Tag Archives: religion

Futility

It is futile to keep doing something that does not work. It is futile to push the elevator button after the first time.  It is futile to attempt to clean up your act and connect  to God by following religious regulations.  Religion that consists of do’s and don’ts doesn’t work. Like the elevator button, however, it seems like it might work if you just keep at it.  That kind of religion reminds me of people using slot machines.  Futility.  They do the same, ineffective thing, over and over, hoping for a better result next time.

Strict religious rules, Paul said, “… have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”   (Colossians 2:23)

I mean no disrespect.  I am not criticizing sincere motives of people who practice religious ritual.  But, what they do is futile.  If you are trying to close the gap between yourself and God, trying to repair what has been broken in your soul, there is a better way.  One that works.  God has promised to fix what is broken, freely and thoroughly, if you will trust His Son.  

Peter said it like this:

“… [Those who trust Jesus have been]  ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ…”  (1Peter 1:18b-1:19a)

Plus Nothing

The man was beat up badly for telling people about Jesus.  And then thrown in prison.  You might think he’d have taken a break and used the time to rest up.  But not Paul.  He said:

“I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally.” (Colossians 2:1)

Struggling?  The word he used gives us our word for agonizing.  In jail?  Doing what?  Praying.  Not just “Now I lay me down…”  but agonizing over these folks in prayer – people he had never met!  Why?  What was so important that, even though he couldn’t be there personally, he worked hard in prayer for them?

Turns out, the problem was human ideas were creeping into their understanding.  People who loved to be in positions of authority and control over others were teaching them a bunch of nonsense.  Religious nonsense.  It sounded good.  But it was leading them farther and farther away from what they really needed to know.

“My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 2:2-3)

Think about the simple but reverent lifestyle and teaching of Jesus.  Compare that simplicity to what the various forms of Christianity have become!  What has changed?  Human ideas have been added, ones that seem good because they sound religious, but which dilute and pollute the essence of what it means to follow Jesus.  Think of the lavish architecture, the costumes, the ritual and the extravagance.  Think of all the rules and regulations that have been layered on the simple message of Jesus.  This distortion in the name of Jesus has been going on from the very earliest days of the church.  Paul couldn’t be there to rail against it, so he agonized in prayer for them.  And he wrote to them:

“I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments.” (Colossians 2:4)

God loves you.  Your sins have separated you from Him.  He wants to forgive you and reconcile you to Himself.  He has paid the penalty for your sin, on your behalf, by the crucifixion of His Son, Jesus.  Stop trying to fix yourself and trust Jesus instead.  Surrender to Him and He will come and live in your soul by His Spirit.  In Him you have “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”  If you have His life in you, that’s all you need.  Plus nothing.

 

Quotes: The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Jesus’ Harshest Criticism

Jesus knew His time was short and spent His final days delivering His most urgent teachings.  You might have thought He would level His cannons at the Romans, the pagan oppressors of God’s people.  But He ignored them.  Jesus also mostly ignored the crooks and swindlers in Jerusalem.  He didn’t pick on the wealthy or those who seemed lost in sin.  No. Jesus spent most of His final time on earth scolding religious people, especially the highest leaders.

He did not mince words.  He called them “blind guides”, “snakes” and “vipers,” “fools” and, more than any other name, the H-word: “hypocrites.   Jesus’ most biting criticism was against religious people who tried to look holy on the outside while, on the inside, they were morally and spiritually decaying and dying.  He compared them to tombs, whitewashed on the outside but full of dead men’s bones.

But why, when the city of Jerusalem was overrun with violent soldiers and scoundrels, liars and low-life’s, did Jesus pick on people who had focused their whole lives on being religious?

One reason He gave is that the religious leaders were tying people up with all their do’s and don’ts, keeping people away from God with all the ritual and legalism, when God’s intent is to invite us into a loving, intimate relationship with Him.  He said:

““Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (Matthew 23:15)

When religious leaders care more about their own authority and controlling people than they do about truly connecting people with God, they are working against God’s purposes.

Another criticism He leveled against them was that they were not living in step with God’s ways.  God does not want us to be prisoners of rules, but champions of grace and love.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23)

Compare those spankings to what Jesus was teaching His followers just before He died:

“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:33-34)

Each of us makes a choice about Jesus, deciding whether He is One we will follow or not.  Too often, the only things we’ve heard about Jesus come from religious leaders who are trying to control us.  How about going straight to Jesus’ own words, before you decide?

Quotes: The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

 

A Closer Walk

It was the religious people who gave Jesus fits.  Jesus showed great compassion to those who were stuck in sin.  Jesus loved the unlovable, not by overlooking their bad stuff but by showing them the path to forgiveness, restoration and freedom.  But the religious people, the self-righteous, legalistic, judgmental people?  Jesus blasted them with harsh criticism.  Because He loved them, too, and they were traveling a far more dangerous road.  When you are in trouble, it is far more dangerous if you either don’t realize it, or pretend that you are not.

After being challenged one day because His disciples were not strictly following the religious ritual of hand washing before eating, Jesus turned on His accusers.  He pointed out how they used religious tradition to thwart the real purposes of God.  (See Matthew 15:1-20).  He said:

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”” (Matthew 15:7-9)

When people try to make themselves righteous, they do so by following religious rules.  The problem with that approach is that, inevitably, they begin to keep score, becoming proud and looking down on others.  When people try to make themselves righteous, they become self-righteous.

Much of the time, religious rules are designed and followed to make a person look good to others.  Instead of expressing genuine love for God, rule-followers say, “Look at me, people; I’m religious, I’m better than you…”  Sometimes when people say things in a way that sounds religious, they do it for the same motive.  But God says, when people “honor Me with their lips, but not their hearts” they are “far from Me.”   Their worship does not cause them to draw close.  No matter how religious it sounds, their worship has no real effect.  It is “in vain,”  which means it is empty.

God’s Word is given to us with the purpose of drawing us into a living and loving relationship with Him.  You don’t form that kind of relationship with anyone by following rules and keeping score.  That, in a nutshell, is the problem with most religion.  It’s why religion doesn’t work.

But relationship does.  You want to draw close to God?  Stop being religious, and get close to Jesus.

Quotes: The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

 

Jesus Would Have Loved It

You can’t touch the Queen of England.  That is a strict rule of etiquette and tradition.  But back in 1991, there was an African American woman whose childcare facility got a royal visit.  Maybe she didn’t get the memo.  More likely, that rule didn’t compute for her; when you welcome someone in her culture, you give ’em a warm hug.  So that’s what she did!  Everyone gasped, but I’m guessing the Queen loved it…  Best hug she’d had in years, no doubt.

Everyone gasped when Jesus’ disciples picked some heads of grain to eat on a Sabbath day.  The Pharisees were quick to criticize but Jesus told them to back off and get a better understanding of God’s Word.  He said:

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7)

To paraphrase what He meant, God would much rather have us adopt the attitude of His heart than try to earn brownie points by coldly following all the religious rules.  God would rather have you hug Him than stand at a distance and genuflect.  He wants us to have hearts of “mercy.”

“Mercy” weakly translates the Hebrew word, hesed, which is rich with deep meaning.  “Hesed” describes a savory stew of faithfulness, compassion, grace, loyalty, and love all expressed in the context of an intimate relationship.  “Hesed” is the word that is used to characterize the heart of God.  “Hesed” is what He wants most for us to hold in our hearts.  “Hesed” is how God wants us to treat each other.

A group of us were visiting the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem.  As we waited in line, someone, who could not contain her joy, began to sing: “Joy to the world, the Lord is born!” Others joined in and our harmonies began to fill the lofty stone arches of the cathedral that had been built to honor this wonderful birth.   But the priests on duty there were having none it.  They descended upon us, scowling and scolding and wagging their fingers.  “No singing in here!”   But I couldn’t help think…

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7)

I couldn’t help think, “Jesus would have loved it.”

 

 

 

Just Come

He was in the classic, dropped-a-contact-lens posture, kneeling with his hands on the ground but his face pressed into the dirt.  His lips moved as he chanted what I suppose was a prayer.  When he stood up, he took one or two steps and knelt back down to do it again.  Over and over.  We observed this man on the side of a road in India.  I was told he was making his way for many miles to the steps of a temple.  It was an act of penance and devotion.  This is a very common concept in religion – doing something to work your way to being good enough.  Jumping through the right hoops so God will accept you.  Some penitents go on pilgrimages.  Some make extravagant sacrifices.  Some repeat ritual prayers.  Some do painful things to their bodies.  The goal is always the same: doing enough to be accepted.  Measuring up.

Here’s what you have to do to be accepted by Jesus:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:28-30)

 

The Futility of Religion

Religion doesn’t work.  By ‘religion,’ I mean man-made attempts to get close to God and earn His acceptance by performing rituals and following rules.  We humans feel “something” is missing  We are wired to go looking for it.  Most have a sense that what’s missing is our connection to God.  We sense He is “out there somewhere, but we can’t seem to find Him.  We know the difference between good and bad, and yet we cannot consistently be good.  Religion is our human attempt to fix that emptiness and failure.  It seeks to fill the emptiness with ritual, such as chanting, singing, saying prayers, swinging incense and the like.  It seeks to repair the failure with lists of strict “do’s and don’ts” and punishments for those who screw up.  Every religion that I am aware of is a combination of those two elements.  People who strive to connect to God and to be good by following religion are usually sincere and well-meaning, but inevitably fail.

Why is that?  Let’s take it from the top:

God knows our connection with Him is broken.  It was broken from the beginning.  The first three chapters of the Bible (Genesis 1-3) form a powerful narrative that illustrates two profound truths:  1) We were created by God to have an intimate connection and relationship with Him that depends upon trust.  2) That connection is broken when we turn away from God and trust our own ideas.  Adam and Eve had an intimate relationship with God – they could hear Him and speak to Him, and they walked with Him in the “cool of the day.”   But when they doubted God that intimate connection was broken.

God designed human beings to be connected to Him by His Spirit.  Your computer is connected to mine by the internet.  My television is connected to America’s Got Talent by means of a satellite signal.  Your cell phone is connected to your Aunt Louise by an invisible cell signal.  All of these connections are possible because of the the equipment was designed.  God designed us to connect with Him by His Holy Spirit.  When you don’t have any cell signal, you say your phone is dead.  It still lights up, it still goes “boop” when you push the buttons, but it is dead. When God disconnects us from the flow of His Spirit, we are dead.  Our bodies work, our minds still work, but we are dead.  That’s why God said to Adam:

when you eat of it [i.e. when you doubt Me and disobey Me] you will surely die. (Genesis 2:17b)

Adam’s body didn’t die, his soul (his mind) didn’t die.  His connection to God died.  Since his original act of doubt and disobedience, all people have been born  with the equipment to connect to God, but without His Spirit.  We have been born dead.

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned— (Romans 5:12)

Religion cannot work because nothing a dead man can do will restore him to life.  The only One Who can restore “dead” humans to life,  who can restore the flow of His Spirit,  is God.   That is why Jesus said,

…I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10b)

Guess how that “life” happens?    Stay tuned…