Something is amiss among followers of Jesus these days. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t hear a message or read a blog, Facebook post, or book that proclaims a love for Jesus but a disdain for religion. Phrases like, “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” or “I love Jesus just not the church” or the all too familiar “I am spiritual not religious” are phrases that sound enlightened, mature and so very appealing. The problem is they are very misguided statements.
If by religion people mean a set of dead and lifeless practices that are designed to appease God and gain favor with Him then I agree. I don’t much care for that type of religion and clearly Jesus did not either. He warned against the vain repetition of religious rituals and prayers that were designed only to make the practitioner look holy. That was the religion of people who would utter loud prayers on the street corners reciting the same prayers over and over to be seen by people. They were the ones who when fasting would make a great show of their efforts, again in order to impress God and people. That is bad religion. So let’s agree with Jesus and toss that types of religion. But let’s also recognize that there is a religion that, according to James 1:26-27, is good and honors God and serves people.
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Good religion, religion that Jesus loves, is a religion that moves us closer to the heart of God. Religion that moves us closer to that heart will be a religion that includes habits, practices, that we do with some frequency and regularity. Most every morning I make tea for my wife. I am not a tea drinker myself so I never enjoy the brew myself. You could say that I make her tea religiously in the sense that I do it again and again. You could also say that I do it religiously in the sense that when I serve her by making her tea, I move closer to her heart. My love for her grows in the serving.
Religion that has gone bad is most often a religion that started good. It was once something that moved people closer to the heart of God. It went bad when love for Jesus was lost along the way. It went bad when the practices of religion became more important than the relationship they were intended to support. It went bad when those practices became a way to manage God and impress people or when the practices became the source of strength and comfort as opposed to the God they were to point towards.
A regular daily time of prayer and study of the scriptures is a wonderful way to get closer to the heart of God, as is attending worship services with others, fasting, keeping a journal or a host of other habits. Practiced religiously, and by that I mean with regularity and with heart. They are vital. Practice them religiously in order to gain God’s or man’s approval and it borders on toxic. Serving of widows and orphans fits in with those other habits. Such serving is good religion according to James, the brother of Jesus. But serving widows and orphans to impress people, ease a guilty conscience or earn a place in heaven is bad religion.
When you practice good religion it increases your capacity to love others and love God. Serve widows and orphans with a good heart and good religion and you will love them even more. That should not surprise us because Jesus said that the greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. The things Jesus calls us to do will help us fulfill that commandment more completely. That is why I love religion. When rightly practiced with heart and faith, it leads me closer to Jesus. It causes my love for Him to grow. Rather than rage against bad religion and throw out all religion, good included, I would rather practice the biblical version if religion that leads me to greater love of Jesus.
Which leads me to why I love Jesus. How could I not? When I consider that He first loved me and gave His life on a cross for my sake, how could I not love Him? He demonstrated His love for me in that while I was yet a sinner who was rebelling against God, He never gave up on me. He kept pursuing a relationship with me. That relationship is built not on my feelings of warmth and spiritual comfort but rather on the ongoing habits that all relationships are built on, things like making my wife’s morning cup of tea.
The bottom line for me is that I am not able to love Jesus without good religion. You cannot love someone without habits, practices that strengthen and maintain the relationship. That is what religion is supposed to do. If religion helps me love Jesus more deeply then I will embrace religion and love it, taking in the blessings that it provides and having an even closer, deeper, more loving relationship with Jesus.