(Post #7 in a collaborative series)
Guest Blogger Mark Stanifer
It is July 2005. I’m 32 years old. On this hot summer day I’m disoriented, sitting in an unfamiliar church auditorium, listening to an unfamiliar dude. He’s got long hair, tattoos, a Canadian accent, and is wearing shorts and sandals. He seemed innocuous enough, but he’s just rocked my world and I didn’t see it coming. That’s when my spiritual surgery began, and it would take years to fully recover.
To understand why this is so significant, roll the clock back 20 years to 1985. I’m 12 years old, mid-way through the usual summer church camp and God grabbed hold of my heart. Growing up a church rat—you know, the kid who is always there because his parents were always there—I knew the language and the routine. This summer I began a deeper understanding of why. I remember tears, talking with one of the camp counselors, and an intense resolve to pursue God from that point forward.
My life has always be defined by coloring inside the lines. I like to know the rules and the right way to do things. For some, that is suffocating. For me, it is comforting. This is how I am wired. It has advantages in the right context. It can also create problems. One of those problems is a too-familiar relationship with fear. Another is an inclination toward stasis unless the way forward is clear. These two are related, for sure. They both have dogged me.
In 1995, I graduated from college, married my high school sweetheart and began life out in the “real world.” It felt like I had waited a long time for these things to happen, so the excitement was real. As we built our life together, we invested heavily into our local church. It was part of the real world requirement for a God-follower. Nursery duty, teaching younglings, helping the teens, leading small groups, starting whole programs, serving as an elected leader. Name the church thing and I had done it. My church resume was impressive. So much so that “churchianity” had started to replace Christianity for me.
In reality, I was becoming more like a chief priest or ruler of the law. I see that now, although at the time I didn’t. My spiritual swagger from right believing and right living was becoming arrogance. Non Christians were more like projects. Christians who weren’t in my tribe were marginalized. All the while, I lived with a strong fear, just below the surface, that unless my beliefs and actions were right God would be disappointed in me. As Wayne Jacobsen says, I was trapped in the “obligation of religious performance.”
By the time my 20’s came to a close, I was on my way to becoming a righteous Pharisee. This wasn’t the path I intended. My desire was to follow God, to know Jesus. However, in my attempt to find that path I drifted toward religiosity. It was seductive—measurable activity, documented beliefs, outward proof of my allegiance to God. There was also my “good life”—good job, good wife, good kids, good health, good [fill-in-the-blank]. I equated good life with God’s love. The problem was, it was never about religious performance. God’s love isn’t evidenced by good circumstances. I was missing the whole point. It has always been about an intimate relationship with Jesus.
Which brings us full circle back to 2005 and the Canadian. I had no idea that this was the first incision of the surgery. A surgery that I would eventually refer to affectionately as my “Pharis-ectomy.” It took years of incisions, healing, and recovery to get to where I am. Yet I am grateful for it all. Why? Because I have today what I didn’t have before:
- A deep, abiding confidence that I am loved by Father, regardless of what I do on His behalf
- An intimate and growing relationship with Jesus
- A immense freedom that I didn’t realize was possible; a freedom to live for Jesus way beyond rules; a freedom to engage others from a place of love rather than fear and judgement
Who was God in my 20’s? The same God I know and follow today. I just better understand who He is. And I better understand who I am in Him. This is what He’s wanted for me from the beginning. It took a journey through my 20’s to be ready to embrace it. One that I will always value. One that I’m happy to have behind me.