Religion and Rules

June 26

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Luke 10:27)

I grew up in a church tradition that had some pretty strict standards on the “things Dos-DontsChristians shouldn’t do.” Somewhere there must have been a carefully constructed list of do’s and don’ts… mostly don’ts. “We don’t do this. And we don’t do that. And we don’t even think about doing this other thing here.” I assumed that’s how all Christians lived – and I had no reason to distrust those who were instructing me in “the narrow way.”

Now, I thank God for these folks – for it was through their faithful teaching of the gospel that I came to know Jesus. They got that part right. But just imagine my surprise (as I got older) when I discovered that a lot of the “do’s and don’ts” were never backed up by chapter and verse. In other words, all the rules that were placed upon my life (what good Christians do and don’t do) weren’t from the Bible. They were just someone’s idea of how to go about doing what the Bible did say. They were interpretations, or convictions, about what God said. In the end, they were standards that were not the Bible’s standards. And their rules were there to help define the Christian faith. At least, that was their well-intentioned intent.

goodbehaviorWhy does this happen? Why do churches (and denominations) take the good of the Scriptures and try to improve upon it (or at least, break it down into some well-thought-out rules of “good Christian” behavior)?

It all boils down to religion. Religion likes rules. It is so much easier to follow a checklist of rules, than to be guided by something so subjective as love. Plus, rules allow us to keep tabs on everyone else, and to keep track of how they are doing. To try and determine if someone loves God and loves their fellow man is hard to monitor. Love is broad (and cold hard factssomewhat vague). We want to be able to look at our situations, and check people out, according to the rules – and make our determinations (about ourselves and others) based upon the cold, hard facts.

Easy: “Brother Cecil did A, B, and C… but did not do D. We’ll have to address that situation, so D always gets done too.” Hard: “Brother Cecil spent the day helping his neighbor move (and who knows what kind of [questionable] activities and conversations took place in the process!).”

Did I mention that most of us kinda like religion too? It not only gives us a way to see if comparingwe are doing okay – but also gives us a means of comparison with others. “I may be doing this… but at least I’m not doing that, like so-and-so is.” Part of human nature loves to be comparative. As long as I can find someone else that is a bigger mess-up than I am – then I’m okay. Human nature loves rules, and comparisons…

But, the true Christian life is about neither!

pharisees-condemning-jesus-heidi-e-nelsonGod calls us each to live by a new nature – one that He has freely placed within us, when we devoted our hearts to Jesus. And that nature has its pattern in the love of God (as we saw so vividly displayed in Jesus). Jesus just loved God… and He loved people. And that always got Him in trouble with the religious rulers of the day.

Christians are simply called to love – to love people as God loves people. And to represent God, as Jesus did, by being defined by how we love those that God loves.

As the apostle said: “Love is the fulfillment of the (God’) Law.” (Romans 13:10)

Religion always demands human effort… true Christianity always defers to the God-led human heart.

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Christianity, Just Another Religion?

June 25

A couple of days ago I wrote that: “Christianity is not a religion (although it CAN be made into one).” Today’s thoughts are a follow-up to that thought.

I cannot emphasize enough, the importance that Christian faith is not a religion. It was never set up to be a religion – it was set up to deliver us from religion.

That’s because the basis for all religion is to find ways that human beings can make their way to God – OR ways to get God to like us and grant us His divine favors. The basis of all religion is human effort – what human beings DO in reference to God.

Now, this is fairly easy to see when we talk about Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Islam – whose focus is all upon certain things that must be done (or not done), certain ways in which one must behave, certain prayers or rituals that must be prayed and observed – and woe to the one who refuses to honor god in these ways. It is all performance… and then persistent patience – in waiting upon god to do something for you.

And if god doesn’t do His part, then your part must not have been done right… or with enough passion… or with enough endurance… or with enough faith… SO, do it all over again. This time, put more effort into it. Get it right. Get it better. Get it perfect. Because if you do, it will be worth it – you will gain god’s great rewards for being so faithful and devoted to him.

Islamic festival of AshuraThis “formula” can go to great lengths. During the Islamic festival of Ashura, young men severely cut their own backs to prove to Allah that are willing to suffer any pain for him. I also recall the account of one “faithful soul” who made a pilgrimage of hundreds of miles by rolling all the way there. I’m sure you have heard other stories of people who “proved” their devotion to god by performing outrageous acts of sacrifice, suffering, or “servitude.”

All this is not to point out how silly or ignorant the “religious” can be. It is not to make fun of them. It is to point out that the nature of religion is to demand supreme effort from us – in the hopes of gaining the attention of a god that has virtually nothing to do with anyone who is not really serious about their faith.

Of course, this kind of nonsense doesn’t happen in Christianity, right?

do more work harderIf we really think about it, we often feel inward pressure to be “good Christians.” We find ourselves looking to obey the “gospel” of more or less. More faith. More Bible reading. More prayer. More church attendance. More witnessing. And less worrying. Less anger. Less sinful thoughts. Less wanton pleasures. Less time wasted on “unspiritual” things, and on and on. “More or less”… is all about human effort!

guilt1And as for outward pressure… those who are struggling in the faith tend to get a heapin’ helpin’ of guilt for their lack of success. Or if they don’t “pick up the pace” in their walk with God, they’re just gonna have to be left behind. No one has the time for slackers or screw-ups.

But the Church for which Jesus died, is different. It understands that we did nothing to ever earn the love of God – and there is nothing we can do to keep earning His love. Because His love is a gift – it is never earned. God is not going to love us more if we live perfect days. And He is not going to love us less if we sin every five minutes.

That is the basis of Christianity… our relationship with God. And that relationship is based solely on His love. Never-failing, never-conditional, never-deserved love. Which He proved in perpetuity when He gave His Son for every sinner in this world.

God's love

True Christianity is not form and rituals, it is not church attendance or good morals. There is NOTHING wrong with those things – as long as we understand that nothing we do (or not do) has any bearing up how God sees us – or how He loves us.

So how do true Christians live? In thankfulness. Every day. In every circumstance. Living a life of gratitude with everything we do and say.

True Christianity is not a religion – it is a life-long response to the God Who loves us so much, that He chose rather to die than live without us.

Max lucado

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What Others Think…

June 24

cs creameryAfter a recent evening out, my wife and I decided to end our evening with some ice cream. We went to a very popular place and got in the ordering line. Since it was a warm evening, we weren’t the only ones with the same idea – so the line was pretty long. But, hey, it’s ice cream! …And good ice cream is well worth the wait!

But we couldn’t have imagined what transpired just right before our turn to order.

brownieThe young man, just in front of us, brought everything to a screeching halt! After waiting in that long line (at an ice cream place) he ordered… a brownie. Not a brownie with ice cream (that was on the menu). “Just a brownie, please.”

Have you ever seen the dull look of a trapped animal? That was the look that swept across the faces of all the teenage employees working that night. None of them knew what to do. For the next several minutes it was like tag team wrestling as each employee “passed on” the customer to someone who (supposedly) had more experience in such matters.

About this time, everyone in the store had fixed their gaze upon the one young man whose request had put everything in permanent “park.” an-angry-mobThe people behind us were glaring. Someone, further back, was heard to whisper (on purpose?) “There’s a bakery across the street.” It was that one moment we all dread – being the focus of attention for all the wrong reasons. But still, he persisted… “Just a brownie, please.”

Finally, after about ten minutes of “hemming and hawing” the teen with (apparently) the most experience decided that they could sell someone just a brownie, came up with a price, and got the line moving again… All was right in the world, once more!

I confess that I am getting to that state of “maturity” in life, where I am realizing that moments like this can be “teaching moments” (or more correctly, “learning moments.”)

So for the next few days I pondered what was to be learned by the situation of the young man, right in front of us, who had put the hold on my hankering for ice cream.

There are so many possible lessons, but I think there is one that applies the most.

I tend to be the kind of person that wants people to like me. And I have the reputation of being a pretty likable guy. people pleaser 2The problem with this is that when it comes time to take a stand about something important, I also tend to shy away from any kind of confrontation. If I stand strong for something, and you disagree, you might not like me… so it is better to let things go, than to upset “the ice cream shop.”

The young man in the shop knew exactly what he wanted. It was “right” to him. And even though, he became the ill-focus of everyone in the room, he stood his ground, maintained his resolve, and walked out with exactly what he came in for.

What others think about us can be a powerful deterrent – even when we know the right thing to do is to take a stand, in spite of the consequences.

I am also reminded that this same thought applies to our current culture. Political correctness is often the rule of the day. And though I certainly think that we need to be sensitive and compassionate towards others who think differently from us – we should also be willing to take a stand and call wrong, “wrong.”

Salt-and-LightThe more I think about it, the very essence of being the salt and light is being willing to be like a young man ordering a brownie in an ice cream store. As God’s people, we are often called to go against the grain, or row against the flow of the stream. Even if it makes us look foolish…

I am also reminded that there was another young man who was often taking unpopular stands, and he said: Our dedication to Christ makes us look like fools…”

I hear you, Paul.

Thanks, brownie dude.

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The God Imprint… Some Final Thoughts

June 23

Before we move on from this topic, I just wanted to address one final issue…

good-personIf you were to ask several people, “Are you a good person?” You would not be surprised to find that nearly everyone speaks of themselves with glowing (even if only slightly) terms. In fact, the response, “I’m a good person,” is the standard response to another question you might ask: “Why should you be allowed into heaven when you die?”

The following response is often typical: “Let me tell you something… I’m a GOOD person. I chose my job to help people. I am also always there when I have friends in need, whether it’s money, listening, or helping them out with something. And because of that, at the end of the day when I look back, I feel good about myself! I’m not perfect, sometimes I screw up, sometimes I can be mean to people… but it’s never out of just wanting to hurt them…”

good intentionsSo many people have the notion that as long as our intentions are (usually) good, and we don’t try to hurt people, and we try to help people as much as we can (giving of our time and resources). We think that all those things make a person “heaven-worthy.” In other words, Trying to do good things… makes us good people. And good people… go to heaven.

But, here is the significant problem. The Bible tells us that God’s requirement for entrance into heaven is not based upon our goodness… at all. His requirement is perfection. And the only way to be perfect is to receive what Jesus has done. The reason Jesus came was to give His life, so that we might share in His. Jesus’ life is perfect. His sacrifice is perfect – and, by receiving what He has done for us, we are made perfect in God’s sight. For by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (Hebrews 10:14) ONLY Jesus’ good work merits heaven for us. And we must surrender this whole notion of earning God’s favor by our own merits, and trust in His efforts alone. This is WHY Jesus is the ONLY road to God.

So why do so many people actually believe that doing good things (trying to be a good person) will merit God’s favor?

It is the downside of the God Imprint within us. Because we have an inner desire to do good things for people, we can convince ourselves that by doing (some of) those things that we are decent people. Our attraction to good things (right things) can mislead us into thinking we are better (more deserving of God) than we are. Couple this with the mistaken idea that doing a few “good” things outweighs the bad we have done – and we have a recipe for self-justification. And there is always someone that we know, to whom we can compare ourselves most favorably.

scale of sinBut, God does not grade on the curve. We do not gain heaven because our “good” is better than someone else’s. There is no scale in heaven where good is weighed against bad to determine our eternal destiny.

There is only Jesus. He alone can gain us entry into heaven. And only those whose hearts are devoted to Him can rest assured of their eternal home.

We each have the God Imprint within us to verify the reality of God’s existence. It is the inside information that cannot be explained by any other means. But it is there, not just to lead us to try and live moral lives… it is there to cause us to seek out the One Who put it there. And to cause us to discover His story of love and redemption, which He displayed openly through His Son – sent to make us all the objects of His immeasurable love and attention.

christ died

Prayer focus: God, help me to live my life in the fullness of what You desire to do through me.

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The God Imprint; Part 5 Other faiths…

June 22

One of the things I hear quite often is that Christians tend to be exclusive and “narrow-minded” when it comes to what others may believe. “After all,” it is said, “All roads lead to God.” Or: “There are so many good things, and good people, in other religions – why be so demanding about believing your way?”

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This sentiment isn’t just from religious people… it also includes non-religious people, who say things like: “we are truly moral, because we do what is right just because it is right – and not because we are looking to gain some reward, or avoid some punishment from some god.”

So how do we respond to those who say all religions are “good” – and to those who pose the question: why is God even necessary for good morals?

Just this way… First, we need to understand two very essential things. One is that all confusing-street-sign1religions do NOT lead us to God. The reason for this is because religion is man’s ideas of how to get to God. “Take this path. Do this thing. Talk this way. Pray these prayers. Perform these rituals.” All religion, at it’s core, is based upon human effort to get us to God (or to get God to like us).

Christianity is not a religion (although it CAN be made into one). At the heart of true value-the-blood-of-jesusChristianity, is God’s efforts to bring us to Himself. It is never what we DO that merits God’s favor or attention – it is accepting what God has done for us that brings us into relationship with Him. At it’s core, Christianity is a relationship with God – based upon a mutual love and proper respect.

This brings us to the other thing we need to understand. God alone is good. Even when RYRJesus was called “good,” he deflected our attention to its proper place: “No one is good, except God alone.” (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19)* Religion does not make us good people – it makes us people who think our efforts at goodness make us like God (or make us pleasing to God). God has a term for our efforts at righteousness… “filthy rags.” NOT the robes of gleaming righteousness that we think we are wearing.

Christians are not people who are trying to be good. We are people who have attached ourselves, by faith, to the One Who is good. This connection allows HIM to inhabit us – bringing His goodness, and His good works, into this world, through us. Do you see the difference? Good works ARE God works. And the only way that good is produced through us, is by the One Who is good.

“Well, that is fine,” you might say. “But what about all the good things (unselfish, helpful things) that people of all faiths (and even non-faith) do for others, all over the world? What do we make of that?”

For me, it is profoundly simple. And we have been talking about it over the past several days. It is the God imprint, at work, in every human being. God put the imprint of Himself within each of us – which draws us to the things that resonate from His divine character. Things like loving, helping, giving, doing right by other people. All these things are the core values of God – and He has placed them at our very core.

The real key is understanding why they are there in the first place. They are not there just to get us to live moral lives. They are there to compel us to search out and connect with the One Who put them there.

They are “home” calling us from our tireless wandering – to the place where all those inner virtues find their ultimate expression and meaning…

Welcomed home

Prayer focus: God, help me to see the infinite value of living in You – and having You live through me.

 

* People have used this statement to denounce the deity of Jesus. They say, “See, even Jesus doesn’t want to claim to be God.” But that is not what Jesus is saying. He is simply saying, “Think about what YOU are saying… if you are calling Me good, you are calling Me God.” Jesus WAS good. Therefore: Jesus WAS God. This is no denial, but an affirmation.

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The God Imprint; part 4 God-shaped Vacuum…

June 21

We have all probably heard some spiritual sage tell us that we each have a God-shaped 6 21 God shaped vacuumvacuum that only He can fill. This is certainly true. That vacuum began when God had the idea of us, and proceeded to shape us in His Own image. That vacuum was formed in the very shape of His Own likeness. ONLY God can fill that place!

This is why we need Him. And why the enemy of God fights so strenuously to keep us from recognizing that need.

This is what forms the battleground. And the battle really boils down to one thing… who or what will fill your life.

This is the other thing… we are all aware of this God-shaped vaccum. It is another part of what God imprinted within us – that cannot be taken away.

But what so many people often try to do, is fill this vacuum with the things of this world. This can be some very selfish things. But, quite often, it is very good things… things like being successful at your job, or loving your spouse and kids, or finding a cause that is a benefit for other people, and on and on.

These are good things. But can be substitutes for the one thing that matters most.

God designed us to pursue things that matter to us – with a passion. But He also designed us to pursue Him first and foremost. It is only when we discover the fullness of relationship with Him (filling that vacuum) that we are actually capable of truly effecting the world for good.

6 21 seek-first-the-kingdomJesus said it best: “Seek first (and foremost) the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” (Matt. 6:33) “All these things” are all the things that people pursue in life. What Jesus is telling us is this… when we are filled with God – then, and only then, are we at peace within ourselves, and are able to have something of substance to give to others.

It is a fundamental principle of the Kingdom of God that we have to have something to give something. And God is supremely interested in supplying for those whose hearts are set upon Him. First, He supplies Himself – and then the resources of His abundance to meet needs around us.

But everything begins with pursuing God.

first pursuit

This is not as difficult as it might seem. He is the One Who is actually pursuing us. He is eager for relationship with us – but He will not force Himself upon us (even though that just might be the best thing for us!). He is waiting for us to end our pursuit of all other things, so that He can have our undivided attention.

We humans are famous for wanting God… and wanting everything else too. Christians are also human. And we tend to fall in line with what everyone else does.

This is part of the reason why Christians end up acting (and reacting) no different than people who are not believers. We have not yet given ourselves completely to the King.

Until the vacuum is filled, only with God, we are not yet ready to live as God has imprinted upon us.

Prayer focus: God, may my heart be completely Yours, so that You might fill me with all I need.

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The God Imprint; Part 3 Losing sight…

June 20

crueltyOne of the primary reasons given for why people reject faith in God, is often stated as something like “the cruelty of the world.” In other words, people look at all the terrible things that people do to one another and conclude that, since this world is such a horrible place, there is no way that God could have made it.

There are a couple of things that grab our attention, here…

First, there is the assumption that a perfect God would not (could not!) have created such a messed up world. God couldn’t be real, because, if He was, this world would be a much different (and far better) place.

But where did we get this sense of the perfection of God? How is it that we instinctively attach perfection (and “all things right”) to Him? Then, when we don’t see that perfection, we conclude that a perfect God could not have been involved in such a cruel disaster.

Second, how do we come to this conclusion that the world is “wrong” or “imperfect.” We circle-life-23936511look at all the predation and violence in the world, and abhor it. Yet, that is exactly the standard of the animal world. The animal world survives by predation and violence (that whole circle of life thing!). Why is it right for the animal world, and not right for the human animal world?

The answers lie within the fact that we just cannot escape the God Imprint within us. Even when we are not readily aware of it. God put it there. Not only to give us the framework for how we should live, but also to help us to live within that framework.

So why do we fail to live by these intrinsic standards that God placed within us?

The Bible tells us… It is because sin, and its effects, have distorted our “sight.” Or more accurately, we lose sight of that God Imprint within us. Other things, other pursuits, other objectives become more “real” – and more important to us.

Simply stated: we learn to forget that God made us in His Own Image, stamping His likeness into our DNA. Because we lose sight of what makes us so special (and so important) our sight shifts to our own pursuits, our own desires, our own causes.

In this state, our decisions and our actions no longer reflect the God Imprint – they are the reflection of our own self-centered animal nature. When we lose sight that we are selfish goalsdivinely endowed, we resort back to the one thing that we know best… our own wants, our own pleasures, or whatever we think will make us happy. And we pursue those things with a passion – in spite of how it may impact our own lives… or effect others, around us.

Whenever we lose sight of the God Imprint, we also lose sight of our divine purpose to be God’s representatives on this earth – and people are going to get hurt.

The reason that this world is such a mess (and that we know it is such a mess) is because we were placed in charge, we were given the capacity to live and act just as God does, and we (through sin) forgot WHY we were created in the first place.

The fault for the cruelty of the world, is not God’s – it is our own.

psalm-23-3-4-jesus-god-restores-my-soulBut here is the wonder of God. The whole reason why Jesus came to this earth was to restore every one of us back to God’s purpose for our lives. It wasn’t just to forgive us our sins – it was to bring us back to seeing the God Imprint within us.

But it is even greater still… When we look at the life and ministry of Jesus (in the gospels) we are actually seeing what the God Imprint looks like. Jesus came as the Model of everything God intended for every person born on this earth. That we could actually form and shape this world, after God’s Image… by BEing His Image, everywhere we go.

Prayer focus: God, open my eyes to see the wonder of all you have made me to be.

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