I was tangled in the all the wires
Tied down and I felt the fire
There was nothing for me to do
I was searching but not for you…
I’ve been walking backwards
— Leagues, “Walking Backwards”
Are you a follower of Jesus or just a fan? Are you fully committed, fully surrendered, fully immersed, or just going through the motions out of habit or obligation? That’s the central premise of Kyle Idleman’s book Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus.
As I skimmed through the sample on Amazon, my first reaction was, “Well, obviously I’m a follower.” But then I had my doubts. Maybe I’m just a fan. After all, I don’t give enough money at church, I don’t serve enough, I don’t pray enough, I don’t read the Bible enough, there’s so much more I could be doing. But there’s the trap. The legalistic conundrum that equates doing with being. And then I got angry.
I understand Idleman’s point. Most Christians remain at the very surface level when it comes to their faith. They go to church, they may serve, they may give, they may look the part in every way, but underneath that there’s very little substance. There’s no growth, no maturation. There’s no sanctification, which is a fancy church term for “becoming holy”. If we are truly saved, truly committed, then our core nature will begin to change, not by our own power (after all, we couldn’t save ourselves in the first place), but by the Holy Spirit working within us. Little by little, the old sinful nature will begin to chip away and be replaced by a new God nature. And only then, as we change on the inside does the outside begin to change, not because it’s supposed to but because we want it to. Because our old outsides are now incompatible with our new insides. It’s what Paul means when he says in Romans 6:22: “But now that you have been set free from sin… the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” Salvation leads to internal transformation, and internal transformation leads to eternal life. If there’s no internal transformation, there’s no eternal life. Being a fan isn’t enough. You have to be a follower.
The problem is, how do you know if you’re a follower or just a fan? How do you know if you measure up? As I asked myself that question, I began subconsciously adding and subtracting demerits based on what I do or don’t do. I don’t give enough, that’s a demerit. I don’t pray enough, that’s a demerit. I do serve in the children’s ministry, though, so subtract a demerit for that. And I’m plugged into a small group at church, so that should count as something. I began compiling a mental balance sheet of demerits and counting them up to see where I landed on the spectrum, hoping that I scored well enough to fall into the “follower” category. But that’s not really what it’s about, is it? It’s not about how much or how little we do, it’s about that internal transformation, that relationship between me and God. And here’s the thing: relationships are messy.
I’ve been married for 18 years. I’d love to say that every day of that 18 years has been bliss, but that’s not true by a long shot. We’ve had some really great times, but we’ve also been through hell. We’ve spent some of the best days of our lives together, and there’ve been many days when neither of us wanted to ever see each other again. Yet, despite all of our ups and downs and ups and downs and downs and downs and back ups again, I’ve never stopped loving her. I’ve never given up on my relationship with her or given up on my commitment to her. Yes, we’ve each considered walking away at various times, but neither of us did.
If you were to take a snapshot of our marriage at any one point in time, you may catch us at one of our great times or you may catch us at one of our hard times. But if you were to look only at that snapshot and then grade us based on that single moment, it wouldn’t be a complete picture of our relationship; it wouldn’t be representative of our entire 18 years. And yet, that’s what I was doing when I was adding and subtracting demerits. I was taking a snapshot my of relationship with God and then grading the entirety of that relationship based on that single snapshot. And that’s not fair.
So where am I at this single moment? Well, if you were to grade me, I would probably fail. Miserably. Look at the movies I watch, the TV shows I watch, the songs I listen to, the cuss words I say. Look at how I generally don’t pay God any attention at all except for a couple of hours on Sunday morning. How I don’t want anything to do with most other Christians on social media. How I’m completely burned out when it comes to anything “churchy”. I’m the very definition of backsliding.
My Southern Baptist upbringing would say I need to repent, that I need a revival. And maybe I do.
But maybe walking backwards isn’t the same as backsliding. Maybe it’s just one moment in a larger longterm relationship. I can look back over the last few years and see how much I’ve grown in my faith, how much more real Jesus has become to me, how much I’ve learned and matured. Yet that single snapshot today would tell a completely opposite story, one that isn’t really true.
I don’t disagree with Idleman’s premise. There’s a huge difference between being a fan of Jesus and being a follower. Sadly, most of us are fans. But at the same time, we have to be careful in determining which one we are. A snapshot is a good place to start, but we can’t lose sight of the relationship as a whole.