One of the ongoing conversations I hear is about the difference between religion and God; the difference between religion and Christianity; the difference between religion and discipleship; the difference between religion and relationship. The consistent theme is that religion is perceived as something other than the true, dynamic relationship and lifestyle of an individual responding to their God.
I began to come up with my own list of what is religion and what is relationship for this article.
Religion looks on the flesh. Love looks on the heart.
Religion condemns. Love convicts.
Religion has rules and regulations. Love has form, but isn’t rigid.
The church I grew up in insisted that they were not religious like other churches. Actually, there was a fair bit of dialogue in that group about how religious other groups were, and how they were therefore inferior to us. I had no idea we had our own religious practices that were actually less forgiving than many churches.
In stepping out from that group and visiting other churches and ministries, I began to detect in each place behaviors that felt authentic to me, as well as behaviors that felt religious to me. The truth is that it has seemed to me that most places are a blend of both – a mixture of both authentic loving, giving Christianity and also some silly man-made version of truth wrapped up in a religious guise that sounds right but doesn’t feel at all right.
Religion tries to clean up the flesh to make it suitable to God. But God loves to use our abilities in spite of our messed up flesh. I see that where people long to love and help, God will move mightily. We can certainly learn to become fluent and adept in doing godly things and I don’t think that is religion. I think it’s when we try to patent the methods that have worked successfully for us that behaviors become religious. I think the moment I “settle” down into thinking I’ve nailed the way God works – I think it’s almost the moment God will leave that spot for me.
With time and practice people can learn how to be more gracious and less abrupt in dealing with different aspects. We learn how to be smoother in our delivery and how to handle things. But I think religion comes when we try to bottle and market and make things into a practice, into a formula, when we try to control the movement of the Spirit of God.
It’s good to have order and a method for doing things, but not when that begins to supersede the way God wants to do things. I think that is a lot of what happens with us as humans. I know I pretty much always want the simplest, easiest route first. And so, when I go to seek God, I will typically go to the place I last found him.
If I last felt God in enthusiastic worship to Christian music, I will settle into listening to music and lifting my arms. If I felt the voice of the Lord and the smile of God and the laughter of the Holy Spirit while listening to a certain teacher, I will return to their teachings. I even have little games on my smartphone that have been a place I have heard the Lord, so I can go back sometimes to these games seeking to hear the Lord again.
And I don’t think any of those things in and of themselves are bad. I think it’s when a part of me disengages and becomes somewhat passive, somewhat detached, going through some motion, thinking I know where I can find God, I think that’s the place it becomes religion. And the things I do aren’t necessarily bad, but they are no longer alive.
Even the routine of spending time with God in the scripture can become religion. We do want to make a regular practice of reading the Bible, spending time gathering with other believers to worship, to hear the word taught. There are all kinds of right things that can become religion when our heart isn’t in it.
That’s another thing I see with religion a lot- it’s a mindset. It’s a place we come to when we become mentally disengaged and I think it begins as a gradual slipping if we aren’t paying attention. When things feel dead and lifeless and hold no joy, that is often a sign that religion has moved in and it’s time to move on. That’s not to say that there aren’t less exciting times in right routines that we push through and seek new ways of invigorating.
I find God doesn’t want stale rote and routine. He loves relationship. He wants us to pursue him, even as he pursues us. I believe in having a faithful routine of spending time with God in the scripture. Yet, it isn’t always in my time in the word that I have an experience of God. Sometimes it’s on my job. Sometimes it’s in the t.v. show I watch. Sometimes it’s in music. Sometimes it’s in cooking. But I see that when I’m faithful to meet him in the mornings, he’s faithful to show up for me throughout the day.
1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love. God is not religion. Religion is the form and formulas that man comes up with trying to respond to God. Religion is not relationship. Relationship is fluid and changing, religion becomes rigid, relying on rules and regulations as a means to be right with God.
As Christ told Paul, it is in our WEAKNESS alone that the power of Christ is made perfect. We discover the perfection of our Lord not in our strength or our glory, but in coming to the end of ourselves and relying on Jesus Christ to do all that we cannot. The more I am able to own my inability, the greater I can step out of religious behavior to receive the perfect portion Christ holds for me. Relationship wins over religion every time.