IN THIS POST: An analogy for bookish Christians who are trying to understand the connection between doing good stuff for good reasons and living a life of faith.
Are you a fan or a friend?
A couple years ago my husband took our two girls for a trip to visit grandparents, and I drove into the NC mountains for a couple days of silent reading and reflection. Before this trip, an idea was wriggling in my brain that was causing some level of contemplation/consternation.
Reading With by Skye Jethani reorganized my thinking about my relationship with Christ in fundamental ways. It gave words to ideas that had been floating in the space between my uncontrollable and mysterious subconscious and my overthinking-in-broad-daylight conscious.
Something was amiss in my faith. While I had heard the cliché “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” uttered in church circles for the full forty-plus years of my life, it seemed that much of the instruction that followed, or at least my interpretation of it, worked more like a religion. Think: “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship, and here are five ways to be closer to Jesus.”
I’m not against thoughtful how-to suggestions or organized strategies to help me or others engage with faith meaningfully. I’ve contributed my own thoughts along those lines in How-to Handle Conflict as a Christian and 7 Books That Will Challenge Your Christian Living (but not “how-to” guides).
Nevertheless, I don’t think that nurturing any of the human relationships in my life have ever followed a 7-point plan. And though conversation is not my strong-suit, I’m aware enough to know that addressing someone in a template conversation is unlikely to succeed over and over again.
Whether we missed the point or we moved the point is not for me to dissect here. Rather what happened was that my faith looked a lot like the Pharisees. It looked like knowing the right words, repeating the right phrases, and being seen at the right events and places. It meant that I measured my Christian faith with how well I wore it on my proverbial sleeve. Could I still be a faithful witness even if I didn’t put my belief in Christ on every social media account?!
I had absorbed the messages and applied them dutifully. I still found myself drawing short. And, more alarmingly, I was being led to passages that suggested I needed to pay attention and redirect.
Books and the Bible
And so, on this weekend retreat I was praying that God would show me what passage in the Bible I was being asked to meditate and reflect upon. He took me to the story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42.
Mary and Martha
I thought about how Martha wasn’t doing anything wrong; indeed, it seems like she was doing her best to serve. But Jesus says Mary has chosen what is most important. Martha wasn’t doing something wrong, she was just doing.
Jesus and Knowing
God had more for me to reflect on. I looked up the passage in Matthew 7:21-22 about those who will find themselves in the final judgment making their case for entry into heaven by all the things they “did” – “didn’t we cast out demons and perform many miracles.” and Jesus responds that he never “knew” them. What does that mean?
Why would Jesus be so concerned about whether he “knew” them? What difference does that make? They were living their lives in service to him. Obviously, they were committed in some way, shape, or form.
This bugged me. A lot.
I have done the things and the stuff. Regular quiet time? Check. Memorized verses? Check. Pray regularly? Check. Serve in church? Check. I do the things and the stuff. What else is there? I assumed through those activities that I would come to know Jesus better. Maybe I would.
But would he know me?
If, as Jethani argues, the real goal of Christian faith is to do life “with God,” rather than “for God,” “from God,” “under God,” or “over God,” then what does that mean?
Confused? It’s a little squishy, I know.
God the Author
But because God is good and God talks to us in ways we can understand and because, at the very least, I think God knows that I like to read, he placed an analogy in mind that builds on one of my favorite descriptions of Jesus.
In the KJV version of Hebrews (I’m not usually a KJV fan, but this translation is the one that I learned and that resonates with me), chapter 12:2, the writer calls us to “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith…”
The idea of Jesus writing notes and quotes and ideas related to what faith would be like for humanity connected with the word nerd and book reader in me.
That lead me to the analogy.
Spiritual Growth Analogy for Bookworms
Consider two scenarios.
Scenario #1, Fan or Friend: The Fan
In the first situation a person approaches the home of a well-known author, for argument’s sake, let’s use J.K. Rowling. This person has on a scarf from every Hogwart’s house, a wand, a wizard’s hat, and is dragging a set of Harry Potter books to be signed in a red wagon shaped like Hagrid’s bike and side car. A white owl flies overhead. This kid clearly is a legit fan of Harry Potter.
Perhaps Rowling graciously opens her door and offers a smile as the young fan proudly proclaims, “I’m your biggest fan! I’ve read all the books. I love all the characters – except maybe Voldemort and his crew but even they are great villains. I’ve seen all the movies. I can play the entire musical score on my piano. I have earned money to purchase all the merchandise. I’ve visited the theme parks. I’ve convinced all my friends to read your books! I am your biggest fan. Would you please sign these books?”
And perhaps she would.
But does she know this kid? Does the fact that the child has done everything possible to show his adoration and devotion and dedication to her product make her any more familiar with who he is as a person? Nope. She doesn’t even know his name.
Scenario #2, Fan or Friend: The Friend
The next scenario is not so dramatic. Consider J.K. Rowling at the end of her writing, sitting at her computer and considering how to write her acknowledgements. Think about the names that go into those couple pages at the end of any author’s work. The various professional and personal people who have worked with her, supported her, been there in the ups and downs, guided her, and loved her through the drama of it all.
She knows their names. She knows what they do, even when many of her readers do not. They probably do not go around shouting her name or even that they know her. They are there through the boring parts and the hard parts and the “un-fun” stuff. But she knows that they are there for her, in her camp, and they celebrate her.
Being a fan is easy. You don’t have to connect with the creator; instead, you connect with their creation. Buy some swag, learn some cool facts, hype up the team, attend some events with other fans, and cover your outer world in the drapes of fandom. Plus, you can easily change fandoms as you get older.
Getting into an author’s acknowledgements? Not so easy. Those are the people who have fought, struggled, nurtured, sheltered, made late dinners, watched kids, stayed through meltdowns, and encouraged in crises. They are the people who honor and celebrate the author’s dream and vision and plan with their presence and support. But their commitment is not to the dream or plan but to the recognition that the author is the right person for the vision. They attend and support the artist – “This is your story!”
Fan or Friend?
Which person in these two situations would you say, looking from the outside, had a better connection to J.K. Rowling? The person in the acknowledgements, right? Someone who knows the behind-the-scenes and has “gone through some stuff” with the author.
You can be a great fan, but that doesn’t translate to a close relationship. Great fans get the swag, those who have gone the distance get the recognition.
The analogy falters at this point so I’m not going to extend it. God doesn’t want big fans. He wants people who are going through their life with him. That will take us to some difficult and interesting places but going together will create relationship.
Being a fan is easy. You learn some slogans, get some gear, put on the costume, take the quizzes, attend the events, and change fandoms if/when it suits you.
Getting in an author’s acknowledgements isn’t easy. It’s a behind-the-scenes, work through the hard stuff, celebrate the easy parts, stay up late, wake up early, change your plans, submit your agenda, and live with ambiguity arrangement.
You don’t get the acknowledgements by giving up when it gets hard or by wearing all the merch. You get the acknowledgements by being so involved in the work of the author’s vision that your life aligns to support and celebrate his or her story.
One is about doing and the other is about being. Doing stuff versus being present. Showing off or showing up.
So, if Jesus is the author, do you want to be a big fan or in the acknowledgements?
Are you trying to grow spiritually in such a way that creates a “God’s biggest fan” situation, or do you want to know that Jesus writes your name in the acknowledgments? A kind of “This person here, s(he) chose to be part of my story!”
Do you want to be the person who comes to the gates of Heaven and talks about how many things you did for God and “in Jesus’ name,” only to have him say, “Uh? I never knew you.”
And, thank you God, that is a helpful way for me to think about the idea of a relationship with God. Right now, it points to how it has gone astray and the direction I need to look in order to re-focus it.
The analogy doesn’t give me clear answers in a five-step plan of how to do this, but it helps me understand a better way forward. I have a framework within which I can start to question my choices and studies: is this making me a fan or a friend?
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