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From Fear to Joy: My Journey from Religion to the Gospel

From Fear to Joy: My Journey from Religion to the Gospel

MARCH 2, 2024

/ Articles / From Fear to Joy: My Journey from Religion to the Gospel

by Daniel Bush

In the midst of the chaotic dance between my Air Force service and part-time seminary study during my late twenties, a seemingly unremarkable book fell into my hands as a gift from my pastor. In the midst of the chaotic dance between my Air Force service and part-time seminary study during my late twenties, a seemingly unremarkable book fell into my hands as a gift from my pastor. It was titled “We Would See Jesus” by Roy Hession (CLC, 1953), and in the vast sea of theology I was navigating at the time, it felt like a tiny drop.

Little did I know that within those pages, a revelation awaited—one that would transform my perspective on faith. This revelation didn’t just reposition Jesus as a part of faith but as the very heartbeat of it, the answer to every aspect of our Christian life. In reading it, I found a fresh lens revealing the stark contrast between religion and the gospel; it was a game-changer that completely reframed my faith.

But hold on for a moment. What’s it like for you when you hear the word “religion”? For me, it’s as though a surge of fear and insecurity comes rushing through my veins. It’s as if I’m juggling fragile porcelain dolls, fearing that one wrong move will result in divine disappointment. Religion, with its insatiable demand for perfection, is like running on a never-ending treadmill. You’re constantly moving, yet never really getting anywhere. It’s an exhausting pursuit of an unattainable ideal, leaving us drowning in a pool of inadequacy and self-doubt.

Let’s fast forward to about 15 years ago, when my first marriage was caught in the grip of a bitter winter season. It wasn’t just a bump in the road; it was a slow, creeping frost that cast a long, dark shadow over our relationship. In the midst of my roles as a missionary, PhD student, and a soon-to-be pastor, I found myself trapped in a predicament with no easy solutions. I carried a deep fear that my faith community wouldn’t accept the concept of divorce, which left me feeling cornered and engulfed in shame.

For another decade, I soldiered on, existing within a marriage that had transformed into a mere cohabitation. The warmth of love and friendship had faded into distant echoes. Fearing judgment from both my professional and personal spheres, I kept my struggles hidden, known only to a small circle of close friends. It was a burdensome journey, a heavy season spent mostly in solitude. And all this, because the relentless demand for perfection imposed by religion had taken deep root within me.

But then came the gospel, dawning on my life like a radiant sunrise, its warmth seeping into even the coldest and loneliest nights. Instead of fear and shame, the gospel ushered in an era of grateful joy. It was like stumbling upon an oasis in the barren desert of religious performance. The gospel revealed a liberating truth that unshackled me from the pressure to be perfect. It invited me to revel in the unearned love and grace.

I vividly remember a late night, sitting alone on the couch, as my heart ached and my wife remained sequestered upstairs behind a firmly closed door. In that moment, I reached out to God in fervent prayer. What followed ignited a warmth in my soul and brought an unexpected smile to my face. The words of Romans 3:11 resounded within me: “No one seeks for God.” But there I was, seeking Him in my dark hour. And then it struck me—a profound realization. If I was seeking, it could only mean that a prevenient grace was drawing (James 4:8). The subsequent thought was a balm to my weary soul: “He’s drawing me now. I’m seen, I’m known—right here, right now!” This transformative moment, born out of my dark hour, echoed the comforting power of the gospel.

This divine comfort brings to mind that power beautifully portrayed in the parable of the prodigal son. Picture a wayward son lost in rebellion and excess, hitting rock bottom. Yet when he humbly returned to his father, expecting punishment, something incredible happened. The father embraced him with radical, extravagant love. In this scenario, who is the true prodigal (reckless one)? That’s the gospel in action, breaking through judgment and fear, offering grace and restoration that surpasses all human understanding.

As the British preacher John Stott aptly put it, “The gospel is good news of mercy to the undeserving.” Isn’t that simply beautiful?

The gospel isn’t about striving to earn favor; it’s about receiving the mercy and love we don’t deserve.

Martin Luther captured it perfectly when he said, “The gospel is not a doctrine of the tongue but of life. It cannot be grasped by reason and memory only, but it is fully understood when it possesses the whole soul and penetrates to the inner recesses of the heart.”

Let those words sink in deep.

The gospel is not a mere intellectual exercise; it’s an experience that transforms every fiber of our being.

So, here’s the deal. Embracing a gospel-centric perspective is the only path that leads to true transformation. It’s like stepping out of a confining cage and into a world of freedom and joy. We are released from the burdensome weight of performance and enter into an experience of freedom discovered in unmerited love and grace.

Let that wash over you!

With a gospel-centric outlook, my fears have gotten kicked to the curb—especially the kind that used to keep me awake at night, wondering, “What are people thinking about me?” or “Which designer mask should I wear today to maintain their approval?”

The medieval monk Bernard of Clairvaux spoke in his book “On the Love of God” (1129) about four degrees of love, the final being love of self for God’s sake. It is a love far removed from narcissism; in fact, it comes only as we are no longer compelled to think about ourselves, our failures or successes, but are mindful only of the Lord Jesus’ justice and receive ourselves back. There, in that wonderful forgetfulness of self, the experience of the joy of the Lord breaks in, and for the moment, we are of one mind and one spirit with God.

No more striving to fabricate a holy facade of religious righteousness.’ Here’s a spoiler alert: I never had that righteousness to begin with—it was all smoke and mirrors. Jesus alone is my righteousness, and that realization has made all the difference. I now live my life in the freedom aisle—no more fear clearance sales. I’ve grown bolder, no longer fretting about preserving some phony-baloney righteousness. So here I am, simply being me, fearlessly righteous in Jesus. Quite the plot twist, wouldn’t you say?

Remember this, my dear friends: when we truly grasp the gospel, it completely shifts our perspective. It takes us from a place of fear to one of deep gratitude and a life overflowing with authenticity. It’s not about striving to earn favor but about surrendering to the transformative power of grace. This incredible truth sets us free to live in response to the overwhelming love and grace we have received. Equipped with a genuine understanding of what grace and love truly mean because we have experienced them firsthand, we are now able to genuinely embody and extend grace and love to others.

As a mentor of mine, Steve Brown, is fond of saying, “You can’t love until you’ve been loved. And then you can only love to the degree to which you have been loved.” That’s the beautiful difference between religion and the gospel—the former motivates us out of fear and insecurity, while the latter inspires grateful joy. Don’t forget it!

Suggested readings: Psalm 30:11; Romans 8:15

Watch or listen to our interview with Daniel Bush on SBE here!

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