Institutionalized Faith

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There’s a scene in the movie Shawshank Redemption that captures the state of The Church fairly well. Several inmates are gathered around the final letter of one of their best friends. In the letter, they come to understand that the writer, a man who served 50 years in prison, had taken his own life after recently being released. Most inmates couldn’t understand why. All, in fact, except one.

“These walls are funny,” Red explains. “First you hate them. Then you get used to them. After a while, you get to depend on them.”

The fictional demon, Screwtape explains more specifically, “You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it—all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.”

Attrition is the slow and constant abrasion that eventually wears something down; like ocean waves splashing against stone. This is what has been happening to the passion of The Church in America. Over time, our faith has become routine, and then more routine. There are generations who have been raised up in this particular brand of faith – a faith of duty, obligation and outward goodness.

Is it any wonder young Christians have compromised Biblical principles? They’ve seen a picture of what they believe is Christianity, but it’s a picture portrayed by Christians who have grown dependent on the walls of their faith. These believers simply do not know how to survive outside the walls, they’ve forgotten who they were before they were taken in.

It’s easy to think of these walls simply as fear or even old wounds. That’s true – many believers are walled in by these things. The problem is the presumption that follows. It seems only logical to think we’re afraid of the world, or persecution. The truth is, we’re afraid of God. Or, really, intimacy with God and our calling.

We’re afraid to be seen, to be utterly known. Like Adam and Eve, we hide ourselves from Him. We hide our shame, our guilt and our insecurities. We hide behind our works of faith, or in our addictions. We settle for a marginalized life in exchange for feeling safe.

We have believed a terrible lie. It’s the same lie that the older brother in the story of the prodigal son believed. Do you remember his response when the prodigal son returned to his father? He felt betrayed! He had been the obedient son, following all the rules and yet he missed his father’s heart.

It’s the lie that safety – or really, the illusion of safety – is better than being known by God and answering His call. It’s the lie that prosperity and health are signs that we’re living within His will or that they are life’s goal. Simply put, The Church has placed its faith in The Church, a system of good works, to feel affirmed or validated as Children of God, and yet not be affected by fallen creation.

Of course, nobody says this because the nature of our enemy’s most damaging work is that we simply don’t recognize it. We just see the symptoms.

The Church in America today has taken this false belief and applied it in mass-production. We’ve all been warned of the consequences of disobedience. We’ve been extolled to take action and speak against our nation’s waywardness. We are told of the urgency with which we must share our faith. All of these teachings are good and true. They are also only a part of Christianity.

Very few Christians truly understand the life, the rich and abundantly joyful life that comes from holding our hearts open to God – from abiding in Him. And yet, even without this life that comes from abiding in Jesus, believers are desperately working to produce good fruit. That’s institutionalized.

It’s time all of us pursued the abundant life we’ve been promised. It’s time to stop settling for the marginalized life. It’s time to break through the walls and live out the calling God predestined for each of us.

As Paul exhorts us in Ephesians 5, “Wake up, O sleeper, Rise from the Dead and Christ will shine on you.”

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