Excerpt from Ryan & Josh Shook’s new book, Firsthand: Ditching Secondhand Religion for a Faith of Your Own. Visit FirsthandBook.com.
Looking back at my life, I ( Josh) can still feel it—an inner frustration and emptiness constantly simmering inside.
Ryan and I had grown up in a family where faith was central, and years earlier I had made a personal decision to place my faith in Christ. Toward the end of high school, however, I began living with a nagging sense of defeat when it came to my faith. I tried to block out the emptiness, tried to make myself believe that my life was fine and act like everything was okay. But when I was honest with myself, I had to admit that I wasn’t happy. I was overwhelmed with the list of things I was supposed to do—and the list of things I definitely wasn’t supposed to do. Following the rules had once been satisfying, but at this point the rules made me feel more isolated from God, not closer.
The worst part was that no matter how “good” I was, I never felt content with the choices I made or the person I was. And I felt like there was no one I could talk to about it. If I admitted that I was unhappy and that something was missing from my faith, people might be disappointed in me. God might be disappointed in me.
And I know for a fact that everything I’ve said describes Ryan’s experience too—pretty much word for word.
Do you relate to what we’re saying?
When we forget that Christianity is all about a relationship with Christ and we start to settle for the kind of Christianity where we check off our to-do lists for God, then we inevitably experience the emptiness of religion. Religion is all about humankind trying to work its way into God’s approval, and that always leaves an emptiness and ache in the soul.
Empty religion shows up when someone tries to follow rules and rituals to earn salvation, but it also shows up when a Christ follower starts trying to be a “good Christian” so God will love him or her more. What I hadn’t realized is that empty religion can sneak into our lives when we forget the purpose of sound spiritual disciplines such as a daily Bible reading and quiet time.
My daily quiet time became something I felt I’d better do so God would approve of me rather than an opportunity to spend time with the God who already approves of me because of Christ’s sacrifice. Instead of seeing my daily devotional as a chance to spend time with the God who loves me unconditionally, I had turned it into a religious activity that left me feeling defeated. It became one more thing I needed to check off my list to keep God happy, and I failed so often to do all the things on my spiritual checklist that I pretty much gave up.
Most of us can’t keep that up for very long.
Somewhere along the way Ryan and I gave up on doing “the right things” and started trying new things that promised to fill our emptiness. We stopped hanging out with the “church crowd” and started hanging out with whoever seemed to be having the most fun. But after the party was over and the high was gone, we found ourselves right back in that place of emptiness. Only this time the feeling was intensified.
Our souls were thirsty and desperately needed to be quenched. But sometimes things need to get worse before they get better.