We Love Try-Harder Religion
OCTOBER 2, 2019
I have a young friend in Lebanon, Danny Burmawi.
Some of you may remember Danny from one of our grace conferences when he taught a breakout session on Islam. I learned more about Islam in that one session than I’ve learned from multiple books on the subject. Last week Danny and his new wife, Lea, were here in Orlando for their honeymoon, and we were able to spend some time together. I’m writing the foreword to his new book, The God of My Grandmother.
Danny is an amazing and anointed servant of Christ, and his story is incredible. (I’ll tell it to you sometime.) He is involved in planting churches in the Middle East, evangelism, and publishing/preaching/speaking both in the Middle East and in America.
And he’s always in trouble.
It is, of course, understandable that Muslims don’t like Danny very much, but the really surprising thing is that Christians don’t like him much either. Even more surprising and interesting is that Muslims and Christians don’t like Danny for the same reason. Danny really does believe the Gospel, teaches it, and lives it. That Gospel is about radical and amazing grace, God’s unconditional and surprising love, and God’s actions on our behalf (it’s not about what we do for God, but about what God has done for us).
Danny wrote to me once, “Bad theology made me a worshipper of myself for six years. I was so consumed by my performance and my improvement…more than anything else. I didn’t care about God or what he had done for me. The only thing I wanted was to fix myself so I could ‘win.’ I didn’t know that I was already a winner through the victorious Son of God!”
You can say that all you want in Christian circles. It’s biblical and at the heart of our faith. It’s affirmed in our creeds, it’s a part of all our PR materials, and it’s taught in our seminaries. But we really don’t believe it.
I once stood with a Pentecostal friend who was accused of attempted murder. Frankly he was probably guilty, but he was my friend and I was there. I was in the parking lot after the trial and a number of Pentecostal believers said they were surprised I was there since I was a Presbyterian. “I don’t know why you’re surprised,” I said. “We believe in a doctrine called radical and pervasive depravity, and our friend just demonstrated it.” Then I added, “The difference between Presbyterians and you guys is that if we find any of it, we’ll kick you out.”
A while back, I read an article by Jacob Williams, a former Christian, in First Things (May, 2019), “Why I Became a Muslim.” Why would anybody want to give up hot dogs or pork ribs, and pray formal prayers five times a day? I get antsy when our worship service goes five minutes over. Not only that, Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, is a required pilgrimage at least once in the lifetime of every Muslim, and I don’t even like to go to the drugstore. If I were to change religions, I would become a Buddhist. At least the Buddha is always smiling.
In his explanation of why he became a Muslim, Williams wrote about the emptiness of a dying culture, the weakness of the Anglican Church in England (his church), and the changes in the moral and ethical definitions of right and wrong. But what he really wanted was law—strong, challenging, and clear. He found that in Islam just as many Christians find it in their legalistic and theologically pure churches. And, frankly, it’s attractive to me too.
I remember the simplicity of following the rules…the comfort, the addiction of self-righteousness, and the happiness of getting better and better in every way every day. I was doing fine until I hit the wall. But with my friend Danny and with Williams, I understand.
Paul wrote to the Galatians, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish?” (Galatians 3:1-3).
What is it about the law that we find so attractive? The most important attraction is the truth. There are some things built into the very nature of the universe that are eternally true and connect with our hearts. When the Psalmist writes in Psalm 119:97, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day,” I get that. You do too.
We live in a culture of “anything goes” as long as it feels good, you don’t hurt anybody, and everybody else affirms it. As we watch the suicide rate go through the roof, and the shallowness and meaninglessness of our culture—the addictions, the depression, and the sickness—something inside us is attracted when the law shouts, “Stop! You’re destroying yourself and everything you love. You can’t break these laws. You can only break yourself on the solidity of the law.”
Antinomianism, the view that the law doesn’t matter, is not only a betrayal of biblical teaching, it’s stupid (and, as Billy Sunday said, “stupid is forever”).
But here’s the catch. The law wasn’t designed by God to save you, but to convict you. Religion says (and it doesn’t matter what religion), “This is the way. Walk in it faithfully and you will be saved, happy, and fulfilled.” But what if that’s not true? What if it’s all a lie? What if, like Paul, no matter how hard you try, you can’t pull it off? What if we miss the reason for the law? When we get that part wrong, ultimately there is no hope. Paul confesses that place in his own life when he cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).
My friend Danny Burmawi (the Muslim turned Christian) and Jacob Williams (the Christian turned Muslim) both reached that place. Williams is still trying to find love, forgiveness, and meaning in the wrong place. Danny found it in Jesus.
Danny’s discovery was a surprise to him. It always is. We have lied and we have been lied to so much, and we have tried so hard. Then Jesus says, “I love you. Is that okay?” We are sure there must be something else to do, a “kicker” with some requirements to fulfill. When we discover that that’s it, it’s unbelievable. In fact, it’s amazing…amazing grace.
Sounds too simple, doesn’t it? The sacrifice of Christ can’t be sufficient and finished. But it is. There is nothing else needed. We are free and loved because of what Christ did, not because of anything we do or will ever do.
A friend recently emailed me, writing this:
My 18-year-old grandson and I have been Civil War reenactors for 7 years. 3 years ago at an event everyone was sitting around a campfire. I went to bed (or to a cot!). My grandson stayed with the group. The stories and language got rough as they passed a bottle of moonshine around.
I was dying by inches in the tent…and praying like crazy! I knew I couldn’t embarrass him by going out.
They finally called it a night and my grandson came to bed.
“Do you know why I stayed?” he asked. I allowed that I didn’t.
“They were getting drunk and I needed to stay there sober in case someone fell in the fire…I needed to be there to pull them out.”
That’s what we’re supposed to do. Everybody eventually falls into the fire of failure, guilt, shame, and regret. It is the absolute and perfect law of God that becomes the match (a severe mercy) for the fire. Fire can’t save us from fire. Nobody can do what religion requires. Some keep trying, some pretend to have done it, and others are dying in the fire, and cry out, “Wretched man/woman that I am!”
Pull them out.
And frankly, sometimes we’re drawn to that fire too. That’s why it’s so important we tell one another what I just told you.