For those readers with children and those who have worked closely with toddlers, I’m sure you know what happens when a child is given his/her first coloring book and a box of wax crayons. Without any apparent (to us) logic or forethought, the child quickly launches their art career and randomly scribbles across the pages without consideration of the obvious black lines that everyone knowsâ€”except for the toddlerâ€”you’re supposed to treat as boundaries for each color. As a recovering perfectionist, this used to drive me up the wall as each of my four children would “ruin” a brand-new coloring book. Children can spend hours with a new coloring book and, of course, they always enjoy sharing their art with the people they love. “Look, Dad! I made this for you!”
What I didn’t realize thenâ€”and hopefully I look at things differently nowâ€”is that children approach their artwork as a natural expression of their innocence, freedom and individuality. They enjoy using any medium, whether it’s finger paint, watercolors, crayons, pencil, ketchup, mud, or even the poop inside their diapers (as we discovered with one of our daughters) to create uniquely original works of art on the most unlikely surfacesâ€¦even the faces of their siblings! But soon we begin telling them that they are supposed to color inside the lines and eventually they learn to conform their artistic expression to our logical, adult expectations. This happens as we give feedback such as, “That’s pretty good, Brian, but it would be so much better if you kept the red crayon inside the lines of Superman’s cape. You’ll do better next time!”
We often carry this same line of thinking into the Christian faith. Mike Yaconelli makes the following observation in his book, Dangerous Wonder:
Most of my life I heard the message loud and clear that Christianity was all about coloring within the lines and coloring well. If I was a good Christian, if I loved Jesus and wanted to please Him, if I read my Bible, prayed, and went to church, then I would get better and better at coloring. And if I lived a long and godly life, I would eventually be able to draw close to the perfect drawing.
Wherever that message came from, it was a lie. I am fifty-five years old and my coloring still looks like Alana’s (the two-year-old daughter of a friend).
I believe God looks at my coloring and says, “Hmmmmm. You certainly like the color green! Lots of passion in this stroke. I like it.”
Even as I write those words, I can hear the “concern” of those who worry about others misunderstanding the gospel. “You’re not suggesting, are you, that nothing matters to God? Certainly, God has standards!”
What I am suggesting is that God’s grace is so outside the lines of our understanding that we can only stand in awe and wonder. Christianity is not about learning how to live within the lines; Christianity is about the joy of coloring. The grace of God is preposterous enough to accept as beautiful a coloring that anyone else would reject as ugly. The grace of God sees beyond the scribbling to the heart of the scribblerâ€”a scribbler who is similar to the two thieves who hung on crosses on either side of Jesus. One of the two asked Jesus to please accept his scribbled and sloppy life into the kingdom of Godâ€¦and He did. Preposterous. And very good news for the rest of us scribblers.
Imagine a new coupleâ€”let’s call them John and Lisaâ€”who begin attending a Sunday morning service in a typical conservative evangelical church. They are remarkably transparent from day oneâ€”a trait that some people find refreshingâ€”and they open themselves up like a book to an entire congregation of strangers, not realizing that most people avoid such things for fear of being judged. Not John and Lisa. Maybe no one warned them. They came because a friend invited them and, surprisingly, they continue to attend the services weekly, even though church-going has never been a regular experience for either one. They are completely naive and unassuming about everything related to the Christian life, especially what’s considered “inside the lines” or “outside the lines.”
I can promise youâ€¦someone’s going to get their nose out of joint because John and Lisa don’t fit into their expectations of what constitutes a “good Christian” even though they know this couple is just beginning to investigate Christianity up close. They will discover John likes to go to the casino once a month, or that Lisa has had an abortion, or that the couple enjoys a few beers when they go tailgating with their non-church-going friends during football season, or that they are convinced evolutionists and, God forbid, card-carrying Libertarians! You see, when we’ve been bullied into coloring inside the lines, it drives us crazy when other people just scribble for the fun of it (and get away with it).
To me, it’s one of the reasons people are walking away from institutional Christianity. Maybe John and Lisa will find a loving fellowship where they are accepted as they are, where others are willing to allow God’s Spirit to do His work in His own timing in their lives, and where the active love of Christ demonstrated through others kindles a thirst in their hearts for authentic Christianity, as opposed to legalistic adherence to a form of religion that sucks the joy and life right out of them. I hope they find a place that welcomes scribblers. I’d love to find such a place, too.