This one comes from Jonny Wills:

Dallas Baptist University looks idyllic in fading sunlight. It perfectly fits the image of a city on a hill. Students stroll between replicas of historical buildings designed to resemble famous U.S. landmarks like the U.S. Supreme Court Building, Monticello and Harvard Hall. These monuments comprise a campus defined by a high moral standard and a slightly less high—though still quite high— higher education.

Everyone here says they love it, and I believe them because they look like people who have never lied. And frankly, I love it too. The air feels cleaner, the on-campus Chick-fil-a tastes better—like the manager is blessing the waffle fries twice instead of the usual single prayer—and the people look happier. They smile a lot.

My visit eventually comes to an end, and I drive my car toward the side gate. When I entered campus on this same road, a statue of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as a fisherman greeted me alongside a sign that said, “Dallas Baptist University.” As I leave, Statue Jesus still holds a fishing net, but the sign has a different inscription on this side.

“Will you follow me?”

As I roll up to the intersection marking the edge of campus, I come to a complete stop thinking that observing traffic laws is a great way to start answering this question affirmatively. Already, I wish I hadn’t noticed the sign. My conscious doesn’t need this guilt trip following me around today. But now, I’m analyzing it. Behind me lies the safety of thousands of happy Christians. In front of me, certain moral failure.

“Will you follow me?”

I know the question comes from the mouth of Jesus, but I also know that statues don’t speak, so I can only envision the university administrator who thought this threat was a good idea. Because, let’s be honest, that’s what it is. The net that Statue Jesus holds is either for fish or wayward students.

Still, I envision all the smiling soon-to-be scholars I just met answering this question with a resounding, “I will never deny you!” as they blissfully drive away from their sheltered campus into a dark and scary world. I can almost see statue Jesus roll his eyes. He’s heard that one before…

Unlimited grace is unnatural. Even people who receive it resist it. It’s just not right. There has to be a catch. There has to be something I can do. I know I can’t earn it—intellectually, at least—but still, I have to at least try. The irony is that few are worse at accepting this concept than the people who preach it. Christians often act like dogs on God’s leash. Sure, the length of that leash is debatable, but no one acts like that leash doesn’t exist.

I was reminded of this leash when I met a friend for coffee in downtown Dallas. We chose a coffeeshop near his office, and it happened to be catty-corner to a large church in the city. As I walked toward the coffeeshop, I saw posters advertising the upcoming sermon series at this church. One reflected an image of an older couple holding hands on a sunlit beach with the title, “Great Marriages Don’t Just Happen.” This phrase stuck with me for two reasons.

First, I’m newly married. 15 months to be exact. You know how parents track the age of newborn babies by the month? That’s how my wife and I treat our infant marriage. It’s beautiful and lovely, but oh so young. I read that sign and felt scared, nervous, and deeply uncertain about myself.

And the second reason this slogan stayed with me is because I needed to know the answer to the underlying question. If great marriages don’t just happen, then what do I need to do to ensure mine does? Where does the responsibility for a great marriage fall on me and how do I fulfill my duty? That is, in fact, what this church surreptitiously offered to unwitting passersby—answers. This church was saying, “Great marriages don’t just happen on their own, but we know what it takes to make them happen.”

I had a great marriage until I saw that sign. Then, I realized my wife and I were simply living in the moments before inevitable failure. Our marriage was just happening all on its own—how dumb did that make us!

I gave my life to Jesus at age 8 and by the time I turned 13, I had grown primarily in my awareness of how I had failed to follow through on this commitment. My well-behaved days brought me closer to God, while my “sinful” days took me ten steps back. It was a complicated dance that had no rhythm, no results, and limited glimpses of joy. But I continued to live like that all the way into my twenties. I acted like the love of God was a gift to be earned—which lead me to treat the love of others in the same way.

Church simultaneously taught me that I could never earn God’s love, but there were certain actions I could take to try. It felt like a classroom where the teacher promised every student an A on the final exam only to pull them aside one by one after class to hand them a study guide to help prepare for the test.

This message is counter-intuitive. Sure, there may be good motives behind the pastor preaching on how to make your marriage better, and I doubt the school administrator who put up a “Will you follow me?” sign next to a statue of Jesus was a fearmonger.

But in these situations the message of grace and forgiveness is packaged into a program, into a way of life that when perfected results in earned salvation. But that is not the worst part. The worst part is that I embrace this.

I ignore the sermons that tell what God had done for me. Instead, I want to know what I can do today to make Him like me more. Give me an application, preacher man. Show me the steps to this masochistic soiree.

After seeing the poster about great marriages, I went home eager to tell my wife about this church and why we needed to check it out. “Think about how much better we could be,” I said.

And that’s when I heard it. The seeds of performance-based salvation that had been planted long ago had finally sprouted into a full-grown Pharisee. I wanted the law and the rules to guide my life, not the free gift of grace and unlimited love that felt completely unrealistic.

What a sad life. No wonder Christianity is unattractive when it offers a life under the guillotine—the ever-hanging threat of poor performance waiting to sever our connection to a Savior. But there’s a better way.

Jesus set forth a path for our lives—a path full of grace and mercy and love and forgiveness and peace and acceptance—a path that points to the Cross. When it comes to taking steps down that path, I truly don’t know what that looks like for me or for you. If you want a first step, maybe just knowing that this path exists—that the Way of Life is real— can be a response. Maybe acknowledging that great marriages happen, whether we do all the “right things” or not, is the first movement toward freedom. All I do know is that Jesus already took the first and second and third and fourth and every other step toward us. He walked the path on our behalf.

He walked on the water that we would have drowned in. He walked out of the tomb that would have trapped us forever. Those are the steps that matter. Today, uncertainty may shroud our feet as a fog swirling around our ankles. But we don’t have to know that the ground ahead is secure in order to take the step. In fact, looking at our feet is the least helpful thing we can do.

Instead, we can walk with our eyes up—embracing the wonder that lies ahead and moving toward the unsolvable mystery of God’s love and grace with the stumbling, bumbling eagerness of a toddler who knows we won’t be denied the loving arms of our father.