Lost in Religion: Nicodemus' Story
I’ve been thinking about a story from the Gospel of John.
In the third chapter of his book, John writes about a man named Nicodemus. Nick (we’re tight, so I can call him this) was a Pharisee. This means that he was already a part of the spiritually elite and powerful in Judaism. In addition to that, he was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was an influential group that made civil, religious and sometimes criminal decisions in that region. No doubt, Nick was a respected teacher in this area.
All of that to say, Nick was an answer man. If you wanted answers to complex spiritual dilemmas, he was your guy. He—and the groups that he ran with—had a chapter and verse for anything that you could throw at him. He was definitely a “take two verses and call me in the morning” kind of guy when it came to life’s problems.
And yet…he still had deeper longings that his religion wasn’t addressing. There was something missing in his life, and his belief system wasn’t doing the trick.
He began to hear about a Rabbi from Nazareth who was doing miracles that could not be explained rationally. The love that this same Rabbi had for those pushed to the margin was legendary.
Nick was intrigued by Jesus but he feared those within his religious circle.
He was used to practicing a legalistic form of his religion and saw no fruit in it. All that his religion produced was a bunch of finger-pointing hypocrites that were more interested in identifying other people’s sin than their own.
Nick knew that he was missing something, something he couldn’t summon from within himself, and that whatever it was, Jesus had.
He went to visit Jesus at night so that his peers wouldn’t know about their conversation. At their meeting, Jesus shared where to find what Nick was missing. He said that Nick must be “born again” (or more specifically “to be born from above”).
And what was that missing thing? Jesus called it eternal life. Notice that eternal life is more than just living forever.
In fact, eternal life is less about duration and more about quality.
It begins with trusting Jesus. It’s as simple as saying something along the lines of “Jesus, I give you my life,” and believing that Jesus is who He says He is. That He is the source of eternal life and the Giver of abundant life. When we are “born from above,” we possess eternal life the moment we accept Jesus’ offer. One might say that we all have eternal life either way, but the quality of this eternity is different. It is “life that is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:19)
Nicodemus was missing a life that was truly life. I believe that we can be in church, around church, and serving at a church and not be in possession of a life that is truly life.
Many of us have a story about how we have been wounded within the four walls of a church building. I know that church is full of people, in fact it IS people, and people are imperfect. However, there is a special kind of wounding that happens at church.
It is personal and intensely painful as a result.
After experiencing church hurt, it is quite common for people to feel angry and even lost as a result. Here is an incomplete list of just a few things that you may have experienced.
- Angry rants from the pulpit
- Culture war rhetoric aimed at specific people groups
- A mishandled marriage counseling session
- Weaponizing scripture in order to shame or guilt someone
- And everyone’s favorite…good old fashioned hypocrisy
Whatever hurt you’ve experienced, no doubt it has caused you, in some way, to doubt what you have learned from those responsible. There may have even been moments where you doubted your faith as a whole or even punted the whole thing. I get that. There have been seasons where I have looked into a different profession for the same reason.
It is natural to doubt when you are in tremendous amounts of pain, especially if that pain was caused by a faith community.
If this is you, I want to invite you to delve into the story of Nicodemus. I found encouragement in the interaction that Jesus had with this religious seeker—one who had lost his way but, I believe, found his way back after a conversation with this Rabbi sent by God.
In the process, I hope you are open, as Nicodemus was, to hearing from Jesus. That you might come to accept that even though a group of people claiming the name of Jesus have wounded you, that they misrepresented Him or even worse, did not know Him in the first place.
My hope is that even if you don’t go back to organized religion, you could begin to cultivate a relationship with Jesus that brims with abundant life.
The Jesus I know is a respite for the wounded, a Healer of the broken and a pursuer of lost souls.
He says outright, “Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
While it is true that “church is full of people and people are imperfect,” I do think we as followers of Jesus can do a lot better. If we are charged to love just as Jesus loved, and we are seen as followers of His because of that love, we HAVE to do better.
And, if you are a part of that group that has left church and also left your faith in Jesus because of your pain, and you are looking for a way back, I really believe that the story of Nicodemus contains some hope for you. I believe comfort and direction and ultimately, the life that is truly life are all available, and I hope you’ll hang in there until you find it.