Religion versus Jesus

Is it possible to hate religion but love Jesus?

That’s the theme of a popular video that’s gone viral over the past week or so.

As I wrote Friday, sometimes it reflects disdain for the church, which is unhealthy and wrong.

But on the other hand, I think they’ve got a message we need to hear. They’re critiquing something that’s very real in some of our churches.

The problem is . . . it’s possible to be religious but not a Christian. Wear the right name, sit in the right pew, sing the right songs. Get baptized in the right baptistery.

But all of that can be empty, lifeless, superficial.

We might have religion without relationship. We can go to church and not know Christ.

That should scare us, because it’s particularly tempting to those of us who are serious about faith.

Satan loves nothing more than collapsing our faith into the outward exercise of religion. He likes it when people substitute skin-deep ritual for soulful spirituality.

Religion doesn’t scare him, but a relationship does.

That’s why he absolutely loved the Pharisees. He had them exactly where he wanted them—all covered up in religion and law and rituals.

But they didn’t know God, who had gotten lost in all of the religious trappings.

And it’s still happening.

If you find yourself being more dedicated to religious exercises than to loving Christ and the people He created, your religion might’ve gotten in the way of Jesus.

Should we hate religion? Only if by “religion” we mean the religious baggage that obscures the Lord.

But when we truly love Jesus, we’ll love His people, we’ll want to worship and obey Him, and we’ll want to be a part of His church.

Whatever we do religiously must be motivated by our love for the One who died to save us. Otherwise, it becomes nothing more than a kind of dead religion that never saves anyone.

Why I hate religion but love Jesus

“Why I hate religion but love Jesus.”

That’s the title of a short video that’s gone viral over the past week. It’s pretty hip, catchy, slick.

It’s not new, though. Not really. “I want the man but not the plan” is how they worded it a few years back.

And honestly, I have mixed feelings about what these folks are saying.

Some people reject organized religion out of selfishness or arrogance. They don’t like being a part of any kind of group that might restrict their freedom to do what they want. They don’t want anything to do with the trappings of religion, like public worship, joining a local church, or being accountable to church leadership.

If that’s what they’re rejecting, they need to know that Jesus created the church as a community where believers can grow and worship together and encourage one another. It’s a group of Christians who try to follow God’s plan for leadership, worship, outreach, loving the lost, and serving the community.

And yes, sometimes the church is a place where believers who are caught up in sin can be confronted lovingly by fellow believers (cf. Galatians 6:1).

Is that the kind of religion some people hate?

If so, they’re missing out on a big part of discipleship.

This is how Jesus felt about the church:

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

Paul wrote “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2).

The church matters to God.

He loves it. He died for it.

I can’t accept Jesus and at the same time reject the body of believers to which He adds me when I’m saved. Jesusis the church; it’s His body.

So if that’s what folks mean when they say they hate religion but love Jesus, they’re missing the point.

But perhaps that’s not exactly what they mean. Maybe they’re defining “religion” differently . . . in a way that might have something important to say to us in today’s church.

We’ll consider that in our next devotional.

Are we there yet?

Anyone who’s traveled with kids knows well the questions they ask.

“Are we there yet?”

“How much longer?”

“Are we almost there?”

“I really don’t think I can wait that long.”

It’s not terribly fun on a ten-hour-drive, but in that anticipation is a hint of something within us all.

The New Testament has what scholars call aneschatological outlook, which is a fancy way of saying its writers constantly look ahead to the Lord’s final return.

That’s one of the things we think about when we fast. The bridegroom has been taken from us, and we can’t wait for Him to come back (Matthew 9:15).

But it’s not just when we fast. There’s a constant sense of awareness that this world isn’t really where we belong. We’re here for now, but we’re just passing through. We feel an allegiance to another kingdom, one we can’t wait to see.

That’s what Peter’s referring to in this passage:

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:11-13).

Waiting for and hastening the Lord’s coming, Peter writes.

Sometimes we get tired of the journey and frustrated with all of its obstacles.

Sickness, discouragement, sin, disappointment. These things hurt, but at the same time they remind us that we’re headed home, even though the trip feels like it’s taking way too long.

The old spiritual says it well:

This world is not my home, I’m just a’ passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door,
and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

One time John heard the saints crying out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long . . . ?” (Revelation 6:10).

Maybe you and I aren’t too different from our kids in the back seat.

Are we almost there, Lord?

Thoughts on how to fast

Many Christians want to fast, but don’t know how.

We probably don’t need to complicate it too much. The only wrong way to fast is to have impure motives, something Jesus warns us about in Matthew 6. If you’re doing it to impress people or to earn credit with God, you might as well not do it.

Fast with one goal in mind: to engage in self-denial as an act of devotion to God so that you might hear His voice more clearly.

If you’re serious about the spiritual disciplines, including fasting, you should read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, an excellent study on how to grow in your relationship with God. In his chapter on fasting, he suggests these steps, which I have found helpful.

Begin with a partial fast of 24 hours. For example, after you eat lunch one day, do not eat until lunch the following day. Drink water or fruit juice, but eat nothing.

After you’ve tried this once a week for several weeks, fast for the same period of time, but drink only water.

Then after you’ve done this successfully several times, move on to a 36-hour fast. After your evening meal, do not eat at all the next day, then break your fast the following morning. You will have skipped three meals.

Foster then writes that we should “seek the Lord” to see if He wants us to go on a longer fast. If so, we can fast for three to seven days, or even longer.

It’s important to remember why you’re fasting. Let your hunger pangs remind you to draw closer to God. If your work/family schedule allows it, read your Bible, pray, and meditate during the times you would normally eat.

A friend of mine goes on a 12-hour fast every Monday (from breakfast to dinner), and during his lunch hour he goes to a local chapel and reads the Bible and prays.

Family obligations might make it impossible for you to have a devotional during mealtime (kids still want to be fed!). Perhaps your spouse can offer extra help during your day of fasting, and then you can do the same for him or her another day. But focusing on God doesn’t always require being alone. Let your fasting remind you throughout the day of your devotion to God, even when you’re busy serving your family or engaging in responsibilities at work. Ask God to use the discipline to draw you close to Him.

Fasting may not go well the first time, or even the second or third time. In many ways, it’s like physical exercise. You’ll become better at it as you work at it, and as God works on you.

Commit to it, and don’t quit. God’s people have used fasting as a discipline to draw closer to Him for thousands of years, and He’ll use it to shape your heart for Him.

Why don’t we fast?

Should you fast?

If you’re a Christian who doesn’t have a health problem that prevents it, you should.

The Scriptures are clear.

In Matthew 9:14-15 Jesus says that His disciples would fast when He was taken from them, and we live in that time now—the time between when He left and when He returns.

We don’t fast for one of three reasons:

1. We like to eat too much.
2. We associate it with some kind of mystical self-flagellation of the Middle Ages.
3. We didn’t really know the Scriptures taught it.

The first excuse is only more evidence why we should, and the second is an abuse of a good thing that has nothing to do with our properly practicing it. The third shouldn’t prevent our obedience once we’ve learned better.

In the middle of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses three discipleship practices: giving, praying, and fasting. Notice how He begins His discussion of each one:

“Thus, when you give to the needy, . . . “ (Matthew 6:2).

“And when you pray, . . .” (Matthew 6:5).

“And when you fast, . . .” (Matthew 6:16).

You’ve probably heard many sermons on giving and praying, but not many—if any—on fasting.

Yet Jesus implies that it’s one of the things disciples do—they fast. He doesn’t even argue for its importance; He assumes His hearers already understood that.

Besides the fact that Jesus expects it, here’s what it’ll do for you:

It will bring you closer to God.

When fasting is mentioned in Scripture, it’s often associated with worship:

Luke wrote that the prophetess Anna “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37). When the church was preparing for the first missionary journey, “they were worshiping the Lord and fasting” (Acts 13:2), and this is when the Holy Spirit led them to send Paul and Barnabas to take the gospel to the world.

We’ve got to be careful.

We live in an indulgent society. Have you seen the soft drink commercial with “And” as its theme?

The commercial’s character always wants more. . . . if you’re going to offer me something, there’d better be something more. And . . . is that all you’ve got? And . . . what else can you do for me? And. And. And.

Sometimes we need to step away from all the excess of our society.

Too many gadgets. Too much stuff. Too many distractions. Too much food.

Too much And.

We can open up a clearer line of communication with God by engaging in self-denial.

We can fast so that our attention may be more intently focused God-ward, which is something we all desperately need.

Tomorrow we’ll discuss more about how.

Fasting? Who, me?

For many of us fasting means that interminable span of time from the end of breakfast to the beginning of lunch, that horrible stretch of 3 or more hours in which we eat nothing, or at least nothing more than a snack or two. It would be unthinkable for us to refrain from eating for any longer than a few hours, at least by choice, right?

That’s the mind-set of many of us who live in a culture with a restaurant on every corner and tasty snacks in every breakroom and convenience store.

Unless you’re allergic to food, why avoid it?

If you don’t need to lose weight, why would anyone ever skip a meal?

There might be some good reasons.

In fact, there might be some reasons that will lead you actually to do it.

Jesus, for example, seems keenly interested in your diet.

Not so much in your carbs or cholesterol or trans-fats.

He seems to be more concerned with your taking time to eat nothing at all.

Here’s one thing He said about it:

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast (Matthew 9:14-15).

His point is simple: His disciples would fast when He’s taken away from them.

And you’ve probably noticed that Jesus has been taken away from us.

The conclusion is unavoidable.

Shouldn’t we be fasting?

Have you?

Have you considered it?

We don’t talk about it much, and we preachers don’t address it often.

Is it because we don’t like the thought of denying ourselves something we love? Could it be that we’re too committed to satisfying our appetites?

In a culture that worships at the steps of the Golden Arches and swarms the local all-you-can-eat-buffets, we Christians might’ve been influenced more than we’d like to admit.

We’ll think more about it this week, but for today, just ask God to open your heart about fasting. Ask Him if this is something you’ve neglected, and ask Him to help you see why you’ve neglected it.

Parties for prostitutes

Tony Campolo tells a story about something that happened when he was in Hawaii for a speaking appointment. Late one night he couldn’t sleep, so he went to a local diner at 3:00 in the morning.

While there, a big group of loud, rambunctious prostitutes came in. He overhead one girl telling another that her birthday was the next day. “What do you want us to do—throw you a party?” said the other girl, mocking her.

Campolo started thinking, and after the girls left the diner he told the owner he had an idea. The next night, before the girls came to the diner, he and the owner decorated the place, baked a cake, and waited for the girls.

They brought the cake out and shouted “Surprise!”, then sang “Happy Birthday” to the girl.

She was completely blown away, then started to cry. She said she’d never had a birthday party in her whole life.

They told her to make a wish and blow out the candles and cut the cake.

She asked if it would be okay if she didn’t cut it. Can I just keep it whole like it is a little longer? Sure, the owner said, it’s yours—you can take it home with you if you like.

After it calmed down a bit Campolo asked everyone if it would be okay if he led a prayer.

So he led all the prostitutes in prayer. He prayed for the birthday girl, as well as the others. He prayed that God would protect them and save them.

When Campolo finished, the owner of the diner leaned over and said, “I didn’t know you were a preacher. What kind of a church do you belong to?”

Campolo thought for a minute.

“I belong to a church that throws parties for prostitutes at 3:00 in the morning.”

“If there were such a place, I’d join that church,” the owner said.

Is there such a place?

Maybe that church description isn’t too bad at all.

Jesus loved parties, but the people who attended them weren’t comfortable rubbing elbows with polite society. He tells this story:

A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet’” (Luke 14:16-24).

He’s talking about the church, of course.

One of the reasons many of the religious elite hated Jesus was that He associated with the untouchables, the outcasts.

He invited them to His parties. He talked to them in the marketplace. He ate and drank with them, touched them, healed them.

He broke all sorts of social conventions because of how He treated the marginalized of His world.

It was almost as if He treated them as equals, as if He loved them and accepted them and saved them.

Which He did, of course. Not in their sin, but from it.

He let one girl from the red-light district kiss His feet and wipe them with her hair at Simon’s house.

Maybe Campolo got his idea from Jesus.

The Lord also seemed to like to throw parties for prostitutes.