Not long ago, I took a short road trip with my wife Jeanne and her mom Peggy. About two hours into our trip, I was shocked to discover that in her thirty-plus years of driving, my mother-in-law had never been pulled over for speeding. Not even once. In fact, she had driven thirty-five years without a single ticket on her record! I don’t even know how to comprehend that reality. In the first year I had my license, I successfully managed to drive over a curb and drop eight feet into a creek, sideswipe a parked car, and receive the first in a long line of speeding tickets. On that road trip I came to two conclusions: (1) my mother-in-law has no clue about the fear that plagues most drivers when they see a parked cop car, and (2) she should probably be the one to drive for the rest of our trip.
As hard as it is to believe, I know she is not the only one of her kind. There are others like her. In fact, you may be someone who knows nothing of the fear and anxiety people go through every time they see a black-and-white sedan on the side of the road. On the slim chance this describes you, then please read on with a sense of empathy and understanding for the rest of us . . . and feel free at any time to wipe that smug smile off your face.
Every time I see a parked police car hiding around the corner with its lights off and the silhouette of someone pointing what appears to be a hair dryer in my general direction, I instinctively freeze. I convince myself that if I’m really, really still, the officer won’t notice as I fly past at thirty-seven miles per hour over the speed limit. Without even thinking, I run through a series of routine quick checks. I check my seatbelt, using only my hands, like a pat down at an airport security check. I check to see if anyone else around me might be doing something more illegal than me. I make sure to turn down the radio, not knowing what difference that makes but feeling like it’s a good idea. I rack my brain to remember if there’s anything in my Pandora’s box of a glove compartment that remotely resembles an insurance or registration card. All the while checking my rearview mirror every 1.7 seconds, stomach clenched, wondering if I’ll see the flashing reds and blues.
Getting caught by a police officer can make a person do crazy things. Everyone reacts in different ways, the only similarity being that no one seems to remain themselves. Something changes. Getting pulled over makes otherwise calm and collected people go absolutely nuts, and we have the footage to prove it. Watch just a few minutes of any “dash-cam” cop show and you’ll see soccer moms transform into purse-swinging gladiators. And tranquil trigonometry teachers become cursing sailors. For some, the excuses fly like clothes off the rack at a going-out-of-business sale. For others, tears flow like broken fire hydrants in a Brooklyn summer. I have another response. I become the nicest, most clueless guy a cop has ever met. I act completely surprised. I insert the words “sir” or “ma’am” as much as possible. I reassure the officer that I am just as surprised as they are, all the while shaking my head at my speedometer, shocked at how it could betray our longstanding unspoken agreement.
Everyone reacts to the fear of getting caught by a cop in one way or another. It’s moments like these that reveal some of my deepest fears and anxieties. My fear of being caught, my willingness and readiness to lie or make excuses, my panicked impulse to floor it and pull a Thelma and Louise. That fear is always somewhere within me, every time I get in the car, everywhere I go. And all it takes to bring it to the surface is a cop around the corner.
I often wonder if it’s really just a cop we’re most afraid of, or if it’s actually something much deeper. If all it takes are a couple of flashing lights and a squealing siren to evoke such deep emotions and reactions, then imagine what the soul goes through when it fears it’s been found out by God. What fears and anxieties rise to the surface at the slightest thought of being “caught” by God?
My hunch is that many of us move through this life operating under the same basic set of cosmic assumptions:
• There actually is a permanent record out there filled with all the wrong things I’ve ever done.
• I’m probably doing something wrong right now.
• At this very moment, God is lurking around some dark corner of my life with his radar gun, just waiting to nail me for whatever it is so he can add yet another entry to my permanent record.
Sadly for some, this is all they have to point to as their “faith experience.” An experience that operates in a fearbased system. This assumption about God tends to take root early in life and is connected to some negative experience with an authority figure — a parent, teacher, coach, boss, or just about anyone else who had power over us. My friend Ryan can pinpoint the precise moment this fear was formed in him.
When he was in fifth grade his family lived abroad, and he was forced to attend a religious boarding school with a strict dress and grooming code (apparently there’s a verse in the Old Testament that says the Devil is in the denim). When he returned to school after a summer break, the headmaster noticed that Ryan’s hair hung in rebellion about two inches over the tops of his ears. And Ryan wasn’t the only one. Infuriated at such disregard for the rules, the headmaster immediately and forcibly marched all the little members of that mullet militia onto a beat-up school bus. They drove in silence for almost an hour, having no idea where they were going. When the bus pulled up in front of the local Air Force base, the boys were escorted across the massive facility into the base barber shop. Air Force barbers proceeded to shave the boys’ heads in record military time. As hair and tears gathered on the linoleum floor, the headmaster laid down the law. “God is a God of rules, boys,” he barked. “God gives us rules and those who enforce the rules to keep us from getting out of control. Let this be a lesson to you, boys.”
The headmaster had no idea how effective his lesson was. It would take another eight years from that moment until Ryan could even begin to consider the concept of a loving God. And another eight years from that moment until he began to seek out this God. And of course, it would be many more years still until Ryan even considered wearing his hair short again.
Can you pinpoint an experience or person who first planted a toxic fear of God in you? It may have been a rule-ridden principal, rule-ridden parents, or some sort of rule-ridden religion. Sadly, without even knowing it, it is possible that you’ve become a rule-ridden person yourself — someone whose whole life is built around playing by the rules. Someone who avoids more than enjoys and is more familiar with fear than freedom. Someone who loves the idea of a citizen’s arrest and makes as many of them as possible. You can find them almost anywhere, pointing fingers, whispering judgment, and running to tattle to a God who loves to catch people screwing up. They embody what Anne Lamott was getting at when she wrote, “You can tell you have created God in your own image when it turns out that he or she hates all the same people you do.”1 Sadly, if you grew up around church or religion, it doesn’t take long for images of these folks to come to mind. You may know more of these folks than you would like to admit. You may even have become one yourself.
Rule-ridden people abound because we live in a culture that depends on behavior management. It’s a culture that is quick to punish bad behavior and wrong choices, but does very little to reward good choices or good behavior. I have yet to receive a letter from the IRS thanking me for turning in my taxes on time. In all my years of driving I’ve never been pulled over by a cop who just wanted to express appreciation for how I used my blinker in that last lane change, or to commend my firm grasp of the “right-ofway” concept. It doesn’t happen. It probably never will. But turn in my taxes a few weeks late or cross a double yellow line, and someone is right there to bust me. I’m motivated to do my taxes on time and stick to my side of the road, not because these things are right or good, but simply because I don’t want to be caught and punished.
So if you believe in a God who created the world we live in, then you have to wonder if God operates according to the same system. Is this whole fear-based system something that God actually created to keep us all in line? Connect the dots. If the primary role of authority in our world is to enforce all the rules and punish those who don’t follow them, and if God is the “ultimate authority,” doesn’t it make sense that God’s primary role in this world and in your life consists of enforcing the rules and punishing those who break them? Sure, God makes the sun rise and set, paints the occasional rainbow, and sure, God makes puppies with their cute little faces and fur so soft you can’t help but kiss it, but corner God, and he’ll tell you, the thing he is most interested in is whether or not you keep all the rules.
For hundreds and hundreds of years, “keeping the rules” has been the primary focus of what we have come to call religion. Accumulated “goodness,” and/or lack of “badness,” defines the depth of our devotion to God. Goodness and badness are what matter most in this kind of “religion,” so they must be what matter most to God.
Reflect for a moment on God’s track record. Perhaps you’ve read God’s résumé or heard stories about how, on more than one occasion, the Lord Almighty didst smite large numbers of evil (rule-breaking) people. In the Old Testament there are more than a few stories of God destroying entire nations who were guilty of breaking the rules (and it’s not always clear that they even knew there were rules to begin with!). These stories are more than complicated; they can be downright disturbing. They lead more to complex questions than to simple answers. What really matters most to God? Is not doing wrong more important than doing right? If not, then why are there so many rules?
Thumb through the first couple books of the Old Testament and it seems as though every other page features a new set of rules to follow, each set raising the bar to an impossible level of perfection that God somehow expects us to live up to.
If God is nothing more than a rule keeper or a commandment maker, then why would anyone want anything to do with him? If that’s all there is to it, then there is nothing intimate or personal about him . . . or about us, for that matter. In fact, if that’s all there is to it, then we’re nothing but a few more faces in a long lineup of perpetrators who need to be caught and corrected.
Is this the only God you’ve ever known? A God who demands respect over admiration? Who would rather speak through lectures than conversations? Who relates to you from a distance instead of intimately? Who prefers fear over love?
No wonder you feel afraid of God. This fear feeds off the thought of you never really knowing God and never being truly known by him. But what if there’s something else behind the fear? Something more. Something far better than we could ever have hoped for or imagined.
The 2005 Oscar – winning Best Film Crash gives us a small glimpse of this hope. A small glimpse into God. In an intense scene toward the end of the film, Terrence Howard’s character, Cameron, finally loses it. An otherwise calm, collected, and respected individual, Cameron finally blows up after a series of events that open his eyes to the reality of racism. From being racially profiled and pulled over by the police for no crime at all, to having his wife sexually manhandled by a crooked cop (Officer Ryan, played brilliantly by Matt Dillon) right in front of his eyes, to having his life threatened by a couple of car jackers. After physically assaulting one of the car jackers and driving with him at gunpoint, Cameron attracts the attention of several police cars and a chase ensues throughout a Los Angeles suburb. The chase reaches its climax when Cameron is cornered, an otherwise good man, with a gun in his hand ready to shoot his assailant who is still in the car with him. The police are ready to fire, until a rookie cop, Officer Hanson, played by Ryan Phillippe, intercedes.
Hanson met Cameron the night before when he and Officer Ryan pulled him over. Hanson believes that Cameron is a good man in the middle of some bad choices, and he manages to position himself between the row of police with their guns aimed at Cameron. Hanson begs and pleads to his fellow officers to trust him and let Cameron go. He breaks several layers of protocol by banking his personal reputation and career on Cameron’s fate. Hanson convinces his partners to back down and leave the scene as if nothing happened. As they do, Cameron is stunned and doesn’t know how to take it all in. He’s not sure if he should believe it or trust it. He knows what he’s done. But he’s being let go. His life now forever changed by an undeserved interceding act of grace.
This image is so much closer to the truth of the God we find in our moments of deep fear, shame, and guilt. Not a God who is hiding out and creeping around the corner to catch us, but rather a God who positions himself
No doubt you’ve seen or heard about the Ten Commandments. You might have memorized them as a kid, seen them in one of the many Moses movies, or had them recently removed from your local courthouse. Whatever your exposure to them, the fact is that they stand for many as the bottom line of what God expects of us. If there was a Cliff’s Notes to Religion, it would be the Ten Commandments.
Sadly, what was once understood as a gift from God has become a wall that separates us from him. Our interaction with God has been relegated to a checklist of dos and don’ts (mostly don’ts) that let us know how we’re doing with God and where we’re at in comparison to others. The only problem is, for some people, ten commandments just aren’t enough.
If you had to rewrite the Ten Commandments based on your assumptions of God and what he expected of you, what would they be? Perhaps they’re rules you learned from your parents: Thou shalt not swear (unless, of course, quoting a line from a really funny movie or repeating something Dad said while trying to fix the $%*@ lawnmower). Or from a Sunday school teacher: Thou shalt not touch your girlfriend in her “bathing suit” areas (assuming a one-piece suit, of course). Or from a teacher: Thou shalt sit still for eight hours a day, quietly conforming to everyone around you. And thou shalt always, repeat always, use a numbertwo pencil!
Here are a few I’ve picked up along the way:
1. Thou shalt not drink, smoke, or play Dungeons and Dragons . . .
2. . . . and thou most certainly shalt not hang out with the kids who do!
3. Thou shalt not swear, but in the case that thou dost swear, thou shalt never use the biggies (you know, like using any one of God’s names as a swear word).
4. Thou shalt go to church and thou shalt act like thou likes it.
5. Thou shalt not have sex before thou art married. (It would be nice if thou didn’t envy, weren’t prideful, didn’t have hatred in thy heart, weren’t a glutton, didn’t gossip, and cared for the poor and oppressed, but if thou can’t do those, just make sure that thou doth not have sex before thou art married.)
6. Seriously, don’t have sex.
So what would your own list look like? No matter how ridiculous your commandments might seem, it’s important that you reflect on the unwritten, unspoken commandments you grew up with or learned along the way.
There’s no doubt that these commandments have shaped who you are and how you interact with God. You may find yourself still following them or rebelling against them. It may even be difficult to tell the difference between the ones that are God’s ideas and the ones that aren’t, but it’s always good to reflect on your own personal commandments. Don’t brush past them as they may have a lot to tell you about who you are and who you think God is.
in the wide open for us to see him. A God who stands between us and the full weight and consequences of our sin and destructive habits and choices. A God who is able to uphold the law in every way, and yet still somehow make a way for us to be fully free and forgiven of all charges. We don’t have to freak out or try and talk him out of busting us for what we know we’ve done wrong. We don’t have to make excuses or make a case for why we’re normally really good people. He already knows who we are. He has a rap sheet on us that could condemn us for life, he has every right to do so . . . but he offers another way. A way for us to come to him instead of waiting and wondering when he will lower his final sentencing. It is the way of grace. A clearing of the record. A way that could take a lifetime to explain but only a moment to receive.