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When I was a junior in college, I led a small group entitled “Jesus is Greater than Religion” by Jefferson Bethke. While the title alone grew a crowd and some questions, perhaps I was one of the people most changed and challenged by the study.
As a Christian, I got saved when I was eight years old. I do not remember my life before Christ. My testimony was not like those transformed from porn stars to evangelists, but it was a day that I will never forget.
From that day on, I dedicated my life to Jesus, but I did not start to understand what that meant until I separated Jesus from religion. I did not comprehend that Jesus came not to abolish the Law but fulfill it. I was so busy checking off Bible readings, events hosted, and the number of hours spent in Church that I forgot all about Jesus.
In Amos chapter 5, Israel possessed a similar state.
As God’s chosen people, the Israelites had fallen from the Lord. They were all show and had no substance. And although God told them to “seek the Lord and live,” they turned to idols and their way. They sought other gods and nations, abused the poor, and desired evil. God called them to repent and receive salvation. But they felt no need to repent because they believed their religious events and acts were enough. Yet, their hearts were far from Him.
I have been in that place, too. A place where I have felt no need to repent because I thought religion would save me. A place where I believed the Law would rescue me. That good deeds were enough. I was a good Christian who did Godly things, but was it for God or myself? Was I seeking His way or my own?
Seek Me and Live
When God told Israel to “seek me and live,” He saw Israel’s meaningless meanderings of religious duties, but their hearts were far from Him.
In this day and age, we cannot say we love God and hate our brothers and sisters in Christ.
We cannot claim to be in a relationship with Jesus and harm the poor.
We must not care about religious acts so much that we care for them more than the Holy One.
We must not forsake Jesus in exchange for religion.
And if you do not believe me, take a lesson from the Israelites in Amos chapter 5:21-27:
“I hate all your show and pretense—The hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings. Away with your noisy hymns of praise! I will not listen to the music of your harps. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living. “Was it to me you were bringing sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, Israel? No, you served your pagan gods—Sakkuth your king god and Kaiwan your star god—the images you made for yourselves. So I will send you into exile, to a land east of Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of Heaven’s Armies” (Matthew 5:21-27, NLT).
God not did hate and despise Israel’s religious feasts and assemblies because those were bad ways to honor the Lord. God despised what Israel was doing in an attempt to replace their relationship with Him for religious duties.
Over 2,000 years ago and still today, God just wants us to be real with Him. He is not as much preoccupied with our checkboxes, Bible reading plans, and events served as He is our hearts. And while all of those things are good things Christians should partake in, they should never replace the one of whom they sing.
When I first learned this lesson, I tried it. I put on my pilot pants and geared up for a new way of living. I took a few minutes and got raw with the Lord. Ugly real.
I cried, screamed, punch a punching bag, and jumped up and down. I got mad. I got sad. I got real. I got raw. I asked Him why and shed tears like weight.
But the more I shared my heart instead of attempting to force and cover it with religion, the more I unraveled. And the more I unraveled, the greater I cared about Jesus and the less I gave a hoot about my religious extracurriculars and tallies. It has never felt freer.
Jesus is Greater than Religion
While there are many days I still face this giant, I have learned that Jesus cares more about my relationship with Him than how things appear on the outside. I now know that He would rather have me whole-heartedly tell Him how I am feeling, than act like I have it all together. Jesus would like me to read my Bible because I have a heart searching for Him, and not a heart eager to check off a list.
Jesus never asked me to set such harsh standards on myself. That is what the Pharisees and religious Saudecees did, and it got them nowhere. God did not ask me to have it all together, force myself to be productive 24/7, read my Bible for hours when I am exhausted, never take a sick day from work, or seek peace in places other than Himself that I tried to create.
Jesus asked me to rest in Him.
To come to Him.
To give Him my anxious, weary, and vulnerable heart.
Jesus without Religion
Clinging to Jesus and not religion is scary. It means abandoning all control and relying on someone beyond yourself. It means realizing that no matter how many good deeds and religious duties you fulfill, you still need Jesus.
Because every single day, no matter what we do, or how we act we need Jesus. We need to say, “Lord, here I am. I am the burnt offering. I am the sacrifice. Not my religious acts and deeds.” And while good deeds are an important part of the Christian walk, they are not the most important thing.
Often, I feel broken, weary, and tired. I am still learning to trade in religion for Jesus. But God’s Word reminds me to seek the Lord above all else and live.
Won’t you pray with me?
Dear Lord, we long to live in the fullness of your presence yet again. Please forgive us when we have been like Israel and made religion our idol. Forgive us when we have worshipped other gods and followed our ways instead of yours. Pardon us when we have cared more about religion than our relationship with you. Rescue us from our sin and help us to continue to lay our raw heart before you. In Jesus Name, Amen.
Condemnation or Freedom
Let it be known that religion condemns and brings death, but relationship brings life, and that is the life Christ calls each of us to walk in Him. Only God can enable us to live out our relationship with Him above all and live in a way that reflects His glory and grace. Only He can forgive us of our sins and set us on a new path.
God is all about re-shaping plans and breaking customs. He is all about letting the Holy Spirit move.
It does not matter if the reading plan has four readings for today and you only got through two. It matters the condition of your heart, creating space for Him, and obeying when He moves. Condemnation or freedom, my friends? The choice is yours. It always has been, and it always will be.
“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1, New American Standard Bible).