What does it mean to follow Jesus? Is it all just duty and obligation—’must do this’ and ‘should do that’?
Sometimes the way we view Christian living can turn into a drag, like having a long list of things you know you should do but aren’t doing well or enough, so you’re constantly struggling (and failing) to ‘live up to expectations’. We know that we don’t do good works to be saved or to earn God’s love. But we also know that we are saved for good works, and that God’s love compels us to love and do good, and it’s still really a tall order.
In our struggle to reconcile the tension in these teachings, it’s easy to become hyper-focused on one or two truths at the expense of other truths. This causes us to fall into extremes and lose perspective, and makes following Jesus an unhappy pursuit.
If you’re finding it hard to experience joy in your relationship with God, consider if some of these things could be holding you back and making you think differently—inaccurately—about God’s love.
1. Misconception: The Christian life is all suffering and no happiness.
Truth: God wants us to experience lasting happiness by finding satisfaction in Him.
We’re often told that suffering is part and parcel of the Christian life (1 Peter 4:12; 1 John 3:13), which can cause us to become discouraged and disillusioned, thinking that all God wants for us is to suffer and never be happy.
But the Bible doesn’t say that following God means a life of unhappiness. In fact, it is the opposite—we are told that happiness and satisfaction are from God (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13; Acts 14:17), and He calls us to rejoice (Philippians 4:4) and delight ourselves in Him (Psalm 37:4). The Old Testament had many records of celebrations and feasts for God’s people, and when Jesus lived on earth, He played with children, dined with people, and was even invited to a wedding.
The evil one wants us to think that suffering and happiness can never coexist, and that if God allows suffering, He must obviously loathe to give happiness. And it’s easy to fall into that line of thinking because our idea of happiness is often tied to leisure, self-indulgence, and a complete lack of trouble. It’s about what I want, no matter what.
God wants us to know that He desires our happiness and gives it through different means, whether it’s from enjoying His creation, celebrating moments with our loved ones, or finding satisfaction from our work. Most importantly, He wants us to know that happiness does come from obeying Him (Psalm 68:3). Jesus tells us to remain in His love by keeping His commands, “so that [our] joy may be complete” (John 15:10-11).
More than a fleeting feeling or a fanciful whim, this is a deep happiness that comes from entrusting our lives completely to Someone who knows us fully, who gave His life and all to us, and will only ever do what is best and good for us.
2. Misconception: God “works all things for good”, so everything must eventually work out.
Truth: Things won’t always “work out”, but God will always work in and through us for His glory.
Some of us may swing to the other extreme by thinking that if we truly believe in God and put our faith in Jesus, He will come through for us and everything will eventually turn out fine.
But our idea of good is often (though not always) different from God’s idea of good. In the case of Romans 8:28, we may think that God working all things for good must mean that the good outcome we’ve envisioned will come to pass.
As a result, when our circumstances don’t improve, it becomes instinctive for us to think that either God doesn’t care about us, or maybe we simply didn’t have enough faith. We’ve become so accustomed to living by formulas (“work hard and you will succeed”) and making our own extrapolations of Scripture (“Jesus promised ‘life to the full’, that must mean more and better”), that we can’t help but think, What is the point of believing in God if it doesn’t make my life better?
But if we read Romans 8:28 in its context, we see that God isn’t just interested in changing our outward circumstances–but in working in and through us for our good and His glory, that we may become “conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). This means that even when the good outcome we hope for doesn’t materialise, He works in us such that we are changed for good–that through the difficult circumstances, we grow in maturity, patience and Christlikeness.
Because of that, we can live by faith even when we face situations beyond our knowledge and control. And when we, like all the saints before us, obey God by putting our faith in Him, trusting in His character and timing, He affirms our faith with assurance from His Word and His body, and promises to walk with us every step of the way.
3. Misconception: Forget what I want, it’s only about what God wants. . . right?
Truth: God gave us desires and free will, and when we bring these to Him, He will help us grow in maturity so that our loves may align with His.
Another misconception we have is thinking that when Jesus called us to “deny ourselves” (Matthew 16:24), He meant that we should give up all of our desires, which we then take to mean that it doesn’t matter anymore what we want, because we can only want what God wants.
When we think this way, we start to see the world through the lens of a false dichotomy of the “spiritual” versus the “worldly”, i.e., we should want to read the Bible only and not watch Netflix, we should want to hang out with church people more than non-Christian friends, we should think about God all the time, even when we’re working, etc.
Then everything we enjoy becomes ungodly and undesirable, and whatever God wants becomes impossible to attain. It’s no wonder many of us feel unenthused (to say the least) when thinking about God and the Bible!
And that is the farthest thing from what God wants.
When God calls us to deny ourselves, He’s calling us to give up our sinful nature–not the desires and unique personalities and gifts He’s given us. If God doesn’t care about our wants and who we are, He would not have given us free will so we could make choices. If all He wanted was to override our wills and steamroll us into submission, His whole plan of redemption–of showing His love to us and longing for us to love Him back–wouldn’t have been necessary.
Think about it this way: when we’re young, it’s hard to understand why our parents would say no to us, or offer us something else instead of what we really want. But as we grow and mature in our thinking, it becomes easier to understand our parents’ hearts and desires.
In the same way, the Apostle Paul repeatedly called for the churches to grow in maturity (e.g. Ephesians 4-5, Philippians 3) so that they (and we) will begin to love the things that are pleasing to God, and understand how to align our gifts and desires with His plan for our lives.
4. Misconception: Forgiving means putting up with toxic (sinful) behaviour.
Truth: Forgiveness is not willfully tolerating sin, but choosing not to hate or dwell on the hurt.
As Christians, we are taught to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us, and that it is up to God to deliver vengeance (Romans 12:19), so our job is to “forgive” and “let go”. We often take that to mean we should meekly and gently “let things slide” and demonstrate unconditional “acceptance” for toxic (sinful) behaviours, without holding the other person accountable for their actions.
But reading the Psalms alone would be enough to remind us that the Bible does not sweep evil and injustice under the rug, but counts on God to take everything into account in the end. In fact, the psalmists often explicitly call for God to bring about punishment, which can be quite discomfiting for our modern “peace-loving” ears.
And if we look into teachings in the New Testament, we also see different instances where we as believers are called to rebuke and correct sin (Matthew 18:15-17, Luke 17:3), and to have nothing to do with those who remain unrepentant (1 Corinthians 5:9-12, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, Titus 3:10).
Through these verses, we see that forgiveness isn’t about wilfully tolerating or neglecting to correct what is clearly wrong, especially within the body of Christ, but choosing not to hold onto hate or dwell on the hurt we’ve experienced.
Don’t let these extreme thoughts diminish your understanding of God’s love. When doubt and disillusionment set in, run to Him and ask for understanding. Ask Him to help you taste and see that He is good.
And as we learn to obey His commands for us, we also need to take in His provisions and promises—that it is Jesus who lives in us, it is the Spirit who gives us understanding and power, and it is God the Father who will complete the good work He has began in us.