Shellie Rushing Tomlinson
l like to say I was in church nine months before I was born and shortly thereafter my people began toting me back to the Lord’s house as quickly and as often as they could. I now understand there are worse places to grow up than the left side, second row of a small country church, but as a rambunctious kid with a serious imagination and a bad case of the fidgets, I had a hard time imagining why so much churchgoing was necessary.
It seemed highly unlikely we would miss out on anything earth shattering if we skipped a service here and there. Even a wiggly little tomboy with smudged eyeglasses could tell you who was going to come in late, who was going to make a scene taking her baby to the nursery, and which elderly deacon was going to rouse himself from a brief nap to offer a hearty “Amen!” People are creatures of habit even—and maybe especially—in the Lord’s house.
To my way of thinking, a little absence could have made our muchchurched hearts grow even fonder. My sisters concurred. Had this ever come to a vote, we girls would have ruled the day with a three-to-two tally, but our parents weren’t the least bit interested in running a democracy.
Our list of required appearances included, but was not limited to, Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, two-week vacation Bible schools in the summer, and two-week annual revivals in the spring and fall, both revivals having been prefaced with two-week cottage prayer meetings in anticipation of the big events. Sickness could get you an excused absence from any of these services, but it had to be verified. Holding a thermometer inside your electric blanket so you could stay home on Sunday night and watch The Wonderful World of Disney never worked. Not that I ever tried.
As a child, I enjoyed the rhythm of familiar hymns as well as the sense of belonging I felt inside those church walls, even if I firmly believed we overdid the whole attendance thing. As a teenager, however, I became increasingly skilled at being present in body alone while my thoughts were occupied elsewhere with my peers and our many dramas. I had a healthy respect for the teachings of the church, and God seemed real enough to me while I was there, but I didn’t understand why my faith felt so compartmentalized. Where God went once I left the church building I couldn’t say. And honestly, I wasn’t all that concerned with the mystery.
This disconnect between my Sunday morning faith and my everyday experience followed me into my young married life where, despite my childhood conclusion that our parents overdid the churching, I found myself choosing the same level of commitment to the weekly services. I still enjoyed attending church, but I could seldom carry the warm fuzzies I felt during the service any farther than the parking lot before my sense of God’s presence began to fade. The Sundays that bookended my weeks seemed to have little to do with what happened in the days that lay between them. As the years rolled by, I gradually began to wonder why this was and if it had to be.
Thankfully, the day finally came when I was ready to admit that I needed something more. I had no clue what it was that had been missing for so long, yet I knew I had to find it.
As it happens, God used my own children to turn the heat up under my growing desire for more. I was a married woman with a loving husband trying to raise two young teenagers when the persistent dissatisfaction I’d never been able to name began to reach a boiling point.
During my kids’ early years, I’d been able to pull off the church-lady gig, or at least my concept of the role. I knew the Bible and I knew the rules. Thinking this would be enough, I forged ahead, confident that if my husband and I took our children to church every time the doors opened, just as my parents had done with my sisters and me, all would be well. And for the most part it was—until they hit adolescence and I came down with mommy terrors!
My babies were growing up, and it was both exhilarating and terrifying. Everywhere I turned the culture around us was laughing at what I considered sacred and celebrating what I found immoral. Increasingly our kids were exposed to things outside our home that neither their dad nor I approved of, and it frightened me to realize the temptations they faced could potentially wreck the futures we had always dreamed of for them. I tried to placate myself. We had taught them our values. If they were strong in their faith, they would be okay come what may, right? I had already purchased this holy life insurance myself, hadn’t I? I simply needed to make sure they had taken out a similar policy. I needed to know they believed me when I said that the fullest life was one lived in God.
Such logic should have brought peace, and it would have, if not for one overgrown, peanut-eating elephant loafing smack-dab in the middle of my living room: I had zero life experience to offer as evidence for what I was advertising. As much as I disliked admitting it, any spiritual direction I was offering my kids came strictly from the biblical head knowledge gained through my years in the pew. I was merely regurgitating what I’d heard my whole life.
In short, I was a hypocrite!
Though the news came as quite a surprise to me, the ugly truth was undeniable. An Internet dictionary offers the following spot-on definition of my true state in that telling moment: a hypocrite is “a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.”1 Bingo. If I were to be honest, the faith I was experiencing wasn’t satisfying my deepest longings at all. My picture could’ve been pasted right beside that entry. Say “cheese,” Church Lady.
Even as I came face to face with the realization that I couldn’t pass on something I didn’t have, I was also painfully aware that young people are like mini lie detectors, capable of spotting anything short of the whole truth and willing to call you on it. I’m reminded of the time I came through the living room all dressed up for a big event, whereupon my grade school son looked up and announced, “Wow, Mama. You do not look fat in those pants.” Obviously, Phillip had heard this subject discussed in his few short years on earth, and, just as clearly, there had been other times when I had looked fat in my pants. But enough of What Not to Wear. My point is, children can sniff out insincerity like a bloodhound and see through hypocrites with their eyes closed. My Big Faith Advertisement must have sounded as weak in their ears as it did in mine.
This sobering realization about the lameness of my own faith stared me down without blinking and prompted some serious soul searching. Why wasn’t my faith satisfying? Why was it that my God and I were friendly acquaintances at best? Why didn’t I know this One I called my Savior? Worse yet, why didn’t I love Him? Oh, I liked Him well enough. I appreciated the gospel, and I was grateful for the promise of a secure eternity, but love this Jesus in the here and now? Not really. In light of all my years of churching and being churched, I wondered how on earth that could be true. And why did some people seem so passionate about Jesus then all I could muster for Him on my most spiritual day was a healthy respect?
I knew people who talked about Jesus with the kind of affection normally reserved for a flesh-and-blood person. Me? I could sing “Oh, how I love Jesus” as heartily as everyone around me (albeit off-key), but deep down I knew that I could just as easily be singing “Oh, how I love watermelon” for all the fervency in my aching faking heart. My fellow southerners and I have a saying we’re fond of using to encourage someone to be honest. “Tell the truth and stay in church,” we’ll warn. I’ve always thought the line was funny, but I wasn’t laughing as I compared my empty profession of love with the words of Jesus Himself in Mark 12:30: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (niv). I knew I didn’t love Him that way, and I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do about it. Coming clean with my Jesus-loving church members about the state of my faith didn’t sound at all appealing.
Have mercy! If this is all I had to advertise for my abundant life, I realized I was going to have a hard time selling God to my kids, or to anyone else for that matter.
With that, the nagging concern over my lackluster faith that had dogged me for years became a desperate need to find out what I was missing. I was no longer willing to settle for the distance that separated me from the God I’d heard about and prayed to from my earliest memory. I think of that turning point as my Flypaper Epiphany.
When I was growing up, most everyone I knew used flypaper to combat the bothersome insects that populate our southern summers. Flypaper seems to have lost its appeal over the years. But back in the day, these sticky pieces of vertical yellow tape, each about a foot and a half long and a couple inches wide, hung beneath carports all over our Louisiana Delta and as near as possible to the main entrances of our houses.
Flypaper is coated with sweet-smelling glue and designed to be so sticky that should a pesky fly encounter it while heading into the house, said insect would be immediately detained and permanently affixed to its surface. I can assure you that flypaper lives up to the billing. I once got my hair caught on the stuff, and I thought for sure Mama was going to have to shave me bald-headed to remove it from my crowning glory.
Eternal life isn’t a gift from God; eternal life is the gift of God.
I don’t remember the exact day I sat staring at John 17:3 (I do know it was shortly after I identified myself as a hypocrite), but I’ll always remember the challenge I heard in Jesus’s own words: “This is eternal life, that they might know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” That scripture was familiar to this church girl, but the hope I heard in it was brand spanking new. For the first time I saw in those words a way to get off the spiritual merry-go-round I’d been riding my whole life and strike out on the biggest adventure of all time: to actually know God. I saw this as the way I would learn to love Jesus, to crazy love Him.
In my new plan God was the flypaper, and I would be the fly. The mission: to throw myself at Him and stick for eternity! The rest of my life began with a single prayer and an honest admission that surprised neither of us:
“I admit it. I don’t love You like I should, but I want to love You. Help!”
Choosing to Love Jesus
I finally admitted that I had nothing to offer God. Zero. Zip. All I could bring was my weak, broken want-to. Here’s the beautiful reality: it was enough. If you want to love Jesus, it’s enough for you too!
The embarrassing truth I had avoided all my life—that I didn’t really love Jesus—was the very admission He would use to ignite my lukewarm heart. Who knew?! All I had to offer was a desire to love Him, but it was enough. Okay, to be accurate, I couldn’t even say that I wanted to love Him. It was more like I wanted to want to love Him, and still it was enough. He accepted my passionless heart and began to breathe on it, and a new way of living began opening to me.
I’ve had so many women tell me personal stories about their faith, and I’m always struck by how similar they are to my own. These sincere believers believe in God and they’re trying to follow Him, but they admit to having little to no sense of intimacy with Him. They long for the passion they see in the Bible, but they’re resigned to going through the motions without it. If this resonates with you, if you’ve been trying to ignore a certain dullness to your faith, please hear me. You aren’t asking for anything that God doesn’t want you to enjoy and Jesus didn’t die to give you! I’m walking proof that you can fall in love with Jesus by learning to whisper a simple prayer that meets with His wholehearted approval: “I don’t love You, but I want to love You. Help me!”
Taste the sugar-sweet words of Ephesians 1:3–4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world.”
God chose to love all of us, but He gave us free will to decide whether or not we would return that love. The type of honest prayer I’m advocating means admitting that our want-to is broken and asking God to teach us how to love Him well.
Have you been waiting for your heart to spontaneously combust into love for Jesus? If so, you have your cart before your horse, and I’m here to testify through firsthand experience that it’s a frustrating way to ride and produces scant forward progress. In 1 John 4:19 we’re told that “we love, because He first loved us.” In other words, you and I will never be able to bear down and deliver a passionate heart for God out of determination or self discipline, and it won’t overtake us by surprise. It will, however, ignite in our hearts when we discover the secret of feasting on God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ. Scripture assures us that He loves us not because of who we are but because of who He is.
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4–7)
God put His love on eternal display by sending Jesus to save us, not because of our merit but in spite of our sin. He initiates the love affair with us.
The blessed challenge is to continue drinking that love in as freely as when we first reached for salvation. When we feast on this extravagant love and the many gifts He poured out upon us through Jesus Christ, we receive a nutrient rich meal that nourishes His passion in us. But I reiterate, it is a decision, just as surely as the one we make when we pull our chairs up to the dining room table. No one can make this choice for us.
So what does this decision look like? That’s the question I’m excited about answering. Let’s begin with some powerful words from Jesus, recorded in Matthew.
Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (6:19–21, hcsb)
For the longest time I allowed the good news of this passage to be totally eclipsed by the last sentence: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” That sounded like something of a spiritual inkblot test to me, and it was one I was sure I could never pass. I was quite convinced that if God examined what it was I treasured, He would see that He wasn’t at the top of the list. In my guilt-induced anxiety, I completely missed the clear directive of the passage. These six power-packed words turned my perceived inkblot test on its head when I finally understood their decree: “Collect for yourselves treasures in heaven.” That, my friend, isn’t a question or a suggestion. It’s an instruction that begs a proactive, determined choice of action. It’s also good news, foot-stomping good news. You and I get to choose what we treasure!
This power-packed privilege of choosing God as my treasure is the very decision I made on the day of my Flypaper Epiphany! I’ve since come to better understand the paradigm shift that occurred that day, but at the time I had no idea of the magnitude of my newly adjusted aim. I couldn’t have known that the decision to toss aside all reserve and throw myself at God with the sole goal of coming to know Him would not only open the door to the passion I was missing but also rescue me from another of my persistent struggles.