Religion has long been a cause of tension and conflict. Long before 9/11 and Osama bin Laden’s fatwa to “every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill Americans,” people of faith have been killing one another in the name of religious devotion. Long before the Sunni and Shiite religious division caused conflicts in Iraq, or “the Troubles” between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, spiritual fervor has created a battleground where some have been saved and others have been lost.
A recent survey showed that 85 percent of Americans classified themselves as “religious.” Perhaps this is true in the broadest definition of religion: “manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.” In that sense one could be religious about the environment or physical fitness or patriotism, leaving out God altogether. But that’s not what I have in mind. I want to focus on how those who believe in God, even those who call themselves Christians, can be more focused on the routines or rituals of religion than on what they should be focused on—Jesus Christ.
Religion: Important or Worthless?
To keep a balanced view on the subject of religion, it’s important for us to live with the tension of two seemingly contradictory ideas: that religion is important and that religion is worthless. Religion is important because the Bible is full of religious practices that either point us to God or provide a channel for expressing our relationship to God.
Both Old and New Testaments are full of religious laws, principle, belief, and ritual. If we think of religion as action or conduct indicating belief in, reverence for, and a desire to please God, then it is clear that religion provides a pattern of doctrine and belief (titus 2:1), shared experience (acts 2:37–47; hebrews 10:25), and outward show of inner faith (1 john 3:17–18).
But religion is worthless if we begin to think that those actions themselves are the most important thing. When we think that religion is about singing songs, praying, giving money, or even studying the Bible, we have missed the point entirely. Those things are good but only if they are expressions of our relationship with Christ. These activities don’t give us that relationship. Knowledge or actions merely give us a way of expressing our personal faith in Christ. This is important. If our focus is on our actions or what we know, then the picture of Christ becomes blurry. These actually get in the way when they become attempts to earn salvation (ephesians 2:8–10), spur thoughts of perfecting ourselves (galatians 3:1–3), or displace Christ (colossians 2:6–8).
Religion and Christ are not mutually exclusive, but they are very distinct. James, a New Testament writer and brother of Christ, wrote, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (james 1:27).
Religion can be many good things, but it cannot be a substitute for Christ. Religion is something we believe and do. It can include some or all of the following activities: belief in God or a god; attendance at religious services or having some religious affiliation; sending children to religious schools; being kind to others and giving to the poor; behaving correctly; baptism; receiving communion; reading and studying the Scriptures; praying; celebrating religious holidays; teaching a religious class; singing in the choir.
Religion can be one of the biggest ego trips around. We thrive on being recognized as a good and godly person or to be thought of as someone of whom God approves. It might seem better to be recognized as a good person than as a godless one, but Jesus reserved some of His severest criticism for religious people who were using their spiritual reputation to get social attention and honors.
Religion never changes the heart—the core of the problem. It simply prescribes behaviors that allow us to put a shiny polish on the surface issues. That’s why Jesus told a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews that he needed to be born again (an internal, spiritual birth) if he was ever going to see and be a part of God’s kingdom (john 3). Prayer, communion, confirmation, baptism, or volunteering for church causes may make us look good to others, but if it’s just going through the motions, it doesn’t impress God. Jesus said, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3:6).
Receiving Christ can do what religion can never do (3:16). Trusting Christ changes the heart. It brings the source of love within us. It’s a humbling process. It means acknowledging the ultimate worthlessness of our external clean-ups, giving ourselves over to the mercy of God, and trusting Him to do through the Spirit what we are trying to do for ourselves. Religion is what we do for God on the outside. Christ is what God does for us to change us from the inside.