Friday, 7 April 2017

The dangers of religion

Bill Johnson in his book "Face to face with God" has an interesting definition of religion. He defines it as "form without power". This ties in with St. Paul's words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:1-5

"But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people." 

Looking at forms of liturgy, liturgical dress, processions, incense, icons etc, this is not a criticism of them per se (you could equally talk about worship bands, waving hands or churches that avoid using names that have any 'religious' connotations to them), but a criticism of the kind of religiosity that says that these ALONE are what the Christian faith are about.

Jesus makes this point over and over again, as does the rest of the New Testament. Take, for an example, the story of the Good Samaritan, which was in the news recently as it was read by a member of the Royal Family in Westminster Abbey at a memorial service for the victims of the recent attack on Westminster Bridge. In the story, Jesus paints a painful contrast between religiously correct Jews - the priest and Levite - and the religiously, theologically incorrect and heretical Samaritan who stopped to help the injured man when everyone else passed by.

Of course, the inference of this is not that all outward forms of faith expression are bad, but if they become a substitution for the 'real thing' without any real spiritual life within and alongside them, then this is where Bill Johnson's definition (and St. Paul's) hits home. And we can all point to stretches of time when the church has fallen into to woeful habit of getting its services right, arguing over fine points of practice and correct use of words and liturgical niceties, while at the same time failing to pray with purpose, reach out in mission and live out in loving service to others. And this becomes particularly pronounced as the church fights for survival in an aggressively secular age where it has, frankly, forgot its way, its true identity and what it is here for.

Not only that but personally, when times have been tough, and I have hit a brick wall in preaching etc, or have been under spiritual attack, it has been all too easy to retreat into the safe confines of going through the religious motions, maintaining the status quo and just surviving. Doing church is so much easier, hassle free and causes the least amount of problems, personal or otherwise, when you do things by the book (the 'church' book, not THE book). But it then results in spiritual; dryness and a feeling of guilt and loss which is only assuaged when the Spirit moves and life returns, for a time, back to "normality" The kind of normality where God's presence is real, prayer is powerful and the Spirit of God is active in your life and the life of the Church.

Of course, when things are going as they should and God is at work, the enemy pops up and says that this is not supposed to happen all the time and I should not to expect it to. So the foot is taken off the gas, the vehicle slows down and the ensuing lull becomes a concern leading to panic and a return to the religious default position of maintaining services again in order to feel as if you are doing something right. In other words, religion.

So what is the key to circumventing all this? Prayer. Constant, regular, persistent, wrestling (at times) prayer. Seeking God's face, and His presence, at all times and at every opportunity. It is only our constant relationship with Him that prevents and protects us from falling into mere 'religion' again. And that is true of every church and not just the ones where folk dress up and process. Religion is a danger across the board. We must, says Jesus, "watch and pray".

So next time you struggle, don't go to the forms but to the Father. And remember, forms may help in your relationship with God but they must never become a substitute for it.

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