Christians really think they are different from the rest of the world. In certain ways that is hopefully true. At least it’s supposed to be true. Jesus made it clear that His followers are supposed to love God more than anything or anyone else in the world and to love their neighbors as much as they love themselves. What pains me is to realize that we Christians very often fall woefully short of being different from the world in those terms. Yet at the same time we can be very different from the world in terms of surface issues. By surface issues I mean things like, using foul language, attending worship services, and praying before we eat.
Even though there may be obvious differences on the surface it is not necessarily the case on the foundational level. At the core, the root of what we Christians are all about , we are often tragically no different from anyone else in the world. The prevailing culture has a way of infiltrating Christian life and practice without Christians even being aware of that fact. Although they are different from the surrounding culture on the surface they are very much a product of their culture at the root. One of the ways that I have recently seen Christians becoming more and more like the culture is in our attitude towards religion. For a long time, people who had determined not to follow Jesus and be connected to a church would say, “I am not religious but I am a spiritual person”. It was code for saying “I don’t align myself to any organized group of people who have rituals that they practice”. Being “spiritual” allowed people to feel like they weren’t total pagans and still believed there was a god out there somewhere. The sound bite of not being into religion became something of an accepted mantra in our culture. That sound bite has now become an accepted, even honored mantra in Christian circles.
Not long ago there was a video by Jeff Bethke that went viral, “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus”. In that video Jeff rightly attacks the way religion can lead to pride and self-righteousness. But I suspect that many people never even watched the video but simple said, “Me too. I hate religion but love Jesus”. Since then I have seen and heard countless examples of Christians saying that they also hate religion but love Jesus, that religion kills but Jesus saves, that organized religion is of the devil and on and on. Such sound bites are the result of two things. First is that our sinfulness causes us to construct religions and religious practices that have been an embarrassment to Christ and His Church. The second is that we Christians are often unwilling to think closely and sharply enough on things in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. As a result we get sucked up into the emotion and hubris of sound bit thinking and sound-bite theology. We are unwilling to take the time to really dig deep and ask, did Jesus hate religion? Can you really love Jesus and hate religion? Is there such a thing as good religion and bad religion?
Let me give you an alternative to simply loving Jesus and hating religion. How about loving the religion that Jesus loves? Take a moment and read James 1:26-27
26 If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. ESV
There are two important things to see here. First, God acknowledges that there is “bad” religion. It is the hypocritical religion of the Pharisees and of many people today. It is the religion that Jeff Bethke rightly hates. It is a religion of the head and not the heart. It is a religion of pride that doesn’t really change how we live day-to-day. But secondly, there is a religion that God loves. Yes, God loves religion! There is a pure and undefiled religion that our God and Father loves and it makes Him smile. It is the religion that comes from a heart that loves so much, that it results in a sacrificial life that cares for the least among us. It is a religion that results in feeding widows and orphans. It is a religion that results self-sacrifice and serving that are part of loving your neighbor. James is clear about that. But don’t miss that last line in verse 27. God also loves religion that keeps us unstained by the world. Many Christians who read that will immediately think of all the obvious sins of lust, greed, drunkenness, etc. Of course those are things that can and should be included in keeping unstained by the world, but they are too obvious. There is a more subtle and more dangerous way in which Christians become stained by the world. That is what I am talking about today. We buy into sound-bite thinking and sound-bite theology that appears to be spiritual and good and holy, “I love Jesus but I hate religion”. But we are being deceived and deceiving ourselves. You cannot love Jesus and hate religion. You can hate bad religion. You can hate arrogant religion. You can hate self-righteous religion. You cannot hate religion that results in the building of orphanages, hospitals, food pantries, homeless shelters, and schools. You cannot hate religion that results in a stranger stopping on the road to help someone who is injured, cleansing their wounds, feeding them, and giving them a place to stay until they are healed. You cannot hate religion that results in “religiously” giving money to people who have none. You can only embrace that kind of religion because that is what our heavenly Father delights in.
People seem to hate religion because it is filled with ritualistic behaviors and rules. Again, bad religion will have bad rituals and rules for bad reasons. But the religion God loves will have good rituals and rules for good reasons. I know people who “religiously” feed the homeless every Saturday. It is something of a ritual for them. I am sure that at times they don’t “feel” like doing it, yet they still go out of a sense of duty to God and their fellow-man. It is the right thing to do. That is good religion. There is a discipline to good religion. It is not always a free-flowing, unorganized, choose your own path today kind of thing. It sometimes is doing a hard thing, when you don’t feel like it. You do it because it is the right thing. You do it even if it is a pattern of ritual and discipline. There is nothing fake about that or inauthentic. Sometimes the greatest acts of love are found in doing the right thing even when you don’t feel like it. I think the Cross was like that for Jesus.
God hate bad religion. God loves good religion. There is our new sound-bite. Now let’s see if we can live it.