Religion Versus Relationship

» Posted in Inspirational, Personal Growth, Psychology and Faith | 0 comments


Last night, my friends and I had a very lively discussion about doctrine and theology. (Lest you think we’re that spiritual and intellectual, this was interwoven amongst discussions about sex and fruit flies – don’t ask.) Our discussion came out of a recent series of blogs posted on social media about the extreme stance taken by some preachers. Sadly, as these blogs have spread like wildfire, we have seen self-righteous anger and judgement spewed from one Christian to another. And this is “brotherly love”? Why do we do this to each other? Sigh…

What was especially sad to see was how in their misguided attempt to prove doctrine and “right” theology, these preachers completely missed the boat on what Jesus came to do. They were so set on their rules and “truth” of their doctrine that they missed the very truth that Jesus came to set us free – not by law but by grace. By fulfilling the law on our behalf. They were so intent on proving they were “right” that they didn’t see how they were breaking God’s commandment to love their neighbours.

This breaks my heart as I regularly see defeated Christians in my office, beaten down by shame, having been judged by church leaders as wanting, having lost all the joy that’s their heritage as a follower of Christ. Wrapped up in the tentacles of legalism, they’re victims of spiritual abuse by leaders, family or spouses who use shame and the law to control them. These Christians come wounded into my office and wonder if they’re missing something.

Rules Versus Relationship

I have a friend who grew up in a strict Christian home and faithfully adhered to all the rules of her faith, never questioning the expectations that had been placed upon her. When minor troubles hit her safe and uneventful life, she simply smiled and said the trite phrases Christians say to themselves, such as “God is faithful,” convincing herself that she was “fine.” In conversations with her, I sensed that she didn’t truly connect to the truth of God’s love for her and her identity as his beloved daughter beyond a superficial nod to the empty words she quoted.

My heart ached especially for her because I knew that when the winds of storms came into her life – you know that kind that has the power to knock us senseless – her shallow faith and deadened heart would fail her. But the deepest sadness for me was that she wouldn’t encounter the real and living God in her neat and tidy Christian life, shored up by the empty strength of the rules of her religion rather than the rock solid foundation of a genuine relationship with her Father.

The truth is, I was like this friend at one point in my life. Proud of all the Scriptures I had memorized, content in all the ways I was disciplined enough to pray and read my Bible (unlike many of the struggling Christians I judged around me), and self-satisfied with the times I was able to resist sin and take the “higher road”. My bookshelves were full of books teaching me how to be godly, all underlined and highlighted to help me remember all I had to do.

I didn’t realize I was heading towards a huge tumble off the precipice of pride, a sustained time in the desert far away from God. Isn’t such a fall inevitable once you can’t sustain your level of effort? My motivations were genuine. I wanted to be obedient to God, but in my pride and attempts to be holy in my own strength, I lost sight of what it really meant to follow Christ.

It was only when I realized how completely parched my soul was and how deeply I still struggled with insecurities about my value as a child of God – especially with, if I was honest with myself, my constant failures in following the rules (the good old sin-confess cycle) – that I began to recognize something was missing in my walk with God. It was only when I realized how much of my life was based on drudgery and empty obedience that I started to question my faith journey. It was only when I recognized how hard my heart had become and how judgemental I was becoming about other Christians whom I saw struggling all around me that I awoke from the religious fog I was in.

The “Gospel of Sin Management”

That’s when it struck me: how much of my Christianity was based on tasks, obligations and “shoulds.” All the things I thought I ought to do and believe—they were well-meaning, certainly, but in my religiosity, I realized I was essentially cutting God out of my life, telling him that I didn’t need him, that it was up to me to do the Christian walk. And the fruit of this? Enormous pride, self-righteousness and a parched spirit, secretly weary yet having to maintain the mask of a “good Christian.” It was when I finally began to let go of my religious self-effort and performance-based Christianity that I began to experience Jesus as the true Living Water that began to soothe and restore my dry, weary spirit.

“You have your heads in your Bible constantly because you think you will find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.” (John 5:39-40, The Message). Dallas Willard says in The Divine Conspiracy, “History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally.”

Thus Dallas describes the gospel we have today as “gospels of sin management”. Sin is the problem and Christianity is the cure. Knowing what’s right – getting our doctrine right – and living it out in our lives becomes our primary focus. It becomes not just our way of life but the source of life. But notice this – the Pharisees knew more about the Bible than most of us ever will, and it hardened their hearts. Knowledge just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

And because we are ever-inventive, it’s not enough that we follow the rules of the Bible religiously, we have to rewrite the Law to emphasize things that we don’t think too highly of: No Dancing Allowed. No Playing Cards Allowed. No Secular Music. And if that finger-shaking isn’t enough, we add in all the things we have to do in exchange for approval from heaven: Thou must serve every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Thou must read the Bible daily for at least an hour. God is now seen as the obsessive tax auditor eager to find fault with anybody and everybody.

Jesus Came to Fulfill the Law

There’s an important distinction here, critical to our understanding of what Jesus meant in chastising the religious leaders of his time. Sometimes, in our fervent attempts to focus on God’s grace rather than legalistic religiosity, we swing too far the other way and forget the importance of the law in God’s eyes. In confronting the Pharisees, Jesus was denouncing their self-righteousness, moral preening, and hypocrisy; he was confronting them on a form of religion that was all law and no grace.

People hear “religion” and think of rules, rituals, dogma, and institutions. People love Oprah and “spiritual, not religious” bumper stickers because our North American culture wants a safe, comfortable God who comes without the strictures we associate with traditional Christianity. But the offering of forgiveness and grace was never to remove the law – it was to fulfill it, and that’s very different. Jesus is the answer to our complete inability to fulfill God’s law on our own. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). He founded the church (Matthew. 16:18), and he established church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20). He told his disciples to baptize people and to teach others to obey everything he commanded (Matthew 28:19-20).

We have zero capacity on our own to fight sin – we weren’t designed with a sin management gene because we were originally meant to be perfect and in full union with God. So maybe, just maybe, being a Christ follower is more about being with him – knowing him with our mind and our heart, allowing his love to change us – than it is about knowing the rules and trying to get them right. I just sat under the teaching of a couple who were in their 70s, and I loved how they kept finishing each other’s sentences. Is that what a lifetime of love and relationship does? Maybe the more time I spend with Jesus in relationship, he’ll start finishing my sentences so that I truly speak for him and love others for him.

The grace that forgives is also the grace that transforms – and it is a grace that transforms us from the inside out. Following Jesus is more than keeping rules, but it’s not less. Be honest about your brokenness, not giving up and sinning freely – instead, it’s in that acknowledgement of our brokenness we realize our desperate need for Christ and we can humble ourselves before him. It’s only then that his power can help us pursue holiness.

So let’s recognize that not one of us has the final answer on God, Jesus or the Bible. If we did, we’d be God. Let’s focus more on relationship than on religion, trusting that as we fall more and more in love with Jesus, he will give us the ability to live life more like him – loving, grace-filled, and holy. Let’s love one another, not judge each other. Please, people, let’s show the world we are Jesus followers by how we love our brothers and sisters.


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