My working definition of religion is the system or belief in a God or Gods who must be appeased. Once we have the belief that we must appease God, we enter into a religious system of requirements and restrictions. Favor with God under any religious system demands conformity and good behavior. Steve McVey wrote, “Religion is a system of living by which human beings “try” to make themselves acceptable to God through their own actions”.
Religion is basically what we do for God – grace is what God did for man. The core value of religion is that God needs to be satisfied. Jesus on the other hand proclaims that God is satisfied by and through Him. Now if God is not satisfied then we must struggle to appease Him so we can obtain His favor. Under the religious system His favor is directly dependent upon our performance. So if we don’t feel like we have favor with God, we feel like we need to perform better.
The best example of religion in the Bible is the tower of Babel. God told mankind “to multiply to fill the earth and subdue it.” But instead of filling the earth, mankind decided to build a city and a big tower. All people gathered under the leadership of Nimrod. Nimrod was called the Mighty Hunter before the Lord, but the actual translation was a power tyrant in front of the Lord. Tyrant is leader that does not serve the people, but uses the people for His own benefit. A tyrant is a leader who is not governed by love and selflessness. They exercise full power and demand that you submit to their authority. Their only goal is to build a kingdom and leave a legacy; for a tyrant the ends always justify the means.
So the people said, “go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Their motivation in building their tower was to defy God. Instead of going into the entire world, they wanted the security of a kingdom. They didn't want to be scattered throughout the whole world, they wanted to build a tower that would reach to heaven probably because they were afraid of God.
This is what religion does today; its build a system whereby mankind can get to heaven by hard work. Mankind wants the glory of reaching God, but grace is all about God reaching mankind. Religion says let us make a name for ourselves. This is translated to become famous and renowned. Religion desires to do what it does for respect and recognition. Mankind wants credit for a job well done; we want others to know that we are worthy of respect. Religion makes humans known, but grace makes Christ known.
Religion says be good and you'll become good – Jesus says become good on the inside and you'll do well on the outside. There can be no lasting fruit without a good root, yet the religious desire fruit while forsaking the root. The fruit of a believer’s life is loving, giving, reading the word, prayer and fellowship, etc. But the scary thing is that even religious people do these things. These are the fundamentals of all religions. Any “Pastor” would love all their people to give, read, pray, and fellowship. But the religious system doesn't care why you do what you do; they just want you to do it.
Often times the religious system uses fear, guilt, and shame to get you to do these things. If they want you to give, they say if you give, it will release a break through. So we give with the motivation that we are paying for our break through. If that doesn't work they say you are cursed with a curse, so we give out of fear because we don’t want to be cursed. Fear, guilt and shame is the religious game.
All Christian disciplines need to start in the heart. We cannot do good deeds to be saved, but once we are saved we help but do good deeds. The motivation of our hearts is paramount. We need to ask ourselves a couple of questions: Do we do what we do because we want to? Do we do what we do to earn the favor of God? Do we do what we do because we love and want to help people? Do we give because we believe in the mission? Do we pray because we enjoy God? Do we read to know more of God and His ways? Do we fellowship because we actually love being around these people or is it just religious obligation?
Religion says “try” but Jesus says, “rely”. My first few years of Christianity were under the cycle of trying. I remember going to a youth conference and preacher spoke on defeating Satan with the word. He used Jesus’ temptation as an example. So when I got home I memorized over a hundred bible passages, all related to the problems I was going through. When temptation would come, I would quote the Bible, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lust therefore.” The more I quoted the worse I became. The more I tried to deliver myself, the more I became consciously aware of all my sins. Instead of relying on the grace of God, I was trying to find victory through incantations.
Trying is the opposite of relying. The word “try” means that we are attempting to do something or accomplish something. We have been deceived into thinking that God has a great holy standard, and we are to try and measure up to it to make Him happy. This mentality leads to a roller coaster Christianity because we think God’s view and opinion of us is dependent upon how well were doing.
The “cycle of trying” starts with commitment to something we believe we should do. We see or read some holy ideal and make a commitment to do it. We believe of course, that we need to do this because it will make God happy with us. So we come to an altar and make a commitment or we stand up raise our hands or make our pledges.
The second stage is the cycle of defeat; where we do the best we can. We struggle to measure up to the standard we believe that God has for us. So we muster up all the discipline and will power that we can; it seems to be working great which leads us to stage three.
Stage three is that we get filled with extreme self confidence. This is where we are feeling pretty good about ourselves. So we begin to approve of ourselves and like ourselves due to our recent good behavior. We start walking on cloud nine, until one day gravity sets in.
Stage four is the failure. Failure is inevitable, because our self control and discipline only lasts so long. We have good desires and want to do what is right, that’s why it baffles us when we can’t seem to do the things we would like. Now all of a sudden we no longer like ourselves because of our recent bad behavior, we then come to the conclusion that God is frustrated with us all the time.
This brings us to the stage of guilt. Paul talked about this legalistic mentality in Romans chapter seven. He said that he could not do the good things that he wanted to do, but the bad thing that he did not want to do, those were the things that he ended up doing. We begin to question our love for God and often others are there to help. We begin to live a life that is filled with pain, frustration, shame, and regret. Then we come to the point where we are sick of the way we are living so we decide to renew our commitment. We come to the altar, say a prayer, and make a pledge to do better next time. This brings us right back to stage two, where we begin to do the best we can. As we know, the best we can do is never good enough. We repeat the cycle over and over again until we reach the last stage and give up completely. There’s nothing worse then religion and striving to find the acceptance of God.
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