by Ronnie McBrayer
On the wall of my childhood Sunday School class was a giant, gridlined poster board that looked sort of like an Excel spreadsheet. There was a place for each child’s name, and then all of these vacant boxes running to the right, eager to be filled with shining gold stars. Did you bring an offering? Put a gilded check in the box! Are you staying for worship? A trophy is yours. Read your Bible every day this week? Another star blesses you from heaven.
I always had a shining wall full of stars, hungry as I was for that elusive divine and adult approval; and I sometimes led the class. But then there was Philip Johns, my most fierce competitor. He was a religious machine. I could only beat him a few months out of each year, and in my daily prayers I had to often repent for wishing he would get struck with the flu, chickenpox, or leprosy – anything – so that he would be sidelined just long enough for me to squeak out the winning margin.
It was that simple: Complete a religious assignment and get a star. Those with more stars were more dedicated, more spiritual, more committed, and obviously more beloved by God. Those with fewer stars, well, their faithfulness was suspect at best. When we engrain a competitive spirit into faith—a culture of public shame and reward—is it any wonder we end up with some really faith-damaged adults?
There is plenty to compete for and against in this world. But Christianity is not one of those things. Spiritual formation is not a competition. Faith is not – or at least it should not be – an instrument to humiliate those who just “can’t measure up.”
And then there are those of us who “won” the religious game, we who earned our bounteous gold stars with pride. We are committed – let there be no mistake about that – but committed to what, exactly? Obligation? Checklists? To the fawning cheers of the spectators? To seeing our name high and lifted up in heavenly constellations?
Our religious efforts and activities to please, praise, or placate God can become the very things that actually distract us from God. For if Christian faith becomes a work-based, blood-sweat-and-tears, incentive-driven, reward-acquisition staircase that compensates the winners and shames the losers, then the focus is placed on us and our rivals, not upon Christ.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.