The Modern Era

Centuries ago, the Age of Reason and Enlightenment emphasized a powerful way for humanity to engage the world. It asserted that men and women are individuals with the power to reason, judge, act and influence. No longer were common folk hapless feathers floating on the wind, buffeted by ignorance, superstition, and blind acquiescence to worldly authorities. We became thinking and self-determining. We became modern.

On a broad scale, people began to apply the five senses and logic to solve problems in the realms of science, medicine, government, education, industry, economics, psychology and even religion. The result has been an evolution and improvement of society unlike anything ever seen before. Scientific and engineering inventions like mechanized manufacturing, railroads, steamboats, internal combustion engines, automobiles, electricity, telephones, airplanes and radio completely changed the way we work, travel and live. Standards of living improved exponentially, so the average Western person today arguably enjoys more creature comforts than royalty did in centuries past. In politics, people questioned the wisdom and validity of absolute monarchies. The American and French revolutions ensued, bringing democracy, human rights, equality and the rule of law. Today democracy has extended throughout the West and into Asia, South America, Africa and even parts of the Middle East. In religion, people questioned the exclusive franchise that the Catholic Church claimed to have on truth and salvation. Protestantism and other forms of spirituality flourished as religion became a matter of personal conviction and conscience.

Today, we take pills to heal our diseases, talk to people anywhere with cell phones, watch global events live on television, use the Internet to learn about or buy anything we want right now, and travel the world by car and airplane. No wonder God looked on mankind as they came together to build the majestic tower of Babel and remarked, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” (Genesis 11:6)


“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”
Proverbs 3:5-6

“We live by faith, not by sight.”
2 Corinthians 5:7

We live by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). This simple phrase describe the essence of walking with God. It is by faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Faith is a heart that says, “I trust you, Lord, even if I don’t understand.” A person with faith steps forward at God’s behest, believing that he is good, just, and worthy. On the other hand, sight represents the physical faculties of human perception. They are what we use to get around and live each day. Sight includes seeing with the eye as well as hearing, taste, smell, and touch – the five senses. But that is not all. Sight also implies thought, or the intellectual ability to reason and analyze. Thus the verse: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). Therefore, faith is a responsiveness to God that ultimately is based on a direct connection to him. We do not see him. Human reasoning concludes either that God is, is not, or might be, depending on who you ask. Nevertheless, God’s children hear his voice in their hearts and respond. This is faith. The problem is that mainstream Christianity leans far too much on human reason and intellectual analysis. In other words, it too often lives by sight.

What About Right and Wrong?

How then do you determine right and wrong or good and bad? How does one know what to do? The Bible is filled with brilliant moral teaching. It virtually explodes with wisdom and direction for life. This book leaves no stone unturned, no ill motive unexposed, no good deed unpraised, and no important issue unaddressed. If you want insight about relationships, money, career, church, love, sex, life, death, heaven, hell – it is there. Every book in the Old and New Testaments has great lessons to offer.

The issue is how to interpret this moral teaching. There are two distinct approaches, and one represents the way of law and the other of the Spirit:

  1. Read the Bible to assemble a set of absolute rules by which to live and then try to follow them. The thinking goes that if a person follows the rules well enough, he or she will have an abundant, successful, and righteous life. This is why many Christian books have titles like “Ten Steps to a Deeper Walk” or “How to Share Your Faith”. We want a tidy program to follow. However, if a person does not follow the prescribed rules, the result is sin, failure, spiritual decay and unrighteousness. A corollary is that if life is not going well for some reason (e.g. marital, financial, work problems), the likely problem is not having the right set of rules or not following them rigorously enough. This creates a temptation to judge others, if things are going well, or to feel like a spiritual loser if they are not.

    It is difficult even for sincere truth seekers to sort out which rules are best or right. Each church has a slightly different rule set. In fact, many denominations and church splits have their origins in these differences. The Bible is a large and multi-faceted book. Good-hearted, intelligent people have studied it thoroughly and still disagree on interpretations. Culture and church traditions also influence the rules. While mainstream Christianity agrees that we no longer live under the law of Moses (e.g. we are not obligated to sacrifice animals, we can eat pork), many comb the New Testament to decipher a new set of moral laws. Churchgoers are encouraged to study the Bible and/or church doctrine to learn their particular rules. These are many and varied:

    Be kind to others. Be generous. Share your faith with unbelievers. Communion is for church members only. Communion is for everyone. Everyone should seek to speak in tongues. No one should speak in tongues. Tithe ten percent of your income. Give how you feel led. Do not go into debt. Debt is only okay for a durable asset, like a house. Divorce is always wrong. Divorce is wrong except in the case of adultery. Divorce is regrettable. Pastors can marry and have children. Priests cannot marry nor have children. Elders must be men, not women. Christians should vote Republican. Christians should vote Democrat. Saturday is the Sabbath day. Sunday is the Sabbath day. It is good to take a day off sometimes. And so on.

  2. Read the Bible to understand God’s ways and moral principles, and then trust his Spirit to direct when and how to apply them. This way acknowledges that religion is first a matter of the heart. We live from the inside out, not by merely following an external framework or program. The heart of a man or woman is the core of their being, seat of the Holy Spirit and wellspring of life. It is where we discern truth and wisdom. The heart of a Christian, a person who has been “born again”, is good and can be trusted, even though the “flesh” or sinful nature still vies for influence. (See Romans 7:21-25 and Ezekiel 36:26-27. These verses refute the teaching that a reborn Christian’s heart is still evil, implying that we cannot trust our hearts and therefore need an external laws to follow. )

    Moreover, this way acknowledges that the moral teachings of the Bible are principles that shape our values, not absolute laws to be applied in all situations all of the time. There is a big difference in practical terms. Love is the only absolute, and there are more ways to love than grains of sand in the ocean. We trust the Holy Spirit to show us how to apply these teachings and principals in all the complexity of life. The Spirit actively speaks and, as Jesus said, is the one who illuminates truth and wisdom (see John 16:13). We can trust him to lead us in the moment.

    Life is not simple. Navigating it cannot be reduced to a set of magic formulas and cookie-cutter sound bites. The world is complex, multi-faceted and usually colored in shades of gray. Cartoon caricatures of good and evil are found only in the realm of fantasy and fairy tales. The real world contains striations of good and evil that blend and mix through people and events. Life is full of mystery, paradox and contradiction. Pain, suffering and loss share the stage with joy, triumph and gain. Clear-cut black and white is a welcome exception, but not the rule! Every situation is different; every person is unique; every life has a special purpose. We have to exercise judgment and discernment. We need God’s infinite and wise Spirit to see through it all. Living by a simplified set of laws short-circuits his participation and essential influence in our faith.

The second approach describes living by the Spirit. It is quite different from legalism. It is quite different from how mainstream Christianity tends to operate. It assumes a deep, personal, intimate, powerful connection with our Creator. And that we have because of Christ! Today is Easter, as I write. I am reminded that he rose from the dead and established this connection to God. He made it all possible. We must lean on this connection and trust the Spirit. Such an act of faith feels like stepping onto a tightrope strung taught between two skyscrapers. Don’t look down! Look at him. He is there and will keep us balanced and upright.

Faith Hall of Fame

Read the celebrated faith hall of fame in Hebrews (Hebrews 11:1-40). It gives the accounts of Old Testament figures who demonstrated great faith in God as examples for Christians to follow. Among them is Abraham, who is listed for his willingness to kill his son Isaac at God’s request. It is an incredible and almost unbelievable story that shatters normal religious conventions. God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, so he traveled to a mountaintop with Isaac to carry it out. At the last minute, with knife in hand and Isaac tied up, God stopped Abraham and provided a ram for the offering instead. It was a test of allegiance, whether Abraham valued his beloved son more than his loyalty to God. He passed. What an awful decision to have to make, and what amazing faith! (By the way, Abraham thought that God would raise Isaac from the dead because he had promised Isaac would be his heir.) Now, consider this story in the light of any moral framework you wish – Old Testaments laws, New Testament moral teachings, civil codes or one’s conscience. If sacrificing one’s own child does not violate every rule imaginable, I do not know what does. Yet God asked him to do it, and the Bible upholds Abraham as a model of faith for his willingness. Is that not confounding? It seems that the ultimate factor of faith is a person’s direct trust and responsiveness to God above and beyond anything else.

Read further in the same chapter about the example of Rahab, a prostitute who harbored Israelite spies. She lived in the city of Jericho as Israel was planning to conquer it as part its campaign to inhabit the Promised Land. Rahab heard about how God had parted the Red Sea for the Israelites and enabled them to conquer other local kings. She believed God was with them and decided to side with the Almighty. (Always a good call!) Therefore, she hid the spies in her house when they came to survey Jericho. The civil authorities came to question her, and she lied and said the Israelites had already left, sending them on a wild goose chase. However, the spies were still in her house, and then she helped them escape from the city in the middle of the night. In return, the spies agreed not to harm her household when Israel conquered the city. This is a story of great faith. Rahab risked everything because she believed God was with the Israelites. On another level, it is as confounding as the story of Abraham because Rahab was a prostitute who lied to the authorities and betrayed her own people. Yet it is listed as an example of faith for Christians to follow.

The Bible showcases people who apparently broke all the rules except one, acting upon an ultimate trust in God. If you think that the Christian faith is primarily about keeping a set of rules, whatever you have come to believe those are, then this message is troubling. It should be upsetting, shocking, even scandalous. These examples of faith are not reconcilable with a rules-based viewpoint. Some may try to explain them away with elaborate philosophy and reasoning, perhaps saying they took place in a different era and somehow do not apply to us today. But they are right there in the New Testament! As is Jesus’ statement that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. As is the Apostle Paul’s repeated claim that Christians live by the Spirit, not law. The Bible speaks plainly here. It is right there in full view.

The point is that faith is not merely following a set of religious rules. It is more than that and sometimes even in spite of that. Faith is a positive response to God from the heart – an act of trust, love, and service. This is living by the Spirit.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

To begin, consider the Gospel account where Jesus and his disciples were walking through grain fields on the Sabbath, the Jewish holy day of rest (Matthew 12:1-8). The disciples picked heads of grain and ate them, and the religious Pharisees accused them of violating the Sabbath by doing work. Technically, the Pharisees were right. The law of Moses forbade doing any work on that day – on punishment of death! In fact, when Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness and God rained down bread (or manna) each day as food, the Lord instructed the people to gather two days worth on the day before the Sabbath, so they would not have to do any work by even gathering food (Exodus 16). But this is exactly what Jesus’ disciples were doing.

Jesus responded to the accusation by saying the disciples were innocent, but he did not claim that they were not breaking the rule. It seems like a contradiction. Jesus cited a couple of situations in the Old Testament where people technically broke laws and were still blameless, as if the letter of the law were not of primary concern. Then he made a powerful statement to the Pharisees that hints at the distinction between the Spirit and law. Jesus said that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. It is actually a quote from the Old Testament book of Hosea. Now, mercy is grace and forgiveness that a person extends to another. It is a willingness to overlook a wrong done. Mercy comes from the heart and promotes healing and reconciliation. On the other hand, animal sacrifice was a requirement under Old Testament law to atone for sins. At certain points in history, the hearts of Israelites became hard toward God. They continued to sacrifice animals by requirement of the law, but they neglected to treat others with compassion, respect, and mercy. God expressed displeasure with this hypocrisy. By stating that God desires mercy, not sacrifice, Jesus was saying that he wants people to love from the heart, not just follow rules. The point of religion is to love God and others. Keeping the letter of the law – any law – is not the main point. In this light, the accusation of the Pharisees was technically correct but morally wrong. It was legalistic and made a mountain out of a mole hill. It also came from a harsh and critical spirit because the Pharisees’ real motive was to find fault with the disciples because they did not like how Jesus challenged their religious authority.

So here is one distinction: Living by the Spirit means loving from the heart, not following religious rules.

We Live by the Spirit, Not by Law

“We have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”
Romans 7:6

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.”
Galatians 5:18

The New Testament directs Christians to live by the Spirit, not by law. This distinction is vast and profound. In fact, it shakes the foundation of what it means to be a Christian. The Spirit and law are like day and night, white and black. The difference is far more than academic or cosmetic. Living by the Spirit is at the heart of what it is to walk with God – each day and each moment.

Law is a set of written codes by which to live. Think of the codes that govern the state or city where you live: traffic laws, building codes, property rights and so forth. They help ensure safety, fairness and order in society. If a person obeys the law, then he is free to go about the daily activities of life. If a person breaks the law (and is caught), then he must pay a fine, go to jail, perform community service or other such penalty. No exceptions and no excuses – the law is the law. It is something we live under and that exists external to us. For instance, one can go to a law library and read the state and city codes in full. Law does not speak on its own, but only when a person actively reads or hears it.

When Christians see the word “law” in the Bible, they usually think of the Ten Commandments and the various other religious and societal laws that the Lord gave to the Israelites through Moses. Honor your father and mother; keep the Sabbath; do not murder; do not steal; etc. This is the prototypical law of the Bible. However, I would suggest this is the primary but not only meaning of law. It also references any set of absolute rules-to-live-by, even those derived from moral teachings in the New Testament. The error mainstream Christianity makes is interpreting these teachings as absolute law rather than moral principals to be applied in wisdom (more on this later).

In contrast, the Spirit is a person. Much more than words on a piece of paper, the Spirit is God’s very presence, power, and life. He is the third person of the trinity, as in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He moves like the wind through the affairs of humanity and in the lives of individuals. You see clear evidence of his activity – like trees swaying and ripples on the water – but there is mystery and wonder to his work. He does as he pleases and is by no means “predictable”. He is God Almighty.

The Spirit also lives in the heart of every child of God, every person who belongs to him. He is there – at the center of our being. This fact is not just a quaint sentiment or a bedtime story. God’s Spirit is the identifying mark of every true Christian (see Romans 8:9-10,16 and Ephesians 1:13). The Spirit speaks and we hear his voice. He reveals truth and wisdom, provides spiritual gifts, and empowers us to live out God’s love. He is at the center of the Christian experience.

The difference between the Spirit and law is immense, even mind-boggling (see The Spirit and Law in Contrast below for a summary). If one is a bowl of rice, the other is a five-course meal of the finest gourmet foods. If one is a firecracker, the other is a nuclear explosion. Equally immense is the difference between living by the Spirit versus the law. What does that mean, however? What does it look like in a person’s day-to-day experience? Frankly, the answer is as big as God himself. I can only hope to hint at it.
The Spirit and Law in Contrast
Person, God himself
Written moral rules
Lives in a person’s heart
Exists in a document
Mystical, moves like the wind
Concrete, rigid, set in stone
Infinite, expansive
Limited, narrow
Read or heard
Engages whole being –
heart, mind, strength, soul, spirit
Engages primarily the mind
Empowered by God
Enforced by men
Internally motivating
Externally restricting
Illuminates truth
Captures shadow of truth
Empowers love and righteousness
Dictates rules for living
Engenders freedom, creativity and power
Authoritarian and stifling
Inspires uniqueness and spontaneous action
Instills uniformity and centralized, man-made control
Motto: “Live by faith from the heart – God’s commands are not burdensome.”
Motto: “Do what I say or else”

Cracks in the Foundation

There are cracks in the foundation. If Jesus is the bedrock beneath mainstream Christianity, then the foundation is the day-to-day religious life and experience that believers build upon him. (Mainstream here refers to Christians who have put their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. It includes Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox faiths.) This foundation captures how people relate to God, to fellow Christians, and to the world. It encompasses their beliefs and what they do at church, in Bible studies, prayer groups, ministry programs, outreach events, and personal devotions. Much of this foundation is solid. For instance, what Christian could argue with embracing a sincere faith in God’s Son and endeavoring to live a moral life. But cracks are nevertheless common in this foundation. Water and mud seep in and damage the structure. These leaks hurt some believers, harden others, and diminish the experience of God and church.

The way to fix a leak is to find the source and plug it, like the Dutch boy who puts his finger in a hole in the dike to save the town. This seems like a straightforward gesture, but finding the source in this case is not trivial. The leak is not where many think it is. It is buried beneath layers of commonly accepted and culturally normal ways of thinking and behaving. Problems arise only after building on this foundation and realizing something is amiss. The building stands but is cockeyed, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

So, one must trace the problems to their source. After spending years in this process as part of my own personal journey, I believe the cracks in the mainstream Christian foundation are legalism and intellectualism. These ism’s, so to speak, represent a tedious fixation on moral rules and an overemphasis on human reason and intellectual analysis, at the expense of trust in God’s Spirit. The result is a faith out of balance, where legitimate articles are elevated above their appropriate place. They become idols that keep us from God rather than instruments for drawing near to him. We need to make repairs to the foundation. By recognizing how and why faith has become out of balance, we have the opportunity to correct it and become whole and stronger in hope, faith, and love.

Does This Story Sound Like Your Own?

The day came when you believed, and your heart awoke to the presence of God. It was as if a burden fell away – the guilt, fear, despair, hollowness, and confusion. In its place landed a sense of relief, comfort, hope, and happiness. A new and richer life on earth suddenly lay before you. Beyond that, your place in heaven awaited. As the Apostle Paul said, the old has gone and the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17) Some would say you were born again. Others call it accepting Jesus or putting your faith in him for salvation. Those are mere words to describe what happens when the heart of a man or woman moves from darkness into light, to finding his home in the Lord.

This awakening propelled you through a time of eager spiritual growth that lasted months or years. Like a honeymoon, it was fresh and exciting. You went to church, made friends with Christians, read the Bible, and learned to pray. Perhaps you made tough moral decisions, such as forgiving someone who hurt you deeply, cleaning up your sex life, or spending more time with family and less on personal ambitions. Perhaps you became involved in ministry activities, such as helping the needy, teaching Sunday school, or evangelism. The presence of God felt real and active. Life was meaningful.

But at some point, spiritual problems began to arise. They were deep and personal in nature, and not at all trivial. The problems may have included:

  • An exacting focus on keeping moral rules often left you feeling guilty and fearful of doing wrong. Christian preachers and mentors taught you to glean moral rules from the Bible and follow them “religiously”. This way to follow God turned into a burden. Combing the Bible for these rules was tedious, and each one added to the load. It seemed like you were never doing enough or always violating something, even if minor, like going five miles per hour over the speed limit or not spending enough time in prayer. It became paralyzing, psychologically and spiritually. It sapped energy and shrouded your true personality beneath a blanket of anxiety. You felt like you were more fun to be around before you became a Christian!

  • You could never quite conquer a particular bad habit, which caused a sense of shame and failure. It was difficult to deal with openly because of the subtle but steady pressure to put on a happy face and keep up appearances of a good Christian at church. If you did open up to people, they became uncomfortable or offered trite advice, which made you feel more alone.

  • Certain church beliefs and ways of interpreting the Bible began to make you more, not less, confused. If you were honest with yourself, the Bible was not as clear-cut on many issues as the church suggested. Some explanations and reasoning did not add up in your mind or resonate in your soul. There were paradoxes, verses that seemed to conflict, or beliefs that did not match real-life experience. However, questioning or challenging these issues beyond a point was not welcome, even if done respectfully. It was considered disturbing the peace. Uncertainty and doubt crept in as a result.

  • The passion and warmth you originally felt toward God waned. Despite following the spiritual disciplines and activities that the church encouraged – prayer, worship, Bible study, speaking in tongues, reading religious books, participating in ministry – the sense of intimacy diminished. Trying harder did not work. You felt confused and depressed.

  • Contradictions developed between your conscience (internal sense of God’s direction) and the rules of the church or expectations of the Christian community. If you ignored this internal compass and abided by peer expectations, you felt hollow and dissatisfied inside. If you had the courage to follow your heart, you suffered rejection or pressure and manipulation by Christian brothers to change.

The problems took a toll. Emptiness, confusion, guilt, and despair materialized, though in a different form than in the pre-salvation days. It centered on your spiritual life, your vital connection to God, rather than the lack of it. Eventually you fell into a trough of disillusionment – a rut – that was never fully resolved. It was as if the Christian life was not fully working for you. But where else to turn? You sincerely believed the answers to life’s deepest questions lie in God. Was there something wrong with you? Were you failing spiritually? Something was amiss but it was difficult to pinpoint.

The weight of this matter eventually caused a coping mechanism, which took one of several forms. You may have disengaged from spiritual life. You began sitting in the last pew, so to speak. Putting it out of your mind and focusing on other aspects of life, such as friends, recreation, or career, helped minimize the pain. You may have disengaged and rebelled. After all, if following the rules did not lead to spiritual happiness, why not flout them and gratify yourself a little bit? Or, if you were particularly disciplined and skilled at compartmentalization, you may have ignored the problems and forged on with church and spiritual life, as best as possible. It felt like limping after an injury, and the problems still haunted you. Like the Whack-a-Mole game in the arcade, they continually popped up in your mind and in various situations.

Does this story sound like your own? If so, you are not alone. Many others, including myself, have gone down this road. It feels dark and lonely, so it is comforting to know that one is not alone. However, a far greater comfort would be to find a way out. After all, no one wants to stay in this trough of disillusionment. And here is the good news: I believe there is a way out. Your struggles may lie in faulty beliefs and practices common in mainstream Christian churches today. The system itself may be the root of the problems you are experiencing, not something inherent in you. What a relief that would be! These problems are also identifiable and fixable, so you can move forward and grow again in faith.

I am not promising a panacea or claiming these faulty beliefs and practices are necessarily behind your personal struggle. That ultimately is a matter between you and the Lord. However, I do believe they are the root of the problem or at least a significant contributor for many people, which is the impetus behind this writing.

This blog is a message of hope. While it points out weaknesses, it does not stop there, as if criticism alone were sufficient. Its purpose is to offer solutions and encourage Christians toward greater faith, freedom and joy in their relationship with God. I write as one who is in the same boat, who has prayed, studied, and struggled for many years to live the faith more fully. The lessons written here are firstly personal because they are the output of that struggle. I pray they may be helpful to you as they are for me.