I’ve heard it said since I was a kind – “Christianity isn’t a religion it’s a relationship.” And yet in my personal and pastoral experience for many years now I’ve found that most people actually choose religion over relationship. Why? For the very same reason the apostle Paul put his confidence in the flesh for so many years before his conversion – It makes me feel in control and brings me to a place where I can boast about what I’ve accomplished (Philippians 3:4ff). Relationship with the Triune God is hard work … heck relationship with anyone is hard work. It requires patience, a persevering pursuit, and years of doing the same thing (the Bible calls that faithfulness). In contrast to religion which can flare up in glorious displays of passion, mighty acts of sacrifice, and no real need to deal with what’s going on inside one’s soul. Who dare question such spiritual power. The sad and unfortunate thing is that in my own life and as I watch, counsel, and shepherd the lives of others – those spiritual displays more often than not fade, or worse are found out to be false and man-centered. The “form of godliness” that Paul speaks of can actually come in the “picture of power” that denies the real power of God (2 Timothy 3:5).
The Characteristics of Religion
The appeal to the flesh in religion is strong … and yet often very subtle (deceptive). Religion says – “there is more that you can do.” And that more can take the form of rigid moralism that does all it can to clean the outside of the cup, reducing the Gospel to a set of rules to be followed void of any considerations of the heart. Or it can take the form of spiritual fervor that does all it can to demonstrate passion, power, and love for God, reducing the Gospel to a spiritual power pill that claims intimacy with God based on the obvious external behaviors. The problem? Both are driven by the flesh, preoccupied by activity, and closed to evaluation by others. Religion produces performers – some look “nice and attractive” and some look “mean and uninviting”, but both feed the flesh making one’s confidence in something other than what Christ has one for all done for needy undeserving sinners.
The Characteristics of Relationship
Relationship says – “I have nothing to offer you, and demand nothing of you, I just want You!” This is the reason marriage is so hard … if you don’t do what I need and I don’t do what you need there is every reason to retreat in fear. We all want to be in relationships where the expectation is of two flawed individuals who can embrace each other warts and all (SIN and all). How does this play out in our relationship with the Lord? Who wants to be a fervent prayer warrior in the closet day after day when Sunday affords me the opportunity to show how spiritual I am? Who wants to evaluate your own heart with Psalm 139 “Search me Spirit of God” prayers when you can feel good about the things you’ve accomplished and the influence you have? There is little appeal to the flesh in faithful enduring commitment to relationship.
Recognize that each and every “spiritual activity” can be counterfeited by the deceitfulness of the human heart. Don’t believe me? Read Jonathan Edward’s Religious Affections. Ask the harder questions of yourself than merely – “What am I doing for God?” or “why don’t I feel passionate?” Ask – “Where has my sin hurt others?” or “Why don’t I repent more?” or “Who have I invited to point out my blind-spots lately?” King Saul learned this the hard way when he cared more about his influence and spiritual displays of sacrifice than obeying God (1 Samuel 15). God calls you and I to do the hard work of relationship – pursuing when we feel like retreating, calling out for help when we feel like complaining, and faithfully obeying when our flesh longs for something more gratifying. Indeed following Christ is about relationship and not religion … He despises your religiousity but is near the humble.