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Reflections from Faith and History Religion or Relationship?

By Jeff Olson

A question of utmost importance facing mankind for centuries has been: Do you have a religion or a relationship where God is concerned? Maybe neither, and if so then perhaps it is in order to reconsider and take a closer look. This is a very important distinction – actually an eternally important distinction and making it within the context of the Christian faith is indispensable and living it is non elective. Here, I hope to spur some thought, personal reflection and hopefully some resolve.

For years, the word religion, from both a legal and a cultural aspect, has been trending more and more as a repository for a multitude of belief systems. To my knowledge, the word religion and the concept thereof is not found in the original languages of the Scriptures. Its formation and use didn’t come about until the sixteenth century to distinguish the domain of the church from that of civil authorities. Historically in America, the word religion was synonymous with Christianity. The two words were interchangeable. In those days when a person was thought to be religious, it was understood what that meant. In our day and time it’s often difficult to distinguish between religion, faith and ideology.

The commonality between religion and Christianity can no longer be assumed, which I personally believe is not necessarily a negative thing. Religion, even at its very best, is still a man-made institution. Even some dictionaries indicate this when their definitions of religion involve the words, quest and/or pursuit. This strikes at the heart of true religion which, in essence, is man’s attempt or quest to reach GOD, an attempt which most often succeeds only in fabricating a god of our own making. French author and philosopher Voltaire once said that, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary for us to invent Him.” Well, He does exist but we are nevertheless still trying to invent Him – or I should say reinvent him in our own image. This process knows no limits through both the creation of new systems of faith and the corruption of existing faiths. Why is this?

At the dawn of any civilization, people unite in search of communion with a higher power. Man is created in the image of God and as such he has within an inherent capacity and compulsion to search for that power. This can be expressed in terms of a God-shaped void. Man by nature is designed to worship and is therefore driven to search, to quest for what will fill that void, and in doing so he too often finds a substitute which doesn’t fit. Our unsuccessful religious efforts in this journey breed discontentment and frustration accompanied by more searching and substituting, with the turning over of new leaf after new leaf, making resolution after resolution, and all at times with good intentions. Some of us will finally come to the end of ourselves, end up flat on our backs with nowhere to look but up, and eventually turn it over to God. However, some of us, even after coming to the end of ourselves, stubbornly continue to choose a life with self as god and church (if at all in the picture) as a social club trying in vain to fulfill our own sense of duty and self-worth.

Are we to assume then that all faiths are, by definition, religions? No, we should not. As we study the Bible in it’s entirety and context throughout, we discover that man didn’t have to go looking for God. God came to man, through faithful servants, leaders and prophets, and ultimately incarnate in Jesus Christ. Why did God plan it this way? He knew that through humanity’s fallen (sin) nature, men and women would seek their own religions with their own gods on their own terms to satisfy their own desires. Give me god we say, but I want Him on my terms, not His. It doesn’t work that way. God has layed out his avenue, principles and plan and He came to us offering it as a free gift (Romans 6:23); a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This relationship serves as the source of a Holy Spirit-led life where the character and disposition of Christ can live and be expressed through each of us. In the religious life, self-fulfillment, self-esteem, social significance, personal holiness, accomplishment and just doing good are of the utmost. Here, we try to be godly rather than converting to a holy nature, a Godly life. Self-realization trumps Christ-centeredness. We desire to do extraordinary things for God rather than be extraordinary in the ordinary things of life. Even well-meaning folks who are members of a church will sometimes commit to the things of God more than to God himself. The impartation and receiving of the holy qualities of Jesus Christ, not imitating Jesus, is the key to a Christian life (Galatians 5:22-23). In religious life we are like the Dead Sea; always taking but never giving out, manifesting ourselves above God (James 1:26, 1 Corinthians 13:1). In relationship with Christ, as we receive from Him, He pours out to others through us. Jesus says “come unto me” (Matthew 11:28) before he ever says to come follow Him.

While it is true that those who have applied the moral tenets of their faith from a strictly pragmatic and/or practical motive have contributed to a better society, this approach was too often more the exception than the rule when it came to sustaining society’s social fabric and an enduring moral order. Succumbing to the human temptation of providing a superficial brand of social significance and respectability and an authoritative embellishment of personal motives would prove to be too much to overcome. Religion’s futility has also proven itself within the Church where it is most destructive and its effects so strong, detrimental and encompassing. American Founding Father James Madison commented that even “religion itself may become a motive to persecution and oppression” as human sin and pride can find expression in doctrinal and spiritual forms. 

God has given us the option of relationship over religion, and it’s a choice each of us has to make. Remember, religion has been and still is at the core of most of the world’s current crises and it was the primary expedient of Jesus’ road to Calvary. This is a vital point for us of the Church because the tendency for self-proclaiming Christians to portray religiosity over relationship is rampant today, contributing more to the problems than the solutions of our marriages, homes and society. Author Max Lucado put it this way. “Give a man religion without reminding him of his filth[sin], and the result will be arrogance in a three-piece suit.”

So, the next time that we dress up in our “Sunday go to meetins’,” perhaps we should take stock and make a conscious decision on whether we will choose to be religious or to begin or strengthen a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Only through Him and His love and power can Christians and the Church become real again and boldly engage and impact a culture which we have for much too long blended into.

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