, and makes them even more lost—without them even knowing it! There is a level of being “oblivious” to it all; there is an “unknown” quality to it. This happens often in religious environments because of their very nature. First, Jesus did not come to call us to join a religion. He called us to a way of life: the way of love. Secondly, religion to some looks very good. It looks like the right thing to do. But if we are not careful, that which we think is helping us can really be doing greater harm. We can be in a religious environment that is actually pushing us farther from the Kingdom while making us feel as if we are “being saved”, being made whole or clean, or being made healthier.
Let me explain.
I want to be clear from the very beginning about what I am NOT saying. I am NOT saying that having the right beliefs isn’t important. Certainly, our beliefs shape our understanding of God and His love (i.e., His character) and are therefore extremely important and relevant. Secondly, I’m NOT saying that right behavior is not important. There are many self-destructive behaviors that God wants to set us free from. What I AM talking about is the reality that too often in religious environments, worth, value, security, acceptance, belonging, and life are bestowed upon people on the basis of the rightness of their belief or behavior. (We’ve discussed basing our acceptance of others on the rightness of their behavior elsewhere, so this week I’d like to discuss briefly the problem with basing our acceptance of people on the rightness of their belief.)
I want you to consider something that, for years, I have been reluctant to share because when I do, it always seems to be misunderstood. Within the last twelve months though, it struck me right between the eyes once again. In Genesis 2 and 3, the fall of man centered on believing a lie about the kind of person God actually is. But the actual “act” that we call “the fall” was an independent effort to obtain LIFE from knowing the difference between “good and evil.” The options were either to eat (gain life) from the tree of life or gain life from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of course, God wants us to be able to discern the difference between what is good and what is harmful. But this isn’t what this story is about. There is a difference between knowing the difference between what is good and what is evil and actually endeavoring to get LIFE from that knowledge.
When it comes to the rightness of your beliefs, is it being correct in your beliefs that is going to determine whether you are saved or lost in the end, or is God Himself your Savior? You see, when we base someone’s eternal destiny simply on what they intellectually believe, doctrinal or otherwise, we are inadvertently supplanting the place that God alone is to hold and exalting doctrinal beliefs to the place of “savior”. Is it important to have right beliefs? Absolutely! But what we are talking about is deriving worth, acceptance, belonging, assurance of salvation, or LIFE from the rightness of your belief instead of Jesus and the Cross.
The difference is so subtle, but the result is HUGE. You see, in an effort to share Biblical facts with others, we must be careful not exalt those facts to a place of determining who is in or who is out. The center of any healthy kingdom community is Jesus. And what we believe grows out of following Him who is at the center of all we are to be about. What determines whether someone is “in” or “out” of God’s kingdom, according to Jesus, is always their heart orientation to HIM, not their intellectual position on certain facts. (An example of this is the thief on the cross. Jesus saw the orientation of this man’s heart toward Him. He didn’t give him a questionnaire about what he believed. Jesus saw the orientation of the man’s heart and simply whispered to him, “Welcome to the Kingdom.”)
I know this may challenge a few of us. I’m challenged by it too. But if we do not begin to make this distinction, we are in danger of also becoming “unmarked graves” that claim to set people free by introducing a clearer knowledge of the Bible while actually polluting them even more by supplanting the position only Jesus is to hold in their lives and replacing it with something that looks on the surface to be correct. It is something that is very right, but in the very wrong place.
In contrast, Jesus really did heal people. He brought them life. He made people whole. He made people clean. And He has given us the authority, through the revelation of His love, to do the same.
Whenever a community bestows worth or value on others based upon the rightness of their beliefs or the rightness of their behavior, they inescapably become a community described as an unmarked grave. It wounds people often without being aware of what it is doing.
Let me close with this: As followers of Jesus, we have failed to understand and internalize the biblical teaching that our fundamental sin is not our “evil,” as though the solution to sin was being good. Rather, the issue was trying to obtain LIFE from the knowledge of good or evil. Our fundamental sin is that we place ourselves in the position of God and divide ourselves and others based on what we evaluate as evil or good. In the garden, we were not content to simply love like God (Genesis 1:26); we desired also to be able to judge as only God can. This obtaining for ourselves and bestowing upon others LIFE based on our ability to evaluate good and evil is the primary thing that keeps us from doing the central thing God created and saved us to do—namely, love like He loves. I can hear some already. Living in this love in no way implies moral relativism. Certainly there are contexts in which it is appropriate and necessary to share with others and even confront others with our detection of the impact of evil in their lives. (Sadly, we as Christians have specialized and become known for doing this in the wrong contexts and in completely and utterly inappropriate ways.) But remember, even in the appropriate contexts, we are not to derive any worth, value, assurance, or LIFE from our discernment of good and evil. We are not to EAT (an effort to get life) from the ability to discern what is good or evil. Nor are we to draw conclusions ABOUT PEOPLE on the basis of it. We are to derive worth, value, security, assurance, salvation, and LIFE from a very different tree—the Cross of Jesus alone. And we are to love without evaluating others and without conditions. God’s original purpose and the goal of the restorative work of Jesus is to bring us back to Eden where we once again love without evaluation, without judgment, and without conditions. (Matthew 5:44, 45: If they are breathing the same air as us, we are called to love them.) Again, Jesus calls us not to a religion, but to LOVE.
I think that’s enough to ponder for this week. As always, I’m always open to questions, and there is always room for clarification.
I love you guys, and God does too!
In the light of how God loves us, keep loving like the sun and loving like rain. (Matthew 5:44, 45)
Now go build the Kingdom.