By Charlton Hillis
God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing. —C.S. Lewis
Somebody said something about going to church all the time like it’s the most important thing in the world. That maybe it’s legalistic and unrealistic…especially if you’re still faulty when you get home.
You’re right, they’re not always the best, those church-going people. It’s not unusual to see somebody who messed up big the night before and can barely drag himself down the aisle to ask for prayers. And I think I heard you mention hypocrites. They’re regulars. And it’s a good thing. Once in a while—you’d be surprised how often—one of that sort will do an about face and get real, in a way that never would have happened if she’d stayed home. It might be watching that haggard-looking brother throw away all pride and beg for help. Hypocrisy just kind of fades in the face of reality.
You see, church-going people are the ones who realize they can’t do life on their own. Some of them might look so good they fool you, but they’re at the point where they’re clinging to the only hope left. They’ve had their eyes opened to the emptiness everywhere else. They know the Lord will be there whenever even two or three meet in His name, and they don’t want to miss that. They need it so badly they go to church three times a week, some of them. (Three times a week? Only three times a week? AA gets to go every day—sometimes they go twice a day. What’s wrong with us, that we think we can make it on three times a week?)
In the book of John, there were some who thought they could make it without Jesus, and they walked off. Deserted. He asked the twelve if they would go away also. Peter’s the one who answered, and maybe it went something like this:
Peter looks after the backs of his retreating friends. Then he turns slowly, and his gaze takes in the landscape. People with plans. A city with possibilities. Roads to other places. But something’s gone wrong (or right) with his vision. The scene begins to fade. Suddenly he can see only a great emptiness. An aching, lonely, downright scary emptiness. Panic begins to grow inside him. He whips his head back to Jesus. And now he can see again. Clearly. No more emptiness.
“Lord!” he says, and sweat breaks out on his forehead. “To whom shall we go?” (Who else in the world do we turn to? THERE’S NOBODY OUT THERE! THERE’S NOTHING!)
When we can see the emptiness, we’re catching a glimpse of how it will be in the end. Everyone, everything will vanish but for God, and you’re face to face with Him. There will literally be nothing else left that matters at all. Do you have the vision to see that there’s nothing out there?
It was the ones who could see the emptiness—churchgoers, so to speak—who the Hebrew writer said were tortured but refused to be released, with an eye toward a better resurrection. Mocked and beaten with whips. Chained in jail. Stoned to death. Sawn in two. Killed with swords. Some had nothing but sheep skins or goat skins to wear. Lived in poverty. Wandered in deserts and on mountains and had to live in caves and holes in the ground.
And that was all before the New Testament days of persecution, when the streets of Jerusalem ran red with blood, and the historian Josephus recorded the atrocities in gory detail. You don’t want to read Josephus if you’ve got a weak stomach.
Who were these people? They were the ones who had decided once and for all they were sticking with the Lord. All the way. No looking back. Going to church in the catacombs. Stubbornly sticking it out. In spite of frustrations. In spite of being too tired to go to church sometimes, because they had worked all day first.
Among them were some faulty people. Some of weak faith who got whiplash in the face of persecution and became strong. Some who ran the other way, and some who deserted to the enemy. Some who liked their wine too much. Some who just couldn’t help but curse when they got mad, no matter how much they wanted to quit. Some who were afraid of their own shadows but in the end found courage and led the way vacated by cowards. Some who went to church just because they thought they had to—but even some of them saw the light.
There were giants in the faith among them, in both leaders and followers, people who had risen to higher ground and spent most of their time reaching down to give a hand up to others. There were whiny people, and some who wore their feelings on their sleeves, and some who lost their tempers way too easily. There were people who could barely write their names and others with PhDs, but in the church they used first names because only God deserves a glory title. There were the very poor, and a few rich people, but they called each other brother and sister. That was the church back then. And now.
You see, it’s so much more than going to church, and it’s a shame we’ve adopted that phrase. It’s being in the fold with the Shepherd leading and knowing there’s absolutely no one else between you and God. Knowing you can’t make it on your own, because He told you that (the safety of the fold was his idea). For some of those back then (and for some right now this minute in other nations) being inside the fold wasn’t for sissies. And it’s not now. It’s for those who see the emptiness outside.