I don't even notice at first. But suddenly the ten feet in front of me are going different ways. And, I realize I have no idea which way to go. I'm staring at the intersection, like this could make it go away. That's when I notice the tall pole with two arrows at the top pointing down each fork. What's written on them is even more confusing than the fork. One arrow, pointing left, reads Pleasing God. The one leading right reads TRUSTING GOD. You're kidding. I'm supposed to choose between these two? I'm not doing that. Choosing one means not choosing the other. It's like being asked to choose between your heart and lungs. What I want is a bypass. But there is no bypass.
I look up at the TRUSTING GOD sign. This has to be a trap, a trick question. It sounds good, but it doesn't give me anything to do. It's too passive. How will I make a difference? If God and I are going to be in sync, there's got to be something more than trust. If the issue is me, I'm probably not going to figure out my destiny simply by trusting God can be trusted!
I move over to the PLEASING GOD sign, pointing down the path to the left. This has to be it! After all He's done for me, the very least I can do is please Him.
So I set off on the path of pleasing God, shaded by towering oaks. I'm encouraged to see this path is well-traveled, beat level with the feet of a million travelers. Many of them, in fact, are still on the path. The first group I pass is a trio of buskers, strumming guitars and a mandolin. We nod to each other politely. A little while on, there's a family of five camping just thirty yards off the path, next to a brook. Even further, a middle-aged couple basks in the sun by the side of the road.
"Hello!" I wave. "Will I see you later on?"
"Nope." The man is smiling, but firm. "We left the Room of Good Intentions some time ago. We can't see going back."
"Okay." I respond, confused. I'm not sure what the "Room of Good Intentions" is, but not everyone wants to please God, I guess.
After a long while, passing many more travelers by the wayside, I see a giant building looming in the distance. It looks like a hotel. As I get closer, I can see there's writing in bronze lettering across the front: STRIVING HARD TO BE ALL GOD WANTS ME TO BE.
Finally. Something for me to do. I strive after success in my career. I strive after keeping fit. Why would it be any less with God?
I draw closer and notice a door: Above the doorknob, a small, ornate plaque is bolted to the heavy wooden door: SELF-EFFORT it reads. Of course! God does His part, and I do mine. It's about time someone said it.
I turn the handle and walk in.
I'm stunned to find a huge open room filled with thousands of people. I scan the group, trying to take it all in. "So, these are the people really living for Jesus." Soon I notice there's a woman, a hostess maybe, standing next to me. She is immaculately groomed. Every hair is perfectly in place, her makeup accentuating her features, her smile is wide and toothy. Nothing about her seems out of place.
"Welcome to the Room of Good Intentions."
She says it clean and cool, like she's been greeting people all her life. There's just the tiniest little shred about it that's unsettling, but I'm so excited to finally be here I don't think much of it.
"You have no idea how long I've waited to find this place!" I return her smile, grasping her primly outreached hand. I call out to the crowd, almost involuntarily, "Hey, how's everyone doing?"
The room goes silent. It's full of beautiful people, smiling people. Some of them wear elaborately crafted masks, which is great because I love masquerades. This looks like my kind of place. One man steps forward. His smile, like the hostess, is broad. His bleached white teeth look as if they had been lined up by a ruler.
"Welcome," he begins, shaking my hand firmly. "We're fine. Thank you for asking. Just fine. Aren't we everyone?" A few in the crowd behind him nod, smiling along. "My kids are doing great and...um...I'm about to close some very lucrative deals at work. More fit than when I was in high school, I'm telling you. I'm doing just fine. Everyone here is."
Before I can reflect on how strange that sounded, the hostess asks how I'm doing. "Me? Well, honest, I've been struggling with some stuff. That's partly why I'm here. I'm trying to figure out..."
"Shhhhh," she interrupts me, putting a flawlessly manicured index finger to her lips. She reaches behind a podium and pulls out a mask, handing it to me. She nods her head with a curt smile, indicating I should put it on. I stare at it for a moment. Others in the room are excitedly motioning for me to do so. Slowly, I slide the mask over my face.
My next thought is it might be best to back off on the self-revelation. I find myself answering, as if from somewhere far away, "You know, I'm great. I'm doing fine!" And everyone in the room smiles before returning to their conversations.
This is the Room of Good Intentions.
The main entrance hall is massive and ornate. Winding stairways lead to upper levels, where cascading fountains are ringed with beautifully upholstered sofas and chairs. There are doorways leading to ballrooms, dining halls, and fancily appointed living quarters. Everything is white marble and gold leaf. It's gorgeous and opulent. Across the back wall, there's a huge, embroidered banner. WORKING ON MY SIN TO ACHIEVE AN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD, it reads. Finally, someone's saying what I've experienced all these years. Early on, when I first believed He and I were so close. Then over time I kept failing. I'd do something stupid. I'd promise I wouldn't do it anymore. Then I'd fail at the same thing again. Before long, it felt like He was on the other side of an ever-growing pile of garbage I'd created. I imagined Him further away each day, with His arms folded, shaking His head, thinking, "I had so much hope for this kid, but he's let me down many times."
But looking across this room, I know now I can change all that.
This room--it's impressive. The decorations are nice enough, but you can feel the courage and diligence. You can almost taste the full-hearted fervency, the accomplishment, the head-on determination.
There's the Fortune 500 executive who has given away ninety percent of his wealth to charity. There is the lead pastor of a thriving network of churches, a dynamic communicator whose theological insights are heard the world over. I meet a girl, elegant even in her simple, worn clothes, who had devoted nearly all her energy to providing medical supplies to the Untouchables in Kolkata.
So many good-hearted people fill this room. They have devoted themselves to God, to studying His character, to pouring themselves into spreading His word, to serving humanity in the name of Jesus. This must be it! Soon God and I will be close again.
Weeks run into months in this room, and a slight unease starts to creep in. It gets stronger by the day, but I can't put my finger on it at first. I'm noticing many in here talk in a sort of semi-joking, put-down banter. It's familiar, but a bit off. And standing this long on the edge of insider conversations, I realize I never noticed how annoying or obvious the subtle bragging sounds.
Even through those elaborate masks, I'm struck with how tired everyone looks. Many conversations are superficial and guarded. Several times, I've caught the real faces of people with masks removed when they thought no one was looking. There is a deep, lonely pain in their expressions.
I'm starting to think differently, too. The comfort I felt when I got here is fading. I'm carrying this tension, like if I don't measure up, I'll be shunned. Oh, and with God too!
Here's another thing: Despite all my passionate sincerity, I keep sinning. Then I get fixated on trying no to sin. Then it all repeats: same sin, same thoughts, same failure.
I spend more time alone now. It's hard to be in public very long before my mask starts to itch fiercely. I spend more time preparing to be with people than I spend actually being with people. I can't seem to do enough to make these people, or God for that matter, happy.
Increasingly, the path to pleasing God seems to be about how I can keep God pleased with me.
One day, it dawns on me what I've been doing to myself and to everyone around me. I've been trying to meet some lofty expectation, primarily to gain acceptance from people. I don't even know why I'm performing for them. To satisfy a God I'm not sure I can ever please? Even worse, I expect everyone around me to do the same.
Now I'm frantically working my way through the room, searching for someone--anyone--willing to talk about what's going on inside me. But nobody wants to hear it. It's as if they fear expressing my concerns will expose theirs.
So, even though I was certain this room might be my only real chance of getting it right, I find myself slipping out the door unnoticed. I thought I'd never leave, and I 'm crushed.
A few hours later I'm sitting down at the grassy edge of the path, back at the fork in the road. That middle-aged couple is there, too, lounging on the other side of the path in the shade of a tree. The man smiles, with a hint of disillusionment, it's one of the more natural smiles I've seen in a while.
"That place is weird, huh? I'm glad we got out of that mess," spitting out his words with a twisting smile.
I nod my assent, and he takes a deep breath before leaning back to join his napping wife.
My eyes drift back up to that sign, and I read the arrow pointing down the road to the right. TRUSTING GOD.
I shake my head, look up, and ask the sky, "Is there a third road?" Nothing. Even the couple across the path is snoring. I sigh as I climb to my feet, brush myself off, and head down the right fork.
The path is rougher here, rutted and pockmarked with stones. It's a little steeper and slower going, but prettier, too. There are roughly hewn stone bridges over fast-flowing creeks and scenic vistas over vast, green valleys. After several hours, I see another huge building in the distance. When I finally reach it, I see the words emblazoned in tall bronze letters across the facade: LIVING OUT OF WHO GOD SAYS I AM.
That's supposed to help me how? I've been trying to live out what God wants me to be this whole time.
Again, there's a huge wooden double door, and again there's a plaque over the knob. But this time there's only one word written over it.
Suddenly every effort of this entire journey collapse on me. Tears I've kept back so long well up as I mumble through my sobs, "I'm so tired. I can't do it. Help me. God, You're more wise, more right, and more loving. And I have not let You love me. I've fought so hard to impress You, and none of it did. Now I'm weary, empty, and alone. I'm tired of performing. I'm tired of pretending I can please You by any amount of effort. Help me, my God!"
After minutes in front of that door, I wipe my wet eyes and nose on my sleeve. I run my fingers through my hair and desperately pull myself together. If this is anything like last time, I want to make a good first impression, and puffy eyes and tear-streaked cheeks won't do. Finally, I reach for the knob.
Inside, it's much like the other room. The layout is nearly the same, though the decor is toned down. The gold leaf and marble replaced by warm carved wood and polished stone. The intricate details in every adornment are conspicuously missing, replaced by tasteful simplicity. Instead of sofas draped in shimmering silk, there are overstuffed couches and chairs. There are also more windows. Natural light pours in and I can see the views outside are breathtaking. Glass doors lead out onto porches and decks scattered with Adirondack chairs. Another hostess approaches. Like the hostess in the Room of Good Intentions, she is gorgeous, but her beauty is natural. She smiles, and I notice her eyes are smiling too. I realize with a start that the other hostess never smiled with her eyes. In a voice as beautiful as anything I've ever heard, she says, barely above a whisper, "Hello. Welcome to the Room of Grace."
Then, with a pause and a smile, she clasps my hands in hers, "How are you?"
The last time I answered this one, I was handed a mask. This hostess is nicer, but I'm not convinced.
"Fine. I'm doing fine..."
The whole room is watching me now, and I see eyebrows tilted in skepticism. My heart sinks. I'm so tired of this. I turn toward the room, all eyes on me, and yell out so everyone can hear.
"Hey, everybody listen up! I am not fine. Not fine at all! I haven't been fine for a long time. I'm tired, confused angry and afraid. I feel guilty and lonely, and that makes me even angrier! I'm sad most of the time and I pretend I'm not. My life is not working at the moment! I'm so far behind and freaked out about what to do next, I'm almost completely frozen. And if any of you religious kooks knew half my daily thought, you'd kick me out of your little club. So, again, I'm doing fine. Thanks for asking. I think I'll go now."
I turn toward the door before I have a chance to break down again. As I grab for the knob, a voice booms from the back to the room. "That's it? That's all you got? I'll take your anger, guilt, and dark thoughts and raise you compulsive sin and chronic lower-back pain! Oh, and did I mention I'm in debt up to my ears? I also wouldn't know classical music from a show tune if it jumped up and bit me! You'd better get more than that little list."
The room erupts in warm, genuine laughter, and I know it's not meant to embarrass me. The hostess leans in, nudges me, and kindly smiles. "I think he means you're welcome here."
I step into a crowd of welcoming smiles. And there's not a mask to be seen anywhere. Right away, I wish I'd known these people all my life.
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