When religion is bad

Religion can be bad, very bad, so bad it keeps you from seeing Jesus.

You might be offended at that, so please read on.

Like many of you I’ve been steeped in religion all my life. I was religious before I even knew what it was. I was half-grown before I realized there were actually real people who didn’t go to church every Sunday and Wednesday, and some of these people even lived in my neighborhood. Hard to believe there were non-church-goers on my own street.

I was the kid at school who taught people not to use euphemisms, and not even to use euphemisms of euphemisms. (And yes, I knew what a “euphemism” was before I knew how to read)

What I’m saying is that I was pretty good at religion, because it was something you could see, something you could measure or quantify. You either had it or you didn’t, you either were or you weren’t, and I knew how to measure it.

Church on Sundays and Wednesdays?

Leather-bound Bible with name etched on the front?

Ask the Lord to guide, guard, and direct us, give the preacher a ready recollection, and bring us back at the next appointed time?

Check, check, and check.

Religious through and through, born and bred.

So it ought to shock you to hear me say something bad about religion, because these are my people.

The issue is this: people can do religion without ever having a relationship with Jesus. They can follow the external rites but never know God.

In fact, religion can even get in the way of a relationship with Jesus.

It gets dangerous when it starts to make us feel better about ourselves without addressing the real problem. When we think that going to church, reading our Bibles, and avoiding euphemisms clears our path to heaven, we’re wrong.

We’ve missed Jesus.

We’ve lost sight of why he came, who he was, and what he did.

As I’ve reread the gospels over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that most of the people who couldn’t stand Jesus were religious. They hated him, attacked him, killed him.

And the irreligious couldn’t get enough of him.

Sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? The more imbedded someone was in the religious traditions of his day, the greater the chances he wanted nothing to do with Jesus. On the other hand, the more someone lived life on the fringes of polite, respectable society, the more he wanted to be within hugging distance of the young Rabbi from some backwater village.

Think about it. Who tried every trick they had to get Jesus to fall into their trap?

Who struck the deal with Judas, giving him a bag of money for a discreet location to arrest God’s Son?

Who slapped him, spit on him, and made fun of him throughout that long Thursday night?

Who was at the front of the mob yelling “Crucify him! Crucify him!”?

Hint: it wasn’t the streetwalkers, vagabonds, and lowlifes who had seen compassion in the Lord’s eyes and felt welcomed by his touch.

No, it was the tie-wearing, Bible-toting, Scripture-quoting preachers whose faces were green with envy and whose hands were red with blood. They had to put down their Bibles so they could slap him. They had to stop quoting Scripture long enough to spit in his face.

Yes, the religious people hated him so much they couldn’t see straight, while the ones whose lives were crooked followed and worshiped him.

I think the key is in this pithy statement from Jesus: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

The reason the religious folks couldn’t stand Jesus is that they didn’t think they needed him. They had religion, and it gave them what they wanted. Who needs a doctor when you’re not sick?

The ne’er-do-wells, on the other hand, saw in Jesus the embodiment of forgiveness and acceptance, scarce commodities in the religious tradition of the day.

And so they loved him, followed him, worshiped him. And he forgave them.

Religion isn’t all bad, of course, and I’m thankful for a home environment that taught me that there was more to Jesus than keeping some rules and not breaking other ones.

But the question’s begging to be asked: in your life, do you have a relationship with Jesus that transcends the rites?

He—not they—saves, and sometimes they can keep you from seeing him.

God still moves mountains

I’m one of almost 7 billion people on earth right now, and it seems almost presumptuous for me to believe that God hears me when I pray.

The all-powerful universe-creating God bends his ear toward me when I direct my thoughts toward him.

It’s hard to believe.

In fact, it’s so hard to believe that I sometimes wonder how much we truly believe it.

We don’t struggle to believe he’ll grant our more mundane requests, like food, clothing, and shelter, or safety and protection.

We don’t struggle to believe he’ll respond to our abstract spiritual requests—for forgiveness, mercy, and hope.

But what about the spectacular stuff?

What about the extraordinary?

Does God still move mountains in response to our prayers?

Jesus’ answer is quite emphatic:

And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:22-24).

It’s clear that Jesus exaggerates to make his point.

But this is another one of those passages where we sometimes talk too much about what it doesn’t mean and not enough on what it does mean.

It doesn’t mean that all we need to do is believe in order to receive.

It doesn’t mean God will grant every request, no matter how ill-conceived.

But it means something. In fact, it probably means onlyone thing.

We need to believe that God will do what we’re asking.

We need to pray trusting prayers, optimistic prayers, God-will-answer-me prayers.

Got an insurmountable problem at work?

A seemingly unfixable relationship?

A we’ve-done-all-we-can-do-for-you health problem?

Then pray.

Pray hard.

Pray often.

Pray . . . trusting that God will remove the obstacle, fix your relationship, or cure your illness.

What are you stressed about right now?

What’s grieving your heart?

Ask God to throw that mountain into the sea.

He can still move mountains, and often does, but his response may hinge on how confident you are that he’ll answer you.