Chapter 8: Zombie Rules Excerpt taken from the book The Christian Zombie Killers Handbook by Jeff Kinley, courtesy of Thomas Nelson, Inc.
The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception. The one who lies with sincerity. —Andre Gide
In later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. —The Apostle Paul, in 1 Timothy 4:1
Something happened to me at age sixteen that forever changed my life. One summer Sunday afternoon, I was driving home from a buddy’s house. Another friend of mine was in the car with me. Two teenage hippie boys, decked in blue jeans and flannel shirts. And barefoot. Go figure. It had just begun to drizzle rain a few minutes earlier, and I turned onto a country road headed back toward town.
As we traveled down this long hill, we came near a bend in the road. Coming up the hill pretty fast was this guy on a motorcycle. And for some unknown reason, as he rounded the bend, he lost control of his bike and began a sideways slide toward me. But while skidding up the country road, he separated from his bike and tumbled head over heels into a ditch. The motorcycle, however, continued an accelerated slide toward me, eventually slamming hard into the driver’s side door. The impact of the collision sent hundreds of glass bits shooting across the interior of the car. I did the only thing my sixteen-year-old mind knew to do: instinctively stomp the brake pedal as hard as I could. We skidded down the wet pavement for what seemed like forever, eventually coming to rest just off the road.
My brain kicked into overdrive, sending lightning-fast signals to my body, doing a “system check” to see if everything was still functioning properly. After processing what had just happened, I checked to see if my friend was hurt. We both checked out fine. Glass was everywhere, though, and I later found it down my shirt and in my front pocket. Glass was also all over the floor, which would soon make for a cautious barefoot exit from the car. Once I knew I was still alive and all right, my adrenaline temporarily subsided. But I was jolted back to a state of panic when my friend screamed, “Dude, you’re on top of him!”
Apparently, as I slid down the road, I had come to rest in the same ditch the man had rolled into. I immediately threw the gears into reverse and spun up the hill about ten feet, inadvertently running over the man a second time. Again, my mind was thrust into hyper-speed thought. I fast-forwarded and saw a future labeled with words like “manslaughter” and “jail time.” I pictured myself in one of those orange prison jumpsuits. My future had officially been canceled.
And that’s when it happened. I got religious. Since I wasn’t a churchgoer, I didn’t exactly know how the game was played. But I did know that people prayed to God, asking him for help when they got in trouble. And I was definitely in trouble. BIG trouble. My pulse was beating like a speed-metal drummer on a kick drum. So out of pure fear, I prayed. No, make that, I begged. I began making deals with God in my head while kicking my jammed-shut door. I promised God that if he got me out of this mess, I would stop my sinful behavior. I told him I would clean up my act, that I wouldn’t hang out with bad influences anymore. Promise after promise I made as I shoulder- slammed and kicked my way out of the car.
“God, just don’t let this man be dead. Please! Please don’t let him die!”
Finally, the door flew open, again sending more glass spraying my way. We jumped out barefoot onto the wet pavement and ran down the hill. Arriving at where the man was, we saw him lying motionless in the ditch. Then, unexpectedly, he started moving and slowly stood to his feet.
“Oh my gosh! M-mister, are you all right, sir? Are you hurt?” I yelled.
Brushing the damp dirt off of his jacket, the man looked up at the two teenage hippies, blinked his eyes, and responded, “Yeah, I think . . . I think I’m fine.”
And he was. In fact, he was more than fine. Amazingly, this man did not have one single scratch on his body. Unhurt in the crash. Unscathed in the slide across the road. Unbruised in the violent collision with the ditch. And unharmed by having a car land on top of him and getting run over by it twice.
Not a single scratch.
His motorcycle was another story. And so was my car. The man pushed his bike up the road to his house about a mile away while I drove slowly alongside him, holding my door on with my left arm. Later that day, I remembered all those things I had said to God during our in-car negotiations. I had sworn to get religious and stop doing bad things. I had even considered going to church or performing some kind of devout duty. And I did okay for a couple of weeks.
Then something started happening inside. A force greater than post-crash promises began raising its ugly head. Something inside of me no longer cared about God or promises made to him in a moment of panic and fear. All it cared about was self-preservation and getting bailed out of catastrophe. The ink on my inner contract with God had hardly dried before beginning a fast fade. Soon it would disappear altogether. Fortunately for me, within a month or so, another friend entered my life. And what I saw in him made me thirsty. This teenage guy knew Jesus, and in a short time he introduced me to him.
Looking back, it was that incident that introduced me to the danger and deception of being religious. Someone has described religion as “man’s attempt to reach God.” That rings true with me. I mean, think about the religious stuff we’ve invented to help people make a connection with their Creator. In some religions, there are required places to visit, special wheels to spin, dead people to appease, sacrifices to make, and good deeds to perform. And even within Christianity, a pervasive religious odor lingers in the air. We have a litany of religious activity. Sunday morning performances we put on for the sake of God and others, hoping for his applause or a heavenly “Amen!”
There are liturgies we observe. Services we attend. Special prayers we pray. A certain percentage of money we give. Verses to memorize. Meetings and studies we commit to. Duties to discharge. Religious tasks to complete. In some churches, even certain clothing is considered more appropriate for “worship,” as if God is so shallow as to care about worldly social protocol and American fashion. I’m sure he appreciates us reducing him to this level.
Things were no different in Jesus’ day. The Son of God was surrounded by a clan of religious leaders who had also messed things up in a major-league way. One way they did this was through their teaching (more about that in another chapter). But the other way they perverted things was by their example, turning faith into a religious circus.
Jesus, not known for being a wimpy man, wasn’t afraid to inform the crowds that their religious leaders were a total sham and unworthy of being followed. In one message, recorded for us by a former cheating tax collector named Matthew, Jesus began by revealing: “Everything they do is done for men to see.”1 Really, Jesus? Everything? Are you serious? Apparently so.
According to Jesus in Matthew 23:6, these guys were a total facade. Counterfeits. Fakes. Actors. Had there been the Academy Awards back then, they would have won the Oscar for “Best Performance by a Group of Phonies.” They weren’t who they appeared to be. And Jesus intentionally exposed them for who they really were. He crashed their party. And that made them very, very uncomfortable . . . and also angry. Angry enough to want to kill him.
And what did Jesus find so wrong with what they were doing? Weren’t they the guardians of the truth? Didn’t they perform their religious duties faithfully? Didn’t they pray? Didn’t they read the Bible? Didn’t they lead? Didn’t they look and act the part of godly leaders?
They also memorized tons of Bible verses, even tying little boxes of scripture cards to their arms and foreheads— you know, so everyone could see how religious and godly they were. They knew more Bible than you, and made sure you were aware of this fact. And they liked how this made them feel. Superior. Special. Sacred. They committed Scripture to memory, not because they loved God or his Word, but in order to be noticed by others.
They also loved the place of honor they enjoyed in their religious subculture and being greeted with respect in the marketplace. This kind of attention fed their egos and tossed a bowl of brains to their inner zombies every time someone called one of them “Rabbi.” They liked recognition (v. 6). Being called “leaders” exalted them, making them feel important (v.12).
Long prayers were another part of their religious game, and they composed some really good ones in public, giving the impression that they were spiritual (v. 14). But in reality, they were blind to the truth—about God and about themselves (v. 16). They did “religious stuff” but ignored the things God really cares about most—like justice, mercy, and faithfulness (v. 23)—heart attitudes that translate into outward actions, but usually in ways that no one sees. And if no one sees you being religious, then your ego can’t be fed. And that’s no fun.
Jesus said these men looked good on the outside, but on the inside was rampant self-indulgence (v. 25). He called them “whitewashed tombs,” inside of which were “dead men’s bones” (v. 27). No real spiritual life there. These guys were literally the “walking dead.” They appeared outwardly righteous (v. 28), and as such believed they were somehow better than the heathen and those “other” believers (vv. 29–32).
Then Jesus landed the knockout punch. More than fakes. More than hypocrites. “In reality,” Jesus was saying, “you men are snakes, sons of vipers.” And to a Jewish mind, that was the equivalent of saying you were pure evil. “And what’s more,” he added, “you’re all going to hell” (v. 33, paraphrased). Okay, so Jesus, tell us what you really feel!
Fortunately for us, the Lord was a great communicator. He always meant what he said and said what he meant. He understood that religion is merely a costume temporarily masquerading the zombies within us. For you and me, Christian activity and service can easily be that costume. We attempt to keep our inner zombies’ mindless hunger moans quiet through religiosity and Christian endeavor. The more we do for God, the less our sinful cravings will be heard, right?
It’s actually just the opposite. Christian service (mission trips, singing in the choir, mowing the church lawn, going to Bible studies, attending fellowship gatherings, helping the homeless, attending more church services, etc.) may fill up your schedule, preventing you from having time to get yourself in trouble. But it has zero effect on causing your sinful self to get any better. The danger is that you will start feeling really good about yourself as you do all these things. And that good feeling begins to swell, producing pride and a feeling of superiority over others who don’t serve the way you do. And you gradually morph into a Pharisee without even knowing it.
But sad to say, by being religious we also sometimes gain greater acceptance with the Christian crowd. And as a result we assume our standing with God is improved as well. Even servanthood can be twisted to serve the self-god. The more I serve, the more I am committed. The more I am committed, the better I am. The better I am, the better off I am in God’s eyes (and thus better than you). It’s a subtle process, but it’s all too common. This is exactly why Jesus advised us to be careful about parading our service to God in order to be seen by men. Instead, he urged us to practice our faith “in secret” without a public audience. Serving in obscurity is no fun for self, especially when others get all the attention. But it helps us avoid the trap of trying to please God, and you’re back to earning/working for your salvation again. And that also feeds your egodriven zombie.
Faith in Jesus just doesn’t seem to be enough these days. We subconsciously feel that we need the “extras.” Your inner zombie wants to “help” you in your relationship with Jesus. But it’s a trick. It knows that by adding self-effort, it will feel good about itself and grow in its control over you. You may be insulated from a host of sins through serving God, but the subconscious attitude of “Look at me. Look how spiritual I am. Look how I serve God,” along with the subtle pride, is epidemic in churches. And among Christian leaders.
All of this is merely an attempt to achieve a clear conscience that assures us everything is okay between God and us. Another reason these good works can be dangerous is because Jesus has already pleased God for you. When he cried out, “It is finished” on the cross, he meant that your debt to God was now paid. “It is finished” is one word in the New Testament’s original language, meaning “Paid in full.” Jesus satisfied God’s righteous demands because you never could.
You struggle with sin, so you “try harder.” You fail. So you try even harder. You add more service and activities. You make promises. You “do” more for God. And why? To keep you from screwing up again and because you really want to live for him. But there are other forces at work here too. Hidden motivations that elude us. In reality, we try harder because of the “buzz” it gives our inner zombies. Every time we attempt to satisfy God through religious service or deeds, we throw a bucket of brains down that hole. And the flesh junkie in each of us reanimates all over again, becoming stronger and more confident. And harder to kill. It doesn’t at all mind dressing up like a clean, committed Christian as long as it can still be fed daily.
Ironic, really, how the whole point of Jesus’ work in us is to save us from sin’s ditch and a futile religious lifestyle. And yet, like a car whose front end is out of line, we constantly drift and slide toward that ditch.
Church activity and religious works can’t mask the scent of the rotting corpse below. Just like the Pharisees. Avoid their example.
I wonder what Jesus would say if he walked into the average church this Sunday morning. Would he find a swarm of service? A buzz of activity? Imagine for a moment there’s no stage or platform. No ambient lighting. No concert venue. No theater atmosphere. No big screens. No Broadway stage-show sets. What if we scratched all that for a few months and simply came together as the body of Christ? What if we chucked the religious stuff and came as broken followers, sick of beingentertained, seeking instead to encounter him and love one another, no matter who saw us do it?
What if we shed our religious suits, exposing the zombie for who he really is. And what if we do all this, not to gain any acceptance from God, but simply because we already are fully accepted by him?
Why So Serious?
But there’s another subtle trick our zombies play on us. In an attempt to tame our sinful nature, many Christians buy into a system of thought that believes that the more rules you have, the “godlier” you are. If you have a spiritual problem, the best way to resolve it is to simply create a regulation for yourself. A standard. You just need a new habit, or new set of habits. Replace old, bad behavior with good behavior. If you can submit control of your life to a moral code, you can beat your problems and defeat the enemy within.
The only flaw in this approach is that both Jesus and Paul said it just doesn’t work.
“Wait a minute,” someone says. “I know lots of fine, upstanding Christian people who live by God’s rules, and their lives are very Christlike and worthy of imitation. Are you saying the rules don’t work for them?”
No. I’m saying that’s what Jesus and Paul said. These people’s lives may be morally upright, but according to the apostle Paul, and Christ himself, rules are only effective in dealing with outward behavior, not the condition of the heart.
Allow me to explain.
As we have already seen, the wickedness of our sin nature is corrupt and unchanging. It can’t be reformed or made better. It only grows worse and worse, continuing to horribly malfunction.
Let’s say you got mad and punched some guy in the face. He called the police, and they arrested you, placing you in handcuffs. Now you can’t punch him anymore. But that doesn’t resolve the issue of why you punched him in the first place. The anger that caused you to knock the guy’s lights out is still inside you. And even the police can’t handcuff your mind or emotions. A night in jail or a hefty fine may prevent you from doing something foolish again, but the anger that caused it may simmer inside you for years.
Some psychologists say that if you perform a certain healthy behavior long enough, it becomes a habit and your life is changed. And while that may work in dieting, studying, or exercise, it still can’t change your heart. The heart and mind are a battlefield. When God changes the way you look at life, fulfillment, pleasure, relationships, and solving problems, your behavior will also change. Heart and mind first, then behavior.
Don’t misunderstand: some rules can help curb sinful behavior. But that’s not good enough for God, who’s way more concerned with your heart and mind. Genuine change is from the inside out, not the other way around.
So if the rules can’t help our hearts, why did God put so many commands in the Bible? Why would he give us rules if they’re useless? What’s the point? To answer these questions we first have to make a distinction between God’s rules and man’s rules. One of Jesus’ biggest problems with the religious leaders of his day was that they not only perverted God’s commands, making them say stuff God never intended them to say, but they also made up their own set of rules as well. Sort of “extra credit” stuff. But over time their rules became as serious and binding as Scripture itself. We do the same thing today. We take Scripture out of context and make it condemn things in our culture that we deem inappropriate. Depending on the particular church or Christian group, these rules vary. For example, Paul told the Thessalonians to “abstain from all appearance of evil.” Someone may read this verse and conclude that since the topic of zombies deals with flesh-eating, it is therefore inappropriate and evil. Henceforth this book is evil. Oops!
But Paul didn’t say, “Abstain from everything in life that some random Christian might believe is inappropriate.” Doing this is not only unbiblical; it’s also ignorant and impractical. You can find Christians who’ll object to anything—movies, the Internet, eating meat, wearing designer clothes, having a nice car, or playing the electric guitar.
Truth is, there are hundreds of morally neutral issues we face that fall into the category of “gray areas.” But instead of throwing up a wall of concrete rules, the wise follower of Jesus will seek him and his Word regarding the issue. He will learn to rely on the Holy Spirit within and walk with him in a genuine relationship. If all you have are rules to guide you, then you don’t need (or even have) a relationship with Jesus. But the budding Pharisee will simply make a rule and move on. His behavior may change, but his sinful heart remains the same.
Apparently both Jesus and Paul got very upset when people perverted God’s commands and made up their own rules, so it’s worth reviewing what they said on the subject.
We would all agree that obeying God’s rules can’t save us or get us to heaven (Galatians 1:6–9; 3:24; 5:1–4). That’s because God’s rules were never intended to save us (Galatians 3:23–25). His Law was meant to serve as our “tutor,” leading us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). His righteous standards only demonstrate our inability to obey them. But why would he give us rules he knew we couldn’t keep perfectly all the time? So we’d realize our need for a Savior and cry out to him (Romans 8:3–4).
Paul said that if you could get to heaven by keeping the rules, then you wouldn’t need Jesus (Galatians 5:1). Christ set us free from having to keep the Law, not to have us become enslaved to it all over again. Furthermore, your chances of earning your way to heaven are about as likely as a corpse running a marathon!
Paul went on to tell the Galatian Christians that if they trusted in their ability to earn God’s favor through keeping his Law, then Jesus would be of no benefit to them (v. 2). Salvation is found in Christ alone—plus nothing. You can’t keep some of God’s rules and not keep all of them. It’s all or nothing with God (v. 3). You have to keep every one of God’s standards perfectly for your whole life to achieve perfection before God. And even then, you would still fall short because of the sin virus within you. And if you try to combine rules with grace as a means to gain salvation, you will forfeit, or lose, grace (v. 4). The only way to “fall from grace,” Paul said, is by refusing to completely trust in that grace. Grace is the only road to salvation. Keeping the rules is a dead end.
So what is our hope of achieving righteousness before God? It’s faith. Complete and exclusive trust in Jesus Christ alone. Do you really get that?
And what about after you trust Jesus? What part do God’s commands play then? Most Christians will accept that salvation is by grace through faith, but somehow our good standing with God is maintained by obeying the rules. Not so, according to the apostle Paul.
Keeping a list of dos and don’ts cannot cleanse your heart from sin or make you holy. To think otherwise is to let a zombie sneak up on you. External standards can’t cure you from self-centeredness, but they can give you a severe case of self-righteousness. And that actually displeases God most. It is deception to equate self-denial with spirituality. Paul wrote to the Colossians that keeping religious rules is futile, even though these rules “have an appearance of wisdom.” In reality, they have no value or power to kill your inner zombie.
God doesn’t equate our standing before him with certain external measurements, no matter how good they sound. If spirituality is nothing more than simply obeying a list of “Do this” and “Don’t do that,” then any disciplined person can be spiritual. But godliness goes much deeper than being strong willed or disciplined. Look at the Pharisees. They kept a lot of good rules, but missed it all when it came to God. Being disciplined can promote growth, but it can’t cause it. The change you need was settled by what Jesus did for you at the cross—nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else. It was his righteousness, not yours, that purchased your salvation and won your freedom. He did for you what you never could have done for yourself.
“Wait. So is it useless to read my Bible every day?” Of course not. But does God command us to have a quiet time or devotion every morning at seven? Does it have to last at least thirty minutes, with ten minutes spent in prayer? Must it include a notebook, several colored pens, a spiritual journal, and a commentary? No. Can all those things be helpful? Yes. Are they required? Nope.
Is It Party Time, Then?
As a result of Christ’s accomplishment at the cross, God now views you as holy. That fact is established by him and will never change (2 Corinthians 5:21). He now sees you clothed with the righteousness of Jesus himself. Think about it! Your standing before God is forever fixed, based on Jesus’ work and accomplishments, not yours. Self-denial cannot improve your righteous position in Christ. How could we ever think we could improve on the salvation God himself has already provided for us? There is no Christian deed you or I can do that will motivate God to make us more holy or acceptable in his sight. No act of obedience can in any way improve your standing before him. In fact, even obedience means nothing to God unless it is motivated by grace and love out of a relationship with Jesus Christ. He wants your heart first and foremost.
I see this in many young people today who have grown up in Christian homes, but bear little or no resemblance to the God their parents claim to worship. They received the facts about God from nursery school to high school. They attended all the retreats, camps, and mission trips. But upon arriving at college, they began making their own decisions about life. And God often gets the boot. That’s because facts are not the same as faith. Hearing about someone’s experience with God is not the same as experiencing him yourself. You have to “own” your own faith.
As a Christian, no matter what you do, you will never be any more loved or accepted by God than you were at the moment you received Christ. Are there commandments in Scripture? Of course. Lots of them. Does God have standards1of thought and conduct that he commands us to obey? Obviously. Absolutely. Yes! But God’s commandments must be understood in a context of relationship love, not law. Our devotion to Christ is a willing one, not one born out of obligation or duty. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” Notice, first comes the love; then comes the obedience. Of course God wants us to do what is right, even if we’re not feeling emotionally in love with him at the moment. But he prefers that we obey him out of a loving relationship and heart for him, not out of a cold compulsion to “keep the rules.” Unfortunately for some, the rules are just another opportunity to feel good about themselves and earn God’s approval, boosting their self-righteous image. Have you ever fallen into this trap? Have you ever embraced this myth as truth?
If you degrade your relationship with God into merely coloring within the lines and keeping the rules, the beast in the pit wins—and the religious monster within will convince you you’re something that you’re not, creating a false sense of spirituality. You’ll be proud, with a counterfeit feeling of moral superiority.
You’ll take minor subjects and make them more important than they actually are. You’ll say things the Bible never says, and make issues of all the wrong things. You’ll have a judgmental and critical spirit—the worst form of Pharisaism (Matthew 23:13–15).
You’ll stunt your growth in Christ. You’ll have a warped view of God as a Father who is never pleased with you.
You’ll be eaten up with frustration because you’re still living in your own power. And you’ll continue to struggle with sin inside.
You’ll never experience real freedom in Christ, because legalism is the enemy of grace and wisdom. You’ll live in a constant state of fear that you’ll abuse your freedom, and out5of this fear you’ll use rules (or God’s rules misapplied) to keep yourself in check.
You’ll never have any real peace because you can never be sure if God is happy with you. You’ll never be “good enough.” There will always be some minor rule or command you’ve missed.
And you’ll be way too busy stressing over whether you have been good enough today to really enjoy the life God intended you to have. Sound fun?
Again, keeping the rules cannot produce holiness (Mark 7:15, 21–22). It cannot restrain fleshly desires (Colossians 2:19–23). And it cannot set you free from sin (Acts 15:10; Galatians 5:1).
Believing that obeying the commandments protects you from your sin nature is like building a fence in the backyard to keep the neighbor’s air out. It’s not only ineffective; it’s also stupid.
But equally damaging is the “All right, let’s party, then!” attitude. Seriously, this is the worst form of grace abuse. God gave us liberty, not license. We were freed from sin, not freed to sin. That’s why some of the New Testament writers gave us powerful reminders. For example:
Do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil. —Peter
We are now free to enjoy and live for Jesus, not to sin (2 Corinthians 5:15). We serve a new and wonderful Master now!
“You, my brothers [and sisters], were called to be free,” wrote Paul. “But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature.”
Our freedom does not include the right to serve or feed the zombie. Instead, now we can actually obey God, whereas before we were totally unable to (Romans 8:6–7). (Elsewhere Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Don’t let your liberty cause others to stumble.”)
God passionately desires our hearts. He wants our love. And where there is love, obedience has a way of becoming real and regular. This love casts out the fear of not pleasing God. In fact, love will cover a lot of things in your life.
And it will turn your religion into relationship.