Religion vs Relationship

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????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,


4 responses to “Religion vs Relationship

  1. This goes hand in hand with the things that I’ve started realizing recently. Wonderful post and it moved me. God bless you.

  2. I am emerging from a time of what I call “self-reliant sin managment”; otherwise known as “asking what can I do to be acceptable to God”. I have finally learned the answer: absolutely nothing. My understading came through the Heidelberg Catechism. The past couple of days I have been wrestling with Q&A 60:

    “How are you righteous before God?
    Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, of never having kept any of them, and of still being inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me.

    All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.”

    This understanding changes everything and yes, it is only through Christ that I am righteous before God. So yes, it has to be a relationship otherwise, as I can attest to, you are simply “beating the air”.

    I started delving into this catechism a couple of months ago along with the book, “Body & Soul: Reclaiming the Heidelberg Catechism” by M. Craig Barnes. I always knew I did not understand some things, but it has been overwhelming to learn what all I did not know. I have learned more in the last couple of months than I ever did being a good Methodist for more than a few decades.

    The catechism has its roots in the 1500’s. When I first read it, I had to get over my amazement how much more knowledge about “what this is about” the rank and file Christian of that era was exposed to than we are today. One of its strengths is that it pushes the development of “my faith” in that crucial questions are worded in the first person, forcing me to state and accept that this is about “me, also”. As Barnes puts its, salvation is not a group plan, it has to work its way into indivdual lives.

    After being a long-term good “church-attending” Methodist, this last year I have become an “Easter and Christmas Christian” as far as church attendance is concerned. I reached a point where I had to back away and assess. I will be going back, but with an whole other understanding of “what this is about”. I recently tripped across a reference to people being “confident in their faith”–I never had any confidence as to what Christianity is about because no one ever told me. I spent decades gathering bits and pieces from hymns and liturgy and things people said–and ultimately that was not enough.

    There is a new book out, “Key United Methodist Beliefs” by William Abraham and David Watson. It is a Wesleyan catechism. A very important truth is stated in the introduction that addresses the reason the UMC is where it is: “Where Christianity once thrived many people, even many of those who attend chruch, do not know the basic content of the Christian faith.” The basic content they are referring to is the gospel. And I testify to the validity of that statement.

    In one of his books on Wesleyan theology, Kenneth Collins states another truth that I can now attest to: knowledge of who God is and who I am is the beginning of redemption. .” Religious practices take on an whole other meaning when you finally understand those two things–they become an expression of your love of God. As Abraham and Watson also state “Without this good news, and the various ways in which Christians have filled our the details through the centuries, we cannot form new Christians. We can form chruchgoers, but we cannot form new Christians. Christianity has a basic content, and that content matters”.

    A knoweldge/understanding of the gospel has to be the context in which we do everything else. Unfortunately, the church has lost the ability to educate its people in “who God is” and “who I am in relation to Him.” And that is not a minor detail, that is what Christianity is about.

    “Chrisitanity, has always been about the good news: God loves us and has acted decisively to offer us new life, both now and forever.” (Abraham and Watson)

  3. Mike, what a terrific essay! I’m re-posting it as a feature on this week’s UM Insight. Thanks so much!

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