There’s a well-known song by the band R.E.M—“Losing My Religion”—that I find playing in my head from time to time. It’s worth noting that members of the group have said the song wasn’t intended to be explicitly about religion at all (“losing my religion” is a Southern expression for losing one’s cool). But whenever I hear the song’s haunting lament about “losing religion” in a desperate longing for another to be whole, I find myself thinking about it as a metaphor for the way love forces us to let go of much of what we cling to for control and certainty. We like to be in control, but really loving another person requires us to let go, to surrender, no matter how badly it hurts.
And religion—defined as a system of beliefs, assumptions, and community we depend on for a sense of security—can be one of those things we cling to with a tight fist, even when it becomes clear it’s harming ourselves and others. Even if we exchange the term “religion” for healthier-sounding terms, like “faith” or “relationship with Christ,” we can still be clinging more tightly to our need for control than to Christ.
It’s something that Grant Macaskill, in his powerful work Living in Union With Christ, calls the human condition of being “constitutionally idolatrous.” And it’s for this reason that Macaskill suggests that Christianity needs to return to a robust emphasis on the core of Christian faith as union with Christ. Specifically, union with Christ—finding who we are solely in relationship with him—as the only solution to our tendency to cling to whatever we value until it warps toward harmful ends. He warns, “one of the most dominant themes in both the OT and NT” is that “those who have received the Word of God turn even it towards ends of idolatry, and they need to be graciously delivered from their corruptions.” Describing accounts of believers challenged in the NT, he emphasizes that most of the time, the person’s faith was not in question. “But at some point to which they themselves were blind, their piety was warped by sin and began to serve the wrong end.”
The problem, Macaskill suggests, is that most of us have been deeply programmed to not quite believe the language of the New Testament about finding a new “in-Christ” identity, so that Paul, for example, no longer sees himself as Paul at all, but “Paul-in-Christ.” “We lack a category for our identity being formed through relational encounter with another.”
This might sound technical, but the consequences are devastating: we can eagerly accept salvation and a relationship with Christ, yet in how we think and act, function as if we’re autonomous, as if we’re out there transforming ourselves to be more like Christ. When in reality, the great exchange happens when we let go of ourselves in exchange for an identity, character, and person outside of ourselves.
Put another way, transformation in Christ doesn’t happen by us doing a better job of letting Christ improve ourselves; it happens when we surrender the concept of “ourselves” entirely, so that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me” (Galatian 2:20). In exchange, we find a new identity—not us, improved, but us-in-Him. In prayer and worship, we learn what it means to surrender the myth of autonomy and control for lived union with Him, in relationship with others and the world through the Spirit.
And when our identity is decentered that way, when we find the freedom of losing ourselves in Him, it changes everything. No longer are we insecure, prone to bristle at any implication of fault. Instead, we’re eager to let go of the idols that are separating us from being lost in Him. For “he is love, and it is Love that now inhabits us and that we, in turn, inhabit.” An invitation to let go of our self-made religions in exchange for something far better, and to find ourselves finally whole.
Monica La Rose