If you’ve ever been to an arcade, you know the thrill of earning what feels like miles and miles of tickets and walking up to the counter to cash them in for a great prize...only to realize the only thing your tickets are worth is a rainbow eraser or a pencil grip. All the cool prizes are out of reach with a seemingly impossible number of tickets required in exchange.
This is how many people experience religion: God wants you to earn a bunch of tickets that you can cash in with him one day. You earn more tickets by doing good things – going to church, reading your Bible, and trying not to swear so much – and you lose them when you do bad things. God is seen as the ticket-taker – and it’s your job to earn his approval.
Is this really the way it has to be? Surely it can’t be this complicated.
The problem with religion
When we think the only way to earn God’s love is by doing enough good things (and few enough bad things), we start to see God as a vending machine, ready to give us what we want provided we’ve earned enough brownie points. It sounds simple enough, but this kind of outlook can unravel quickly with a few key questions:
How do I earn tickets?
Replace “tickets” with whatever comes to mind: “How many good deeds do I need to do for God to love me?” “How often should I pray so that my sins will be forgiven?”
You might search for the answer by watching the behaviors of others. The only problem is you’ll stack up really well next to some people and really poorly next to others, leaving you more confused about your own “status” with God.
You can set the bar for yourself, but what happens when you fail to live up to your own expectations? Even Paul, who wrote a considerable number of books in the Bible, struggled with this: “I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” Romans 7:19
Even if you think you’ve figured out how to earn points with God, another question quickly arises:
How many tickets do I need?
Let’s say there are things you can do to earn points with God. How much of those things do you need to do? How many times, or how often? What happens if you don’t do enough?
This is why, for many people, religion is anxiety-inducing. The constant, nagging worry over even the smallest behaviors is a swift pipeline to burnout, especially when you’re also fretting about this next question:
Can I lose tickets?
If there’s a way to earn tickets, surely there’s a way to lose them. The question is, what causes us to lose tickets – or favor – with God? What are the things we do, intentionally or not, that lower our status in God’s eyes?
If you yelled at your kids, flipped someone off from the car, or skipped church, does that mean you’re less likely to go to Heaven? After all your hard work to do the right things, could just a few of the wrong things ruin your efforts? No wonder people have walked away from religion feeling hopeless and disheartened.
Jesus offers a better way
Perhaps you walked away from religion because you were burned by people who made you feel disqualified from God’s love. Maybe you felt burned-out by the constant striving to earn God’s favor. Maybe the whole thing lost its sparkle, and you realized you were bored with the empty ritual of it all.
This was never what God intended for our lives – and he changed everything through Jesus. Take a look at this interaction between Jesus and a man named Levi: In Luke 5:27-28, Jesus meets Levi, a tax collector. Tax collectors had a bad reputation – they were known to steal from their own people, even their own families, and were excluded from worship ceremonies at the Temple. People like Levi were looked down on and judged. In other words, Levi had no tickets.
But Jesus looked at ticketless Levi through different eyes. When others saw someone who was beyond redemption, Jesus saw a man who deserved a seat at his table – the opportunity to learn and grow as a person, and experience hope and freedom.
Grateful to experience such compassion, Levi throws a party and invites Jesus and a bunch of his other friends – many of whom were also tax collectors like him (Luke 5:29). The fact that Jesus was a guest in Levi’s home didn’t go unnoticed. The Pharisees and teachers of religious law – people who had truck-loads of metaphorical tickets – watched Jesus eating with the worst kinds of sinners. And they were not happy. They were the righteous ones, so why was Jesus hanging out with those people (Luke 5:30)?
They ask Jesus that very question, and his response says it all: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” Luke 5:31-32
To Jesus, there are two kinds of people: people who know they’re sick –who know they can’t meet God’s standards – and acknowledge it, and people who don’t. Jesus is ready to help anyone who asks him for it, but he can’t help people who don’t think they need it.
You may have been told that walking the walk and going through the motions is what pleases God. But what really moves his heart is simply admitting you can’t do it all on your own. God doesn’t want our behavior to change as much as he wants our hearts to change.
And something incredible happens once we admit that.
Grace is the key
The cure for the sickness of empty religion, the freedom for anyone who’s felt burdened or burned-out by it, is grace. Grace is when we are given what we don’t deserve, what we didn’t earn. There isn’t a statement more compelling about this than what the Apostle Paul – who we mentioned earlier – wrote to some Christians living in the region surrounding the city of Ephesus.
Paul had a horrible past. He was responsible for imprisoning and killing followers of Jesus before he eventually, remarkably, become one himself. This is what makes what his statement so profound:
“God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” Ephesians 2:8-9
Grace isn’t a reward earned by good people – it's a gift given to forgiven people. And like all gifts, it can only be received or rejected, but never earned. And this is what those religious leaders couldn’t understand as they watched Jesus eat with ticketless, broken people. Jesus didn't come to start a new religion – he came to end all religion and offer us grace instead. Grace allows us to be in relationship with God, not because of anything we’ve done but because of everything he’s done.
How do I receive God’s grace?
The answer is simple. You receive God’s grace when you believe it.
Grace was made available to us through Jesus. He gave his life for us on the cross, paying the price for all of our mistakes and covering us with more forgiveness than we’d ever be able to earn ourselves. This means that all the good we can do will not earn more of God’s love, and all the bad we do won't cost us any of it. The price has been paid – the act has been done. It's now a gift to be received or rejected.
With God’s grace, you’ll soon discover that all the things you used to do for him are now done in response to his love for you. You’ll forgive others because you were forgiven. You’ll be compassionate because God was compassionate to you. You’ll be generous because God was generous to you in Christ. That’s a life of freedom that can only be found on the receiving end of grace.
There’s a better standard we can use to determine where we stand with God – his grace. The gift given to us simply because we recognize that we could never earn enough. Even if we earned all the tickets in the world, it might change our behavior – but our hearts would remain untouched.
If you’re ready to receive God’s grace, or you simply want to learn more about what a relationship with him can really look like, here are some resources to get you started:
What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?
How Do You Know if Your Relationship with Jesus is Lukewarm?
How Do I Find My Identity in Christ?
LCBC stands for Lives Changed By Christ. We are one church in multiple locations across Pennsylvania. Find the location closest to you or join us for Church Online. We can’t wait to connect with you!