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Last year, during this time, I wrote a post entitled “The Problems with Running to Religion.” The funny thing is, a little over a year later, I am still grappling with the same concept. What does it mean to follow Jesus over religion?
In Michelle Martin’s beautiful song, “Religion,” she pens these words: “You’re in a box. You’re on a shelf. I’ve made for you. Try to contain. Try to restrain the way you move. Trapped inside all the stories of old. You’re so much more than what I’ve been told. You’re not here in a box up on a shelf I’ve made for you.”
I don’t think I have ever felt more convicted and connected to a song. Maybe you can relate?
What Religion Over Jesus Disguises Itself As
The deceitfully sneaky thing about religion is that it disguises itself as Jesus and does so gracefully. Even more so than that, it looks appealing, and it feels good.
It feels good to check Bible readings off a list, serve the poor, get involved with a small group, dance for Jesus, and go to Church every Sunday. And it is good to do all of those things. There is nothing wrong with reading your Bible, fellowshipping with other Believers, going to Church, and using your talents for the Lord. In fact, you should do those things. But there is a problem when you care more about maintaining the religion behind your actions than serving the God who fulfilled them all.
And more times than not, I am really good at reading my Bible for an hour a day but really bad at helping those in need who interrupt me when I might be reading. Because I can check off my reading on a list or click confirm on a Youversion plan faster than you can drive a car, but did I really read it? Did I take the time to soak in His Word, rest in His presence, and listen for His voice, or did I want the satisfaction of a mark on a page or a notification that says I have read my Bible 365 days in a row?
I am diligent at going to Church on Sunday and helping lead a worship team, but I often catch myself going through the motions. I find myself caring more about my voice hitting the right notes than my heart meaning the words I sing. I fall into jealousy and comparison when I should be investing in the moment.
Nine times out of ten, I have a plan I try to stick to, but eight times out of ten, those plans fall through, and I stress in a scramble to make sense of it all. It is apparent to me, that I still struggle with control issues, and I even try to control, manipulate, or bargain with God. But that is the disguise of religion.
A disguise the Pharisees and Sadducees knew well.
The Trap of the Law
In Matthew 23:2-26 of the Contemporary English Version, the Pharisees are defined as well-known legal experts.
Matthew 23:2-8, Contemporary English Version highlights: “The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. So obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else. They pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help. Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. They even make a big show of wearing Scripture verses on their foreheads and arms, and they wear big tassels for everyone to see. They love the best seats at banquets and the front seats in the synagogues. And when they are in the market, they like to have people greet them as their teachers. But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters” (Matthew 23:2-8, Contemporary English Version).
And as much as I would like to think I am not like them, I am often like them when I should be like Jesus.
For when Jesus gave the Law, of course, He wanted people to obey, but more than that, He wanted them to realize their need for Him. We cannot work or earn our way to Heaven or gain salvation. It is by grace through faith we are saved (Ephesians 2:8-9). And while works are important, they are not what save us; they are what illustrates the work of God in us.
The Freedom of Christ
At the end of the day, the one thing religion doesn’t tell you is the sweet, sweet freedom Jesus brings.
When Jesus says, “I did not come to abolish the Law” in Matthew 5:17, He said that because He was the fulfillment. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17, New International Version). The Law was important, but it was not everything. The same applies to our spiritual disciplines.
Because reading the Word of God is crucial, but it is not everything.
And going to Church is needed for fellowship, but it is not everything.
Even serving with an open heart is what Christ commands, but it is not everything.
All of these things make up parts of what it means to be a Christian, but without Christ, they are worthless. All of these things are good, but they are not everything. Only Jesus Christ alone and a relationship with Him are everything. And why?
In John 14:6, Jesus tells us He is the way, the truth, and the life. “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, New International Version). In John 10:10, we see that Jesus came to bring life, and it is Satan who seeks to destroy it. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10, New International Version). Romans 8:1-2 of the King James Version perhaps pen it best when Paul noted these words: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2, King James Version).
Over hundreds of times in Scripture, it is clear that Jesus brings freedom. That number is significantly smaller than all the Scriptures of the Old Testament that reference freedom from obedience to the Law.
Today, you and I do not live in the age of the Old Testament but in the New. And while the Old Testament is still important for us to understand, and there are commands we are called to obey, the New reminds us of a fresh way to live. Because Jesus, our fulfillment for all of those laws has come, lived the perfect life we could never live, died the death we should have died, and rose again, we too can someday live again in eternal freedom with Him. And that freedom is possible to experience now.
I don’t know about you, but I sure am sick of this tired old religion. Of lists, rules, regulations, and lies telling me how to live my life and haunting me from the inside out. And as a twenty-something woman, I certainly don’t have it all figured out. I am still learning how to trade religion for Jesus every day in small ways. But this I know is true: He brings freedom religion never will, and that is a trade I am willing to invest in even if it takes me the rest of my life to get to that destination.
When we are in Christ Jesus, nothing can separate us from His love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. And though we might struggle with sin, even sins of clinging to religion when we should be running to Jesus, He embraces us with open arms to set us free.
“For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14, New International Version).
As Martin’s song closes, let this be our prayer, “Jesus, revive me once again. Jesus, remind me what it means to be your friend. I’m so sick of this tired old religion. Holy Ghost, come light the fire again.” Amen.