The Soul-Shrinking Wretchedness of Religion1
There was a time here in the U.S. when the word “religion” was viewed in a positive light. To speak of someone as being “religious” was a good thing. It generally meant that he or she was a sincere Christian, a faithful member of some particular local church body, a person who was moral and honest and deeply devoted and passionate about their commitment to God. Not anymore! “Religion” and “religious” have almost become cuss words in many circles. Continue reading . . .
There was a time here in the U.S. when the word “religion” was viewed in a positive light. To speak of someone as being “religious” was a good thing. It generally meant that he or she was a sincere Christian, a faithful member of some particular local church body, a person who was moral and honest and deeply devoted and passionate about their commitment to God. Not anymore! “Religion” and “religious” have almost become cuss words in many circles.
Nowadays, to be “religious” is to be legalistic and lifeless and hypocritical and devoted to dead tradition or meaningless ritualism. “Religion” has now become almost synonymous with artificial and formal and insincere and lacking authenticity. “Religion”, many contend, is what’s killing Christianity in America. Religion is simply what people do on a Sunday morning, but has nothing to do with how they live or what they believe the other six days of the week. To say someone is “religious” means they equate being an American with being a Christian. They may go through the motions and say the right words and give their money in generous support of the church, but they don’t mean it. They do it to maintain an image and to preserve their position in society.
I’m sad to see the word “religion” take this downward turn, but I’m convinced there’s no turning back. I fear that the word is beyond recovery. It will always be, from this point on, a negative term that is viewed as the mortal enemy of true spirituality, as the antithesis of what it means to follow Jesus authentically and passionately.
So, like it or not, “religion”, as the word is used in our world today, is a way of relating to God that undermines the gospel and distorts the reality of grace and love and what Jesus has accomplished for us in his life, death, and resurrection.
We see the underbelly of “religion” and “religiosity” in our Lord’s encounter with the Pharisees in Mark 7. They couldn’t have cared less about the hearts of his disciples. What irked them is that they “ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed” (Mark 7:2). They were perturbed that the disciples of Jesus did not “walk according to the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:5). Worst of all, Jesus applies to them the indictment of Isaiah 29:13,
“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6b-7).
When you read Mark 7 for the first time, it sounds like it is about traditionalism. Jesus charges the Pharisees and other religious leaders with elevating their own man-made religious traditions above the commandments of God. In fact, he accuses them of using their traditions to justify disobeying and ignoring what God has said.
On the other hand, it also appears to be about hypocrisy, as Jesus denounces them for professing one thing while practicing another.
Yet again, one can also see elements in this text of legalism, as the religious leaders in Jesus’ day evidently believed they could put God in their debt by obeying their own rules; they appear to suggest that they are more spiritual because of their faithful obedience to rules nowhere found in the Bible and that others who fail to live up to their standards are less spiritual.
So here we have Jesus confronting traditionalism, hypocrisy, and legalism all at once. And as you can easily see, they are all very closely related to one another. So, to make it easy on us, I’ve decided to take all three of these poisonous threats to true spirituality and combine them or bundle them or lump them together into one ugly mess and to call it “religion”. Or perhaps “religiosity” might be a better term.
At its core, religion is all about external appearance as over against the internal reality. Religion is about image, not essence. Religion is based on the belief that getting things in order on the outside will take care of whatever problems you have on the inside. Religion is an approach to one’s relationship with God which says that the greatest threat we face is outside of us and the solution is inside of us. Christianity says that the greatest threat is inside of us and the solution is outside of us. Religion is what you do by your efforts to gain acceptance with God. Christianity is what God has done to make you acceptable by grace because of who Jesus is and what he has done on your behalf.
Now, allow me one more qualification before I dig myself in too deeply. In saying that religion is all about external appearance as over against internal reality, I’m not saying that we should ignore the external. I’m not saying it is good to be slipshod and careless about form or style or what can be seen. I’m simply saying that we must avoid thinking that so long as we look good on the outside that it doesn’t matter if we’re empty and insincere on the inside. It is only when reliance upon externals replaces or compensates for the lack of internal reality that it becomes a bad thing. Unfortunately, some have reacted so strongly to “religion” that they now pride themselves in being slobs, as if there’s something really spiritual and godly about being messy and counter-cultural; it’s almost as if they believe that God looks with special kindness and favor on those who don’t bathe regularly or deliberately strive to rebel against anything clean and beautiful and new. They’ve built their spiritual identity around their reaction against mainstream society.
There’s nothing uniquely spiritual or godly about style, whether it is the clothes you wear, the car you drive, or the size and beauty of the building in which you meet on a Sunday morning. Style doesn’t count for jack squat with God! Religious hypocrites and legalists can worship in a the cluttered living room of a run-down house in the inner city, just as passionate and Christ-loving people can worship in a 10,000 seat auditorium. And the reverse is equally true.
My point is simply this: resist the temptation to conclude that if someone is nicely dressed, is properly behaved, and listens to sermons in an exquisite new building, they are religious traditionalists who are devoid of sincerity. They may be, but then again they may not. Resist the temptation to conclude that if someone wears tattered jeans, has multiple piercings, and prefers to sing and pray in a house, they are godly and passionate. They may be, but then again they may not.
It has nothing to do with appearance, unless that appearance, whether fancy or sloppy, is a substitute or cover for the lack of a heart that is devoted to Jesus. If there is a heart that is devoted to Jesus, I couldn’t care less what the appearance may be.
Whether you are into ties or tattoos matters very little to God. The question is the depth and reality and intensity of your heart’s devotion to Jesus Christ.
Religion may appear as traditionalism: the idea that careful attention to doing things the way we’ve always done them will make us righteous, even though God never commanded that we do it that way. Traditionalism says that conformity to an outward ritual or a rule of our own making or a rule that was made by our ancestors, a rule or ritual that lacks support in God’s Word, is what makes us right and good and acceptable to God and gives us value and worth. By the way, there’s nothing wrong with tradition. Tradition and traditionalism are not the same thing.
Someone once said that tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. I love tradition. We have traditions here at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City. Some things that are done here on a Sunday morning have been done for the past twenty years of this church’s existence. Some things we do here have been done by Christians for nearly 2,000 years! But traditionalism is when people begin to trust in always doing things the same way as the basis for their acceptance with God. They invest in certain habits and rituals that aren’t found in Scripture a spiritual power that will sustain a right relationship with God. That’s why when you tinker with certain non-biblical traditions or accepted ways of “doing” church people go ballistic.
Religion may appear as hypocrisy: hypocrisy is simply pretending to be moral or spiritual or a lover of God in order to gain the praise and approval of people, even though we don’t truly believe what we say nor are we truly committed to what we do.
Religion may appear as legalism: legalism is primarily the tendency to think that we can gain God’s blessing and the applause of people and demonstrate that we are more spiritual and that we love God more simply by living according to rules that cannot be found in Scripture.
So I’m simply wrapping all these up in one ugly package and calling it religion. Again, it is a spiritually artificial approach to life and a relationship with God which focuses on what people can see; it is obsessed with the problems that surround us but ignores the inherent wickedness and depravity of our own hearts. It is a view of life which says that so long as what I do on the outside looks good and wins the approval of people, what happens on the inside is largely irrelevant. I can compensate for the absence of genuine repentance and faith in my heart by obeying certain rules and abiding by the expectations of others.
Religion, so defined, may be the greatest threat to the church in America today. It breeds self-righteousness, spiritual complacency (I’m ok with God and all’s well with the world because I’ve met the expectations of those in charge), and is horribly offensive to non-believers who are examining the lives of professing Christians. May God in his mercy preserve us from this horrible distortion of the true gospel of God’s liberating grace in Jesus Christ.