Until recently, I thought religion was a bad word describing mindless activity and rituals done to appease guilt and earn favor with God.
Not wanting to be associated with that, I have tried to create some distance between the two of us. I didn’t want to be seen as rigid or hypocritical or nonsensical.
After years of walking with Jesus, however, I have a more sober assessment of myself. I now know that deep down, I am rigid and hypocritical and nonsensical. It’s for such reasons that I am in need of the rescue Jesus died to provide. Ultimately, religion is not making me more rigid or hypocritical or nonsensical; it’s making me less so (over the long haul, that is).
So you see, religion is not the problem here.
I would have my imperfections even if I didn’t “have religion.” It’s only in relationship with God the Father through Jesus the Son by His Spirit that I have any hope of growth and change in this life (or hope for eternity).
In my previous post, I mentioned that religion consists of devotional, serving, and fellowship activities. That conclusion is true, but not complete. There is a hidden component to consider: inner heart motivation.
The proper heart motivation shifts religious actions and behaviors into relational investments. Religious activity is only mindless if it flows out of habit, rather than heart.
These thoughts stemmed from a discussion at Bible study a few weeks ago. I was explaining my unpredictable freelance schedule and how it interferes with having a standard, appointed time to meet with the Lord. Instead, I have a pattern for meeting with Him that fits the flow of my haphazard daily life.
Check out thoughts from the first days of this study, which raised the following questions:
So how do we pursue a relationship with the Lord Jesus without resorting to a checklist of actions? And how do we establish the priority and importance of pursing God when we are such a forgetful, distracted people?
Explaining my system, my prejudice against religion seeped out. Once again, I was dissociating myself from religion by justifying my pattern as nurturing devotion for the Lord, defending my plan from any legalistic assumptions.
You see, I associated relationship to something positive—let’s use a bright and lively red balloon; it brings on the warm fuzzies. And religion I associated to something binding and stifling—let’s call it the balloon string. I wanted to focus on the balloon because that doesn’t get labeled negatively. (I mean, really, what could possibly be stifling about a balloon? Everyone likes a balloon.)
The gals in my study were quick to admonish, arguing that legalism flows from a heart devoid of devotion—not from plans that help me spend time with God. If I seek God through planned and scheduled activities, that’s a good thing—that’s not legalism. If I pursue activities to earn favor with God or to check a task off a do-good list (and then feel justified by my actions), that’s legalism.
Carissa Smith supports this notion in her post over at Christ and Pop Culture:
We’ve all probably heard or read something similar: it was along the lines of that cringe-worthy mantra, “It’s not a religion—it’s a relationship.” First of all, I hate the negative use of the word “religion,” a word with possibly the same root as “ligament,” implying being connected and tied to something. Religion and relationship are not mutually exclusive words. Furthermore, if we focus on the relational aspect of our Christian faith without acknowledging the commitments upon which any meaningful relationship is forged, we end up with something as superficial as the infatuation between Valentin and Masha [characters from The Last Station]. If our faith is based on emotional highs of feeling connected to God, then we have little to hold us steady in times of suffering or doubt.
If I’m going to steadily grow in Christ and in knowing Him, I need a vibrant relationship with Him. That relationship will be shaped by regular (dare I say, planned and scheduled?) devotional, serving, and fellowship activities—religious in nature—that tether me to God like a ligament connects a muscle to a bone, like a string and a balloon.
So the balloon and the string work together, each one made better by the other. A balloon without a tether will soon float out of reach, and everyone knows that a string is no fun without a balloon.
So religion isn’t such a bad word after all. Don’t you agree?