I used to be a radical Christian.
No, I didn’t preach on street corners or drive an RV covered in doomsday verses. But I did drop out of college at age 20 to become a full-time missionary in Africa.
In the last few years, books about Christ-centered compassion for the poor have skyrocketed to the top of best-sellers’ lists. Kony 2012, an awareness campaign conceived by younger Christians, went viral. Katie Davis, a young woman barely older than I, made headlines when she moved to Uganda, adopted a dozen orphans and started Amazima Ministries.
I wanted to be just like them. I wanted to travel the world and make a difference. But most importantly, I wanted to show God that I was willing to do anything for Him.
I made a foolproof plan. Radical obedience. Helping the poor. African kids. All the things God likes. What could go wrong? Well, as it turned out, a lot.
Being sold out for God isn’t a bad thing—we should be willing to follow wherever He leads—the problem is that it can easily turn into another legalistic way to prove our love for God.
Here are a few things I wish someone had told me before I went radical.
1. You can develop a messiah complex.
There are plenty of stories in the Bible about Jesus healing the sick and feeding the hungry. But what about all the people He wasn’t able to help?
If Jesus had been obsessed with helping everyone, He wouldn’t have had time to party or fish or preach or do any of the other things we see Him do in the Gospels. So if Jesus didn’t feel the need to do it all, why do we?
Maybe we’re just meant to love the person in front of us. That’s the example we see in Jesus and in His parables, especially the one about the Good Samaritan. The hero in the story doesn’t save the world—he just loves his neighbor.
2. There’s no room for “ordinary.”
We can get so focused on changing the world somewhere else that we ignore the people all around us who need our help, too.
Yes, some people are called to go overseas, but some of us are called to stay. I didn’t need to move to Africa to feed the hungry. There are soup kitchens in my hometown that need volunteers every day. But that felt too ordinary. It didn’t require much sacrifice. And truthfully, it wasn’t as glamorous as moving overseas.
As a Christian, I thought if my life looked boring, I was doing something wrong. Sometimes, in our desperation to do something big for God, we forget that it’s okay to be normal. Not only that, but we miss out on all the small, beautiful things we can do right here at home.
3. You constantly feel guilty.
Millennials are arguably the most informed generation to date. But we also feel the most burdened. We feel like if we’re not doing everything we can to help, we’re part of the problem. And the fact that we live in an affluent society when most of the world is suffering doesn’t help either.
In the Bible, Jesus asks a rich young ruler to sell everything he owns and give the money to the poor. The man is unwilling to part with his earthly possessions, and so, we’re told, he is unable to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Christians often use this story to warn of the dangers of holding onto our lives too tightly. It’s meant to convict us and inspire us to take up our cross and follow Jesus. And it works, because guilt is a powerful motivator.
But here’s the thing: Jesus didn’t use guilt. In fact, He let the rich young ruler walk away. For all we know, the rich young ruler may have spent the rest of his life being generous and helping others. Or maybe that wasn’t Jesus’s point at all. In the end, it’s grace—not guilt—that gives us the freedom to do good.
4. You start acting like a Pharisee.
When you’re obsessed with being a “real” Christian, you start noticing Christians all around you who don’t seem to fit the bill. And if you’re like me, you start pointing fingers.
I thought I was some kind of prophet, preaching a lifestyle of sacrifice and self-abandon that I expected everyone to follow. But my concern for the suffering was making me insufferable. My passion had turned into misery. I wasn’t being a prophet—I was being a Pharisee. And by sneaking legalism into a freeing Gospel, I’d turned Jesus into a Pharisee, too.
It’s much harder to spot legalism when it’s disguised compassion, but here’s a telltale sign: it always ends in despair.
5. You can fall into blind devotion.
Sometimes, when all you want is to be used by God, it’s not a stretch to allow yourself to be “used” by others as well.
I experienced this when I fell into the hands of an abusive ministry in Africa. Every aspect of my life was under its control—what I did, who I spent my time with and even what I said on my personal blog. Its leaders lied about community projects and they misused donor money. They even held my plane ticket hostage and limited my contact with the outside world. It was like being under house arrest.
And yet, I submitted to all of this and more, because I thought the mark of a true Christian was radical obedience and submission to authority. Sometimes, the more devout you are, the more susceptible you are to spiritual abuse.
6. You never seem to measure up.
My biggest fear was that I would miss God’s call. Or worse, that I would fail His test. I used to measure my devotion to God because secretly, I thought He was too.
When unbearable circumstances forced me to leave Africa, I felt like a total failure. After all, I wasn’t just letting the world down. I was letting God down.
When I came home, a friend asked if I thought God loved me less. I said, “No.” But that got me thinking. It’s true, God doesn’t love us any less when we fail. But what took me longer to realize is that God doesn’t love us any more when we succeed, either.
The problem with trying to prove your love for God is that in trying to prove yours, you end up trying to earn His. Suddenly, your relationship with God becomes all about what you do, rather than what He has already done.
Jesus was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, so there’s nothing more we need to do. If we were any good at being radical, there would be no need for Jesus. And that’s the whole point.
Jonathan is an author, a speaker, and a recovering radical Christian. He left college at age 20 to pursue a new life as a missionary in Africa. Runaway Radical is his first book.