I am continually impressed by the persistence of misconceptions about Christianity, even in the United States. The US is considered by many (still) to be a “Christian” nation. Most people may identify as Christian in the US, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we all understand the basic tenets of the faith. Maybe it’s an example of familiarity leading us to assume things that aren’t necessarily true. Following I address just four very basic assumptions that seem to be prevalent in the modern American world that are not consistent with the Christian perspective that is revealed in the Bible.
In order to get to Heaven, I must earn God’s approval.
I believed this. This is the Christian work ethic, right? We get what we deserve. Easterners and enlightened Westerners call it karma. Muslims believe this as if their very life depends on it: recite the Koran, pray the appointed number of times a day facing in the right direction, do everything as Muhammad would do it, and hope that what you have done is enough to tip the scale in your favor. Even Buddhists, who don’t really believe in a personal God, believe that we can achieve nirvana by our own efforts. The idea of needing to earn our way is embedded in our world. It is universal.
Except that it isn’t universal. There is at least one source that presents a different way. Jesus said that we only need to trust and believe – trust in what He has done for us and believe that it is sufficient. (John 3:16) For this reason, Paul says, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8–9)
Not only is the message that Jesus preached that we are saved by grace through faith, but He preached that is the only way. People cannot achieve entry into heaven on the basis of their good works. (Titus 3:5). Salvation is God’s free gift to us so that none of us can boast. (Ephesians 2:9) It’s the antidote to our prideful selves.
More fundamentally, we could never “make it” to heaven or earn our entry into heaven on our own. Every person falls short of the perfection that would be necessary to earn it. (Rom. 3:23) As a friend of mine commented once: lemonade that is 99% pure, and only has 1% poop in it, is still something I wouldn’t drink. In the same way, we could not enter heaven in our present state because we would ruin it when we got there.
More likely, it would ruin us. Like my son who works at a national accelerator lab where experiments using nuclear fission produce radiation, needs to be washed down when he is subjected to radiation, we need to be washed and cleansed of the sin that contaminates us before we can exit this world if we are going to enter into heaven in the next. Otherwise, we will take the contamination of sin with us, and it will be the death of us. Literally.
God offers us this cleansing through Jesus. We only need to believe it, trust it, accept it and give ourselves to God who cleanses us.
Only good people go to heaven.
This misconception is like the last one. We can’t be good enough. None of us! We measure “good” by the people and examples we know. Some people are better than others, and we call them “good”. We think all we need is to do good, and we will be good. We figure if the good things we do somehow outweigh the bad things we do, we will be considered good.
Jesus said, “No one is good but the Father.” (Mark 10:18) God is the measure of good. The standard is perfection. In reality, no one measures up to that standard.
It’s like this: If we all had to swim the Pacific ocean from California to Japan to save ourselves from a continental catastrophe, some of us would make it much farther than others. Even the best swimmers, though, would eventually perish. It’s just too far for a human to swim. It doesn’t matter how much better anyone is than the others; we would all meet the same fate. The fact is that none of us are good enough.
The good news is that Jesus didn’t come for the “good people”. When the religious elite challenged him about eating and drinking with sinners, Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32)
Of course, we are all sinners. We are all sick. Thus, Jesus came for everybody. It’s just that some people don’t recognize that they need him.
We don’t have to be good to get into heaven. If that were the standard, then none of us would make it. We simply have to put our trust in Jesus and give ourselves to him.
God blesses people by giving them what they want.
Many believe that our “blessings” in this world are evidence that God loves us. We think that, if we are good enough, we will get good things. For many of us, the only things we pray for are the things we want (or want to avoid). God does promise to hear and answer our prayers, but only if our requests are in harmony with His will. (1 John 5:14–15)
While that may seem “unfair”, God knows what we need before we even ask. (Psalm 139:4) God is good, and He longs to be gracious to us. (Isaiah 30:18) Jesus said that even earthly fathers know how to give good gifts to their children, so “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:11) But God, knowing what we need, isn’t going to give us everything we ask.
The purpose of prayer is not to get our will done in heaven, but to get God’s will done on earth in our lives. That’s why Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) God knows what’s best for each of us, in the present and in the future. Prayer (and reading Scripture) is the way we get to know God and His will.
The purpose of praying isn’t to get what we want, but to get to know God and to learn what God wants. Because God is good, and not only that – God is love – we can trust Him. (1 John 4:16) Our supreme happiness and fulfillment is not in getting what we want, regardless of the consequences, but in getting to know God. Jesus said to seek God first, and all things you need and want that are good and wholesome and ultimately fulfilling will be added to us. (Matthew 6:33)
If I have difficulty in my life, either I am not good enough to earn God’s blessing or God doesn’t exist.
Similar to the thought that is God is supposed to give us what we want, if we are good enough, we often think that difficulties in our lives is evidence that God doesn’t love us. And because we tend to think of ourselves as being pretty good, we might even be tempted to think that our difficulties are proof that God doesn’t exist. This is a false dichotomy. In other words, those aren’t the only two possibilities.
First of all, we have already seen that none of us are good enough to earn God’s favor, and being good enough isn’t the measure of our relationship with God. God knows we aren’t good enough. We wouldn’t need Jesus if we were good enough.
Further, we’ve noted above that our relationship with God is more important than what we want. What we want, which is usually not to have any difficulty at all, is not necessarily what is best for us. If we had easy lives, we might never have any desire to know God, and because we are sinful (sick) in our natural condition, we might never desire the cure if we had no difficulty.
The difficulties in our lives tend to drive people to seek for something better. The pain I have gone through in my life reminds me that this life is temporal and isn’t all there is. At the end we die, and in the meantime, sometimes this life sucks. Yet, I intuitively know that it “shouldn’t be like this”; there must be something better, something I long for.
If we never have reason to seek God and know Him, we might die in our sinful (contaminated) state and never be “fit” for heaven and relationship with a perfect God. God offers us cleansing from our sinful states such that we are fit for heaven and relationship with God, but we must come to Him and embrace His offer, exchanging our sinful lives for the life that He offers. If we had easy lives, we might never be willing to exchange what we have for what God offers, even though we are promised it is good.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 17:24-27)
The truth is that we all suffer in a world that is neutral and actions have consequences. We suffer in a world in which there are competing good and bad forces by which we can learn the difference and choose the good – choose God. This is actually part of God’s plan:
“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:20-21)
The liberation comes through seeking God and submitting to Him, letting Him indwell us and “work in us to will and act according to his good purpose”. (Philippians 2:13) In this way, we become participants in God’s redemptive plan for the world. By allowing God to work in us, by submitting ourselves to Him, God is achieving the ultimate purposes that He has for us and the world.
“Thy kingdom come, they will be done” becomes the cry of our hearts as we get to know God and see the world that rejects God for what it is. God who made us in His image and gave us choice, has given us (of all the animals) the great honor and terrible responsibility of having choice in this matter – to choose God and His eternal purpose or ourselves and our own finite ends. The world us designed to help us make the good choice, but it doesn’t remove the choosing from us.