I commend every single person who wakes up early on Sunday, hops in that cold shower, finds their best dress, best shoes, best tie, and flies out the door for an hour plus of spiritual beatdown. To enter the church doors with all the piercing eyes, carrying your awkward Bible, some lugging an awkward purse and wild children, finding a seat in silence, trying to sing the songs you don’t know (not so loudly that others can you hear but loud enough that God can hear you), and not fidgeting for the entire sermon. Then trying to say hello to the pastor who is surrounded by more important looking people, meeting new people who probably already know you from tagged pictures on Facebook, and slipping out without having to volunteer for some expensive mission trip to an unpronouncable country. You go home, set the Bible on your nightstand for the week, and loosen your tie. You survived.
I’ve often thought: Wouldn’t life be easier without church? If I wasn’t a Christian, couldn’t I just do the stuff I always wanted to do? What do I even get out of all this?
In moments of extreme doubt, this is the tennis match I play out in my head. I’ve made lists. I’ve divided it pros and cons. I’ve pretended to be an atheist for days at a time; I used to be one so that wasn’t too hard. I’ve reformatted my moral grid to relativism. A few times I’ve contemplated all the wild things I could do if I wasn’t a “Sunday church person.” I remember what it was like when I would stay up four nights in a row downing shots of Bacardi and flirting with random strangers in tubetops. Sometimes I can even convince myself those days weren’t so bad. I imagine a world without God — impossible — so I imagine just my life without God. And every time the suspicion screams out: Life would be so much easier without Him.
But I wonder first what I mean by easier. A philosophy professor once told me we must always define our terms. When people use words like “easier” or “evil,” we must first ask, What do you mean by that? If “easier” means that I get to do what I want, then it’s probably true: My version of a fulfilled life would be easier. But my idea of an easier life is not always the best life, because a best life does not coincide with doing what I want to do. Even when I get what I want, this always changes. Will I want this in five minutes? In five hours? In five years? This does not include the inevitable consequences: the neglecting of children by parents, the manipulation of the financial world by business men, the exploitation of good will by politicians, the cycles of violence by criminal subcultures. All because they do what they want. Easy does not mean best, and the best is not easy.
But a church-life could not possibly be the best life, either. Numerous people have been hurt by Christians. You never hear many Buddhists or New-Age-ists or Confucianists decrying their religion over some ugly hypocrites that have judged them right out the door. Religion at a glance is awful. The rules feel like tyranny. Even if the Bible speaks truth, there are old church ladies that regulate how to dress, what school to go to, how to sit straight, what political party is the right one — essentially a handful of crafted opinions that seem informed by preference or by a twisting of Scripture. Apparently a necktie and homeschooling will prevent us from burning in Hell.
You might think, Well there’s a middle ground, buddy. If we can find a common meeting ground — a nexus, if you will — of what’s easy and what’s best, then perhaps we have a working mechanism. So we go to church to inform our beliefs, but outside of church we have freedoms to participate in our particular methods of satisfaction. A little salad, a little meat.
Right away there are problems with this. Now we’ve drawn even more rules about what we can or cannot do based on God is happy with this much or God will strike me dead here. We also run the risk of hypocrisy, which ultimately becomes too difficult to maintain.
Jesus told us it would not be easy. There is a cost to follow Him. Looking at it from a cost-to-benefit ratio, the Christian suffers extreme losses. Then why would anyone want to do this? Maybe we have made it too hard with our many artificial layers and Sunday rituals, or maybe our definition of easy is out of sync with spiritual reality. No one goes to the gym expecting easy. Even eight minute ab machines take work. Not just anyone can make it to Harvard. A clean house doesn’t clean itself. That’s the reality.
So we re-define this tension by pulling back. Nothing is easy. Choosing easy isn’t easy. Even if we lived life as if it were only about the self, there is nothing simple about ourselves either. We know what we want until we have it. We benefit from something only as long as we think that’s true, which in our default state is never that long. It’s at this point that we must either re-invent the self again to fulfill what’s missing — an endless, exhausting cycle — or realize this isn’t about me since we can’t rely on me anyway. When we realize this is about more than just meeting our own needs and actually about living for the right thing, we must know what is absolutely necessary to live for. Whether you like it or not, you live for something.
The question isn’t, Is the gym easy? but rather, Do I need to go to the gym? So the new question becomes: Is it necessary to be a Christian? Something about that crazy Sunday process must be worth it. There must be a reason I’m willing to endure some discomfort on a day I could sleep in til noon. Not just a little taste of here and there, but something dramatic and explosive and real.
Part Two is here.
Part Three is here.
Part Four, the conclusion, is here.