I was born and raised smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt. Almost everyone I knew intellectually assented to the truths of the Bible, had prayed a prayer at some altar in some church as a child, attended worship service regularly, voted republican, and blessed the food at dinner. Nearly the entire population of my beloved hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana was surer than sure that as they exhaled their final breath, they’d be welcomed into the pearly gates of heaven (I’m not exaggerating; Barna found 98% of Shreveport, Louisiana residents consider themselves born again believers in Christ).
Unlike the greater population of my super-Christian context, I wasn’t too sold on the Jesus stuff. Even as a young kid I remember feeling like a black sheep in children’s church. Everyone seemed so gung-ho over God—dancing in the aisles, spinning in circles, and what not—and I just couldn’t really wrap my mind around what was so exciting. The more I thought about God, the more I doubted he even existed. As I grew older and began nurturing the wide array of my sinful desires, my doubt only intensified. I had spurts of spiritual curiosity here and there, but each time I peeked back into the church, I walked away skeptically. I thought it was all a sham.
Long story very short, the grace of God came crashing in over my skepticism in 2010 and my heart exploded in love for Jesus. Surely. . surely . . . my longtime Christian friends and family would be ecstatic over my faith, I thought. And at first, many of them were. They rejoiced that I had “found the light” and started making better choices. But as time ticked forward and my passion for Jesus increased, they started to view me as a bit of an extremist. When I would talk about the things of God, they seemed totally disconnected and disinterested in the conversation. I remember being told by a professing Christian, “You don’t have to talk about Jesus so much. Faith is really just a private thing you keep to yourself.”
Hmm . . . this was not what I was expecting.
When I peeled back the pages of my Bible and gazed into the early church, I saw radically transformed people who centered every aspect of their lives on the God-man who was crucified and raised on their behalf. Their friends, activities, ambitions, and finances were all deeply and irrevocably impacted by their love for Jesus. They weren’t perfect people, but they were changed people—people whose lives were potent with the aroma of heaven.
As I continued to see the vast differences between the kind of Christian depicted in the Bible and the kind of Christian I observed in my church-on-every-corner culture, I began to question whether a profession of faith in the Bible Belt really even meant anything.
When I asked friends what assured them of their salvation, they would point to the sinner’s prayer they recited at 7 years old, their subsequent baptism, their church attendance, their conservative values, and things like that. There’s no doubt the Bible teaches that good works are necessary evidences of a changed heart—but what my friends appeared to be in severe lack of was the changed heart. Some of the outer workings of the Christian life were present in their lives, but a real, personal, intimate love for Jesus—the foundation of the Christian life—seemed to be absent. They were cool with Bible verse tattoos, occasionally attending worship, and thanking God for their food at Thanksgiving Dinner, but they seemed utterly disinterested in the actual person of Jesus.
The lips of these moral, conservative, church-going Southerners knew the Christianese language. Their butts were acquainted with the church pews. They lived in close proximity to the things of God, but their hearts, from my limited perspective, couldn’t have been deader toward the Author of Life. I think the words first spoken by Isaiah, and centuries later quoted by Jesus, might just be words our Lord would breathe out again over the Bible Belt of the United States.
“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” – Matthew 15:8
One of the really scary things the Bible calls us to do is test ourselves, to see if we are really in the faith. When you peer into your heart today to see what’s really in it, what do you find? Do you see love for Jesus? The best of Christians won’t love him as perfectly or as constantly as he deserves, but do you see in yourself a genuine affection for the Lord? Do you find your mind frequently gravitating toward him and his purposes for your life? Do you find your soul ever lifting itself up to him in praise and thankfulness?
Or do you find your heart pretty empty of Jesus?
When you look at your outward life, do you see any obedience to God—not heartless, ritualistic obedience, but obedience fueled by love and reverence for God? Do you find you are growing, even turtlishly slow, in personal holiness and spiritual maturity? Do you seek the Lord regularly, when no one is looking? Are you trying to walk with others who are doing the same?
Or are you pretty much indifferent about obedience to Jesus and only avoid “bad sins” because you fear the temporary, painful consequences?
I know I have a lot of Bible Belt dwellers that read my blog. Whether you know me in person (hello, Shreveportians!) or are connected to my blog from afar, I’m glad you’ve decided to check out this post today. I’m not here to judge you. I can’t know your heart and say for sure your faith is or isn’t fraudulent. But if you have been faking all this Christian stuff, you need to realize that God is well aware. He’s not fooled by “On my way to church!” selfies on Sunday or “I have Jesus in my heart” verbiage. He knows you. While this might, and probably should, scare the crap out of you, it should also give you hope. The God who knows all of your pretending, lip service, and hypocrisy still loves you and hasn’t zapped the life out of you yet. He’s been so patient with you all these years, giving you more and more time to surrender yourself to Jesus.
God wrapped himself in your sin and stepped into the fiery furnace of his own wrath so that you could be transformed into a new creation—not just some pew-sittin’, semi-religious, moral person. Jesus died to give you the joy of being remade into what you were designed to be: a true worshipper of God. If you know deep down that all your outward religious practices are merely masking a heart that doesn’t really love Jesus, won’t you drop the façade today? Won’t you admit, at least to yourself, that you haven’t known him . . . and won’t you come to him? Won’t you break free of mere tradition and grab hold of the true life and joy he’s extending to you? Won’t you stop settling for the cheapness of cultural “Christianity” and embrace the richness of knowing Jesus?
My hope and prayer today is that you will.
“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” – John 17:3
Originally published on November 9, 2015