It’s become something of a catch-phrase these days, at least for some: “Christianity is about a relationship not a religion.” I like the way that sounds. Having come to a place in my life where I want to walk WITH Jesus and know him more and introduce others to him, I like to think of my faith as a relationship with God, not simply a religious way of living.
And yet, it can still be hard to figure out what the difference is. I still go to church – religiously. I have a time of prayer each morning using an order of common prayer – and I do that, well, religiously. We give our offering to the church every month – EVERY month. That’s just our custom in regard to our giving. It could be every week. The point is, it is regular, religious practice. So what is it that makes my faith more about relationship than religion?
It hit me the other day when I was in a conversation about living into our life in Christ. One of the persons I was talking to said that they had come to realize that their view of their Christian faith centered around what they preferred to do and how they wanted to live their life. For them, faith was about the measure of how proper a person’s life is. Faith was about how they could live their life and not offend God. In this line of thinking and living out our Christian faith we say things like, “Can I do this__________ and be okay with God?” At the far extreme of this thinking is a question asking a pastor or teacher this question – “Why can’t I _____________?”
The first question is seeking to figure out how much of my life I must surrender to God – how much I have to give up.
“Can I go out fishing/hunting/golfing with friends and drink a beer or two?”
“Can I watch R-rated movies and be okay with God?”
“Can I skip church sometimes to relax and enjoy the day and still be considered a good Christian?”
The second question is a bit more confrontational. The second question requires a pastor or teacher or supposedly “good” Christian to make a convincing argument about certain “religious” practices.
“Why can’t I worship God wherever I am? Why do I have to go to church?”
“Why can’t I enjoy the money I earned and make a good life for my family? Why do I have to give money to the church?”
Both ways of asking these questions has to do with what I need to do so God is pleased with me, or to be certain that God is, at least, not unhappy with me. How much is enough to please God AND let me live life in the way I like to live? What must I do, and why? These are questions about how to be properly, but minimally, religious as a Christian.
I used to ask questions like that as I explored my life as a Christian. At times I asked those questions with all sincerity wanting to do the right things. Then I read something like Paul’s words to the believers in the ancient city of Corinth:
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.
(1 Corinthians 10:23)
Paul is basically saying that grace abounds and you can do what you want. The question is, why are you doing what you do? In my life I began to realize that God wasn’t trying to control my actions, God was trying to capture my heart. God didn’t want me to figure out the best way to be a “good” Christian; God wanted me to spend my life with Him. I began to see it more like a marriage or a friendship. Instead of asking my wife: “what can I do to make certain you don’t divorce me?” I ask: “What can I do to honor you and love you?” Instead of asking my friend: “what can I do so you’re not mad at me when I call every few months?” I ask: “What can I do to make your life better or help you accomplish your goals?”
For me, the question had to change. If I wanted to have a relationship with God in Jesus Christ and through the power of God’s Holy Spirit, if I wanted to know the love and peace and strength of God in my life then the question had to change. Instead of “Why can’t I____?” or “Can I____?” My question has become: “What would you have me do?”
“What would you have me do?” That is a relationship question. That’s a question that opens my life up to new possibilities. That’s a question that says “I want to be close to you and honor you and show my loyalty to you.” That is a question that leads me to live my life religiously.
Why do I go to church? Because it is in the gathering of God’s people, in the time when the community joins hearts and voices in praise to God, it is there that God is powerfully present and God is properly honored.
Why do I spend time in prayer each morning? Because God has said, “I want to be with you, I want to connect with you, and I want to nurture your life in a purposeful way.” So I spend time opening up my life and heart to God so God can pour His heart into me – it is a mutual relationship.
Why do I give to the church religiously? Because God has let me know that in acts of generosity I honor the fact that he created me to bless others. God has shown me that grace and mercy and love are all ways of being generous, and when I am generous I open myself up to know God’s grace and mercy and love.
All things are lawful. God’s desire is not to control us. And yet, all things are not beneficial. God longs to pour himself into our lives. The more we open ourselves up to God, the more God can pour His grace and power and strength into our lives. And that is a life that is beyond anything I can manage to bring about on my own.
So, my encouragement today is this – ask God, at least once each day, “What would you have me do?” Then listen. Then do what you hear God calling you to do – and do it religiously.
Holy high-five to you,