What if God is Waiting For You?

When You Can't Find Jesus in Church

by Bob Hartig

“My church is the outdoors,” the woman confided in me. “I don’t get along well with Christians.”

She and I were strangers. Her remark came during a chance conversation,and I don’t recall saying anything that would have prompted the second half of her remark. Maybe I did, though. My days of aggressive evangelism as a young believer gave way long ago to trying to listen to people rather than preach at them, but I don’t hide my faith. In any case, the lady was smart, personable, interesting, and, well, simply a nice person. Like me, she loved the outdoors and treasured God’s handiwork in nature. She just had an issue with Christians.

She’s far from alone. Maybe you feel that way yourself. Your experience of Christians has not made you want to be like them. The judgmentalism, the double- standards, the lack of understanding and love, the blurring of religion with politics, the anger and outright nastiness . . . the list goes on, doesn’t it? Who wants to sign up for that? It’s a hard enough world to live in as it is

The question is, is Jesus himself like that?

In your heart, you know the answer. Of course he’s not.

Back in the 1970s, as a young man exploring LSD, occultism, and a neo-Eastern cult, I somehow understood, despite my deep dislike of institutional religion, that Jesus himself was trustworthy. In the shopping mall of spiritual
masters and mystical pursuits, all of which ultimately left me confused and fearful and which never satisfied my heart, here was this person whom I instinctively knew I could count on. He certainly was important, because every spirituality I explored had a version of him it was selling. But who was he really?
If you too have wondered, you’re in good company. Even Jesus’s closest friends often didn’t know what to make of him, and at one point his own family thought he’d lost his mind. Jesus was a man of vast contradictions—today in the
synagogue, where a good Jewish guy ought to be; tomorrow in a place no Jew would go, striking up a conversation with the wrong kind of woman. Jesus wasn’t trying to be a rebel. It just came with his commitment to reveal God’s redeeming love to people broken by life, by their own sins, and by religious demands that only added to their misery rather than helped them.

There were the miracles, yes. But there were also the things he said. His words, and Jesus himself, were utterly unlike anything the people had ever encountered. That he was a holy man, no one questioned except his enemies. But
the holiness of Jesus was far different from the holiness of the religious leaders. Their brand of hermetically sealed holiness distanced itself from sinners and left ordinary people feeling condemned. Jesus’s robust holiness sought sinners out, invited them to draw near, embraced them, inspired hope, acceptance, and dignity.

In Jesus, holiness and love came together.

And the people loved him for it. Jesus was their hero.

“Come to me”—those were his words. Not an invitation to go to church but to draw close to him.

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Jesus, in Matthew 11:28–30 MSG)

Am I against the church? Heavens no. I love the church, and so does Jesus. There is much that is wonderful about it, too much to say here. But I also understand firsthand why many people’s experiences of religious institutions have
repelled them rather than drawn them to Jesus. If that’s you, perhaps what you encountered didn’t reflect his character. Perhaps it wasn’t about him at all.

I’m not saying that following Jesus is easy or that he’s always comfortable. His first, closest followers would tell you that being with him was both reassuring and challenging. He confronted them with themselves, he made demands upon them, and he will do so with you. He changes us, not the other way around; none of us get to remake him according to our preferences.

But that’s a good thing. It’s where the hope lies—in companioning with a Savior and mentor who understands life, us, sin, and the heart of God infinitely better than we do, and who loves us beyond what we can comprehend.

That Scripture verse you read a few paragraphs back . . . reread it and give it a think. It’s not about going to church. It’s not about spouting Bible verses orreligious cliches. It’s about him. Start with him, with Jesus. Talk with him like you
would a friend, as if he’s really there and is really listening—because he is. Pick up a Bible and start reading the gospel of John to get better acquainted.

Keep at it and see where it goes. That’s where I’ll leave it, because it’s that simple.

The rest is up to him and you.