I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was driving home after a particularly boring three-hour contract meeting. It was a late September afternoon and the traffic on the by-pass was still light. The sky was a beautiful cerulean blue, absolutely void of any clouds. All was deceptively well with the world. Out of habit, I reached for the ON button to the radio. I like listening to talk radio while driving. The prattle of an interview was in progress, as I glanced at the dashboard clock. It was flashing 3:42 pm. The car was warm but not hot – comfortable -without the air conditioning blowing in my face. It was one of those rare pleasant homeward bound drives at the end of the workday. Just this once, I just might make it home without my back and neck in a knot from tension. I decided today was not a day for fighting traffic, if the guy on my left wants to dive in front of me, they are welcome to do so.
As I began to pay attention to the radio… the familiar interviewer was speaking with yet another authority on God. At least that’s what they were vaunting. In reality, it was actually about religion – not God. The author informed us that at one point in her life she was a nun. Her reasons for leaving that vocation, as with anyone leaving their life’s work, varied.
However, there were two reasons she quoted as being the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, which affected me. The more I thought about them, the more they bothered me.
First, as a nun, she declared she had to pray each morning for an hour. During these prayers, she discovered that keeping one’s mind on the object at hand was a daunting task. No matter how hard she fought, she just couldn’t keep her mind from wandering during her prayers. She took that as a sign that she was not qualified to be a nun.
Secondly, she claimed that she always had the thought that God was this ethereal Person, who would, as she prayed, somehow (more my words than hers) magical join her in some relationship manner. She finally realized this was not happening.
Extremely disappointed, she realized it would never happen, and quit the profession. She also gave up her belief in a personal God, and turned to the study of religion as her god.
So what? Why pick on this person? I assure you I don’t want to appear as picking on anyone, but she does loom as a perfect example of those who have a common error about God.
Let me say, I believe she has a right to choose whatever religion she wants to choose, and she can believe however, she wants to believe. That’s not what bothered me, and yes, the interview did bother me.
Personally, I have found that unless one is in a real life-or-death situation, it’s difficult for most of us to pray for an hour, without having to drag our mind back into the effort every five (maybe two) minutes or so. I can’t do it. There are too many distractions in my life. All kinds of things creep into my thoughts in that length of time, regardless of what time of the day it is. If it’s late, I might fall asleep. That still was not my problem with all of this. I’ll get to the point in a moment – I promise.
My second dilemma with this entire interview was the continuous reference to religion as God. I mean there was no separation – no distinction between the two. To these two entities, religion and God were one in the same. At one point, the interviewer asked the former nun how she reconciled her wonderful devotion to the study of religion to Dawkin’s scientific refute of God. They captured me with that comment. I must confess, I’ve never heard of Dawkin’s book where he supposedly proves through science, God does not exist.
Again, I am of the opinion that Mr. Dawkins may believe whatever he so desires, and I’m not going to argue with him. There is no end of books claiming they can disprove God. The problem is they all seem to be arguing against religion and not God. Some are quite mean spirited and others are simply the rants of an agnostic who is trying to put forth his/her gospel of enlightenment i.e. their own religion.
Again, the theme I see, when I do read one of these books, – and I admit that is a rarity – is syncretism, which is the various beliefs and practices of one’s deity. One man wrote an entire book on how religion poisons everything, which only spawned a plethora of books of how wonderful religion truly is. My question is where is God in all this religious battle?
The author of this interview was of the opinion that all deities were the same. It made no difference if your deity was Buddha, Brahman, or Jah, – it was the fact that one believed and practiced a religion. The practice of a religion is what is important to a human’s spirit and soul, she proposed. I believe her views echoes the sentiments of far too many people in the world today, who claim Christianity.
Now, I don’t know if you have caught on yet, but the entire conversation centered on the fact that religion and God are one in the same. I am finding that the world has somehow confused or merged God and religion as being the same thing. I’m here to take a theological stand that this concept is a corruption, and the notion that religion poisons everything might not be so extreme after all.
IS RELIGION GOD?
Religion (Grk. threskeia) is positively not God – not Divine, but merely the beliefs and practices that a person uses to worship the object of their choosing. Religion consists of all manner of ceremonies, and if so desired, certain disciplines.
It is from religion that we get this multiplicity of denominations, sects, cults, and fanatical schisms. Religion is actually, what was shoved down so many people’s throat as a child, which they now see as God being the evil in the world. Yes, you heard me correctly. In most cases, those of us who have had this experience of a childhood of forced religion, was not God, but someone’s creed concerning God. Many people see God as being the evil in this world, but they confuse God with religion. Thus, we have books declaring religion is poisoning of the world.
Am I saying religion is wrong? Of course not, but what I am saying it’s like a gun. It can be a dangerous weapon in the hands of the unskilled. God is not our enemy. The Bible is not our enemy, nor is the Bible a religion. The enemy are those who teach dreadful theology about God, who create their own religions, and then demand other people to follow their perception, and distortion of what they think is their foundation, God.
Again I repeat, religion, that is of God (and not god) is a good thing. I consider myself religious, but I can tell you with authority, that my religion is not my denomination, or group that I’m a member of in my community. My foundational religion is a spiritual relationship with the Deity that I worship, who in this case happens to be Yahweh, in the person of Jesus the Christ. That was a personal choice offered to me and I accepted the offer. Obviously, someone at some time explained the fact that He was offering this relationship and that is how I learned of Him. However, I can say without reservation, never was I coerced into accepting my conviction in His existence.
Listen carefully, – how I choose to act upon that relationship is my religion. If I do nothing with that religion, it does not diminish God in any manner. He is still God. In fact, my worship of Him does nothing to enhance Him – with one caveat – He does take pleasure in our relationship with Him. Other than that, He can do just fine without me.
The world has conjured up a theory that God is some pathetic, needy old Geezer, who sits in heaven and begs for our love, worship, and attention. Without our accolades, He would simply turn to dust. He is a sad, forlorn, and empty Being in the Universe. Forget it! Our worship of Him is something that He loves, but doesn’t need. His love for us is not contingent on – neither does His love increase or decrease – according to our feelings for Him. Someone writing a book that He cannot possibly exist does not affect His self-esteem. He is not some glorified human affected by self-emotions.
RELIGION AND THE OLD TESTAMENT
Does Holy Scripture teach religion? Yes, it does, but we have so distorted it, one can hardly identify it as being biblical anymore.
As stated, religion is the beliefs and practices of a form of homage to whatever we are worshipping. In the Old Testament, God originally set up religion with a band of Hebrews He chose to be His special people, because He had a far-reaching plan. They were the race He chose to identify Himself to the world by being their singular Deity. In turn, they were to distinguish themselves as belonging exclusively to Him. He would be more than their God; He would also be their National King instead of some perverted human.
The nation of Israel, as we know them, was originally set up to be a theocracy. The Law, which we commonly refer to as the Ten Commandments, was their Declaration of Dependence. Moses expounded upon that Law, which became their Constitution. At that time, God did indeed set up a form of religion so that the nation would know how to properly treat and entreat Him. It set up a proper establishment of the relationship He desired from His national citizens.
Please understand God did not give the Law to the world, but to a specific Nation. If you were a non-Hebrew and desired to join them, you too were expected to follow the same Law, and honor God as your King, through this same form of worship/religion.
If you read the Pentateuch, you will discover that God was quite specific so that these people would not have to guess at what they should do. They would not have to guess at when, where or how they should worship (practice His religion). Nor did He allow the freedom to choose what forms of worship an individual would use.
During the days of Moses, God spoke directly to him so that if there was any kind of misunderstanding, or deviation from this set form of religion, Moses would correct it immediately. The problem is, Moses couldn’t live forever, and he eventually died. All the nation had left was the written Word, and those who devoted themselves to studying that Word. At first, the men who sat next to Moses did a fantastic job of keeping everything in perfect alignment. However, as is the way of life, they too eventually, died. Then there was a new generation in charge of interpreting – and that is all that existed – an interpretation of what was written.
It is amazing how two people can read the same book and come away with two different reports. I don’t know how that happens, but it does. I have had people ask me about a supposed statement I made during a lecture, and when I reran the tape of that speech, that statement didn’t exist. There was no hint of it, yet that’s what they believed I said. I guess it’s all about human nature.
Therefore, we eventually see the Law of Israel and the religion that God set up splitting into different groups. Different teachers, different interpretations. When did denominations come into being? Way back before the birth of Christ. Anyone who has ever read the Gospels in the New Testament certainly has heard of the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, not to mention the Essenes, and others not so well known. These are simply denominations. My point is that a variety of religious practices is not a Christian phenomenon. Even Islam, which is so much in the news today, has different sects or denominations. These are all religions, because they are only the practice of their belief of what they choose to call their God.
Most who are reading this article, are not Jewish and do not practice the Hebrew Law. Thank God, we live (although some people seem to forget this) in a new time.
RELIGION IN OUR DAY
Theologians call the time you and I are living in as the New Testament era. That is to say, we can declare that we belong to the God of Israel, without being under the Law of Israel, because Christ fulfilled the Law of the Old Testament. So, what does this New Testament say to us concerning religion?
First, I want you to note, that the word religion appears four times in our English Scripture, within the New Testament. However, that does not mean the New Testament only teaches religion in four places. While Christ condemned the religions of His day, because they were poisoning the people who wanted what the woman on the radio interview wanted – a relationship with God – He certainly taught religion. He taught the religion that God actually wants us to practice, instead of what someone thinks we should be practicing. I can wrap it up quite simply by saying that He taught that once a relationship is established with God, through Christ, our religion is to be more spiritual than ritual.
Israel went through many external rituals to demonstrate and teach what God wanted from them internally. While the rituals have changed, the practice of Divine religion has not. Let me show you what Jesus taught. One day He met a woman who did what the world does when we come to God – she wanted to argue about religion – not about God. In all simplicity, she wanted to know why one group believed this way and another believed that way. Each group were ready to kill for their differences of their religion.
In truth, the controlling religion in Israel at that time would indeed kill her for not having the same religion as they. Although they both claimed, they believed in God. Sounds all too familiar. How many have died since this woman because they didn’t have the same religious practice as the present controlling party?
Christ’s answer was perfect. Religion – the practice of worshiping God – has nothing to do with church services, songs, reading until you go blind, or praying for hours on end. (See John 4:21-24.)
Divinely sanctioned religion comes from a person’s spirit not a building or a creed.
My spirit reaches out to the Father, through Christ, and it may say, “Dear Lord, I love You with all my heart.” It may say, “I am in need of a job, Lord. Give me guidance of where to look. Let me find favor in the sight of this interviewer.” On the other hand, our spirit may cry out “Forgive me. I am greedy and desire money, and lots of it. I want to win the Lotto, with all my heart!” Our spirit may cry out, “I saw this person and I would like to sleep with him or her.”
“Oh, my goodness,” the religious person would say. “I could never say such a thing.” Then your religion is not the religion that God accepts. Let me give you what Jesus said so you know I’m not peddling my own religion. Religion is… the practice of worship. Godly worship, according to Christ, comes from the spirit, and is based in truth. In case you missed the point, He mentions it twice. If you cannot tell your God that your heart desires money, and a ton of it, then your religion is false. Spirit and truth comprises the foundation of the religion that God sanctions. All the rest are, indeed, false.
If we hate someone because of the color of his or her skin, or his or her nationality, and we cannot stand face-to-face with God and tell Him we hate them, our religion is false. Be sure to understand, I’m not talking about standing before a group of people who are of like mind as us, and shouting it out, but I am talking about standing before God.
One might say, “I don’t know how to stand before God. I can’t see Him.” Sure, you can. Anyone who truly wants to see God can see Him. We see Him through the eyes of our spirit. We see Him in the faces of others. We can see Him by looking at the Universe. He is everywhere; we just need to open our spiritual eyes. See, that’s the truth Christ, was talking about. God honors that religion. That religion has nothing to do with condemning to hell a homosexual, or someone who gives abortions, even someone who has lied to us. When we have no sin in our own life, then – and only then, – can we judge/condemn someone else. Those who claim to be Christian are not here to revile, but to show the world we are of Christ by our love.
There are two kinds of judging in the New Testament. One has to do with judging if something is right or wrong. If we judge it as wrong, then we shouldn’t do it. If we judge it as right, then we can help ourselves (within reason). This kind of judgment is the right kind of judgment. The other judgment has to do with condemnation. That is the accusing kind. That is the shouting down someone for not being like us. That kind is strictly forbidden. Judgment belongs to God alone. Therefore, what we are supposed to do is pray for them. Christ set the foundation for our twenty-first century religion. New Testament scriptures build on that foundation. Our religion is not to be the end-all i.e. our God.
If our religion no longer has us burning bulls on an altar, and if we are not commanded to pray for one hour every morning (but at all times) then, what is the religion God desires from us according to the New Testament? The summation of religion is so easy, – it is right in our hearts – yet we constantly miss it. There are two parts to Divinely sanctioned religion. Are you ready? Here it is, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Ja 1:26-27 ~ NASB). Christ set the foundation, on which we are to build.
First, he says, we need to watch our mouth. Whatever is coming out of our mouth is revealing the truth of our heart. It makes no difference if we are shouting this through a bullhorn on a street corner, or yelling at a co-worker, or screaming at our family; our heart is the true revelation of our spirit. We tell the world and God the truth of whom we are by what is coming out of our mouth. That is why we will be judged on the words we say one day. Secondly, he says we need to practice what we preach. If we say, we love God then we must act like Him, and have compassion on those who are less fortunate than we are. We can’t just say we love, – no one can hear us over our actions. This is the proper religion God desires from us and will accept. That’s it.
Christians if we would stop fighting the world, and simply hold true to the God that we claim our basic beliefs on, we would convert the world. We will continue this in part two by discussing who is the God we claim to follow and love.
I am Grayeagle, a retired pastor, but still an active theologian. I graduated from Liberty, Trinity, and Andersonville with my doctorate in theology in 1986. I presently work in the home office of a national retail chain corporation. My book on angels can be obtained by contacting me at [email protected]
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