This is a topic which many of you may have already heard discussed many times before. Or maybe this is something you haven’t really thought too much about. Some people may think the difference between the words “religion” and “relationship” is a really irrelevant detail that doesn’t matter in the scheme of things, but I think it is an extremely important part of the Christian faith.
I think rhetoric and word choices are important when talking about the faith and who God is. Certain words have many connotations, and simply choosing one word over another can significantly affect how your thoughts come across to whoever you may be talking to.
I’ve noticed that at my very secular liberal arts school, people tend to use the word “religious” instead of “Christian.” It’s like “Christian” is a dirty word in the liberal arts world. And I think that’s partly because religion has no power. It’s not threatening. There’s no life in religion.
You’re much less likely to be criticized if you tell people you’re “religious” than if you tell them you’re in love with Jesus. Simply going to church or mass won’t make people think you’re crazy, but claiming that God is living inside of you will likely cause them to label you one of those weird “Jesus freaks.”
It’s definitely much easier to be vaguely religious than it is to live fully for Jesus, but when you read the Bible, it’s clear that lukewarm living isn’t okay. When you read the New Testament properly, you realize that just being religious is pretty much the most pointless and fruitless thing ever.
I used to be quite Pharisaical a few years back. I loved religious tradition because I got some sort of self-righteous kick out of it. So I had no problem describing myself as “religious.” I didn’t see religion as being a negative thing at all.
I didn’t really have a proper relationship with God; I simply liked the idea of Christianity (the counterfeit westernized version, not the radical and revolutionary faith of the early Church) for what I could take from it and adapt to my own religious preferences.
I was all about “morality” and “virtue,” and I called myself “old-fashioned.” This meant that I was really pious about certain issues but was pretty much heartless when it came to other issues (like the things Jesus cares most about).
And I’ll be honest, I was also kind of scared of going to hell. I know I’m not the first person to view religion as some sort of a spiritual insurance policy. Yet deep down I knew that being religious couldn’t save me.
I wasn’t a very free person, and I loved the idea of tradition and rituals and compulsive superstition. I loved the thought of old-fashioned western religion (like you’d find in Anglican churches), and I liked reading certain parts of the Bible just to say I had and to feel religious.
But of course I didn’t want to surrender my whole life to Jesus and die to myself. That was far too much to ask. So I pretty much compartmentalized my life into two categories: my normal life and my religious life. I did “spiritual things” when I felt like being religious and pious, but there was no internal change occuring at all. I was cold-hearted and didn’t care about the same things that God cared about.
Religion allows people to do things that make them feel pious and like a “good person” without having to surrender everything to the Holy Spirit and allow their hearts to be changed. And that’s exactly how I was.
There are tons of religious people out there, but there aren’t many true Christians. Because the road is narrow (Matthew 7:14), and there are a lot of counterfeit versions of Christianity in the world. Many people are deceived, but many people also consciously choose religion over God for a variety of reasons (such as power or comfort).
Merely being religious allows people to feel like they still have control of their lives, whereas surrendering to the Holy Spirit shatters the illusion of control. When you surrender your life to Jesus, you can no longer live for yourself and your own preferences and desires.
It took me a while after I really surrendered my heart to Christ to see the stark contrast between religion and personal relationship with God. I began to see that Jesus actually hated religion. He didn’t come to establish a religion; He came to fulfill the Old Testament, defeat the enemy, and die for us so that He could set us free from sin and know us personally. He came to give us abundant life and set us free. Religion doesn’t set us free; it puts us in cages.
Just read Jesus’ warnings to the teachers of the law in Matthew 23 (it might remind you of a lot of western religious folk). Their religiosity was the very thing that separated them from Him and stopped them from seeing that they needed a Savior.
It stopped them from seeing that the Messiah prophesied about all throughout the book which they so frequently read was right in front of their eyes.
It caused them to reject the very One who came to set them free.
You see, religion has no power. It’s all about external things, but it doesn’t touch the heart. There’s no power in it. Jesus is the only One who can change hearts. God became a man so that He could display His love by living among and healing broken people, and then dying for us so that He could have a personal relationship with each one of us, and so that we could be free of our sin. He turned 613 laws into two laws.
He freed us from religion so that we could know Him intimately.
In the verse in which Jesus says that He will say to evildoers, “Depart from Me, I never knew you,” (Matthew 7:21-23) the form of the word “knew” translates to the same word that is often used for sexual intimacy. This suggests that metaphorically speaking, Jesus wants the same sort of intimacy and oneness with us spiritually that is shared between a husband and wife physically. In fact, He wants to know us even more intimately than we could ever know another human being.
He wants every single part of us. He doesn’t just want us on Sunday mornings or during weekly Bible studies. He doesn’t want us to talk about Him but never talk with Him.
He doesn’t want you to go to confession and talk to some priest who doesn’t have any more access to God than you do.
He doesn’t want you to have Bible studies out of compulsion in which no spiritual growth takes place just so you can tick it off your to-do list.
He doesn’t care about how long your hair is or if your skirt falls below your knees.
He doesn’t want you to read the whole Bible without letting the Holy Spirit guide you into the truth and transform you from the inside out.
He doesn’t want you to go to church every Sunday yet live like an atheist for the rest of the week. Because the Church isn’t a building, but a community of believers. We’ve become the temples.
Outward rules and regulations and rituals don’t enable us to live a holy life; being Spirit-filled does.
As Christians, we’re called to give all or nothing. There’s no middle ground. It’s not even remotely biblical to be “kind of” Christian. We’re supposed to follow Jesus with our whole lives or completely reject Him. There’s no in between.
If you go to church on Sundays and say you’re religious but hardly anyone in your life even knows you’re a Christian, something is wrong. Jesus didn’t call us to be superstitious and follow traditions.
For a while I was pretty religious, but then I decided I couldn’t settle for religion anymore. I wanted the real thing. I knew that with Jesus, it’s all or nothing. So I decided to give Him my all, and since then I’ve gradually become more and more free of religion. Now it saddens me to see how people are so caught up in mere human traditions that have absolutely no power.
God is living and active in the world. He’s not some far-off concept or some tyrant we have to appease by going to church once a week.
He’s not okay with us participating in religious rituals and events but never knowing Him.
He’s not okay with us settling for religion and never surrendering everything to Him.
What breaks God’s heart is when we’re okay with never really having a real relationship with Him. Because He is a jealous God, and He just wants our hearts.
There is so much freedom in the gospel. It’s not heavy and burdensome like religion. If we really surrender all to Jesus, He can give us a freedom that religion could never give us. If we really submit to the Holy Spirit, we can see His power in our lives (just read Acts).
God transcends any religion we can come up with and breaks out of any box we try to put Him in, because He does not live in buildings built by human hands (Acts 7:48).