I think I’m going to be learning a lot from that brunch for weeks to come. Snippets of conversations overheard are replaying in my mind. There is a benefit to being viewed as a second-class citizen; no one pays attention to you, thus, you are permitted to be a fly on the wall.
I’ve mentioned the idea in past posts of a “religious spirit”, but I’ve not elaborated on it. There are a few ways I could define the notion of a “religious spirit”, which may sound weird and “Christianese” to readers. I’m not sure if there is another way to put it so read on for clarification. The first way that I will try to define it would be in terms of legalism which I would define as a strict adherence to one’s own interpretation and understanding of the Law forsaking even relationships. People are viewed through a filter of performance. How well do they keep the Law? Their value is proportionate to their obedience, and their value to their faith community is likewise proportionate to their performance. This legalism is observed when the laws of the faith community are ever changing but yet strictly enforced. One day someone is criticized for not attending church every Sunday. Suddenly, it is not holy enough to attend every Sunday. Wednesdays and Sundays are now required to meet the holiness standards of that particular community and so on. If someone dares to confront the keepers of the Law in that faith community and they are met with a form of alienation which includes being exiled from the community, slander, direct accusation towards one character, or plots to blacklist a member from the larger faith community, then you know for certain that you have encountered legalism. One key element of legalism is a draconian commitment to the preservation of the status quo. Change is to be avoided at all costs.
I heard a man speak a few years ago who experienced great passion for God. He caught a vision for his faith community that would completely change it and would, at the same time, revitalize it. The church leaders wanted nothing to do with him or the change he suggested so they exiled him and plotted to kill him. He actually had to leave his home country and immigrate to the United States to avoid being murdered–by his pastor! When you distill legalism down to its essence, this is what you will discover. It steals life be it your exuberance to pursue God twisting your relationship into some kind of soul sucking labor, or it replaces your wonder and self-esteem with fear and anxiety causing you to believe that God is the Great Accountant in the sky constantly weighing your every thought and deed, recording your every sin in some weird religious ledger that will be held over your head, opened at any moment. God becomes Santa Claus. You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout. He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for Goodness’ sake! It is absolutely impossible to experience a relationship with God or even believe that you have true value when your faith is influenced by this kind of religion. Why? Because you are just a number who must perform to appease an angry deity. Maybe you’ll get to sit on God’s lap once a year and ask for something–if you’ve been good. More often than not, however, you’re too busy avoiding the lightning strike as well as the all-seeing eyes of your church leadership and fellow spying congregants.
Another flavor of religiosity is Gnosticism. I’ve discussed this in depth in another post, but it’s important to mention it because Gnosticism combined with legalism, in my opinion, is the Zeitgeist of the modern church. Basically, Gnosticism is the belief that the physical world is evil and the spiritual is what is most valuable. This is where the secular/sacred duality originates. Gnosticism is rooted in neo-Platonic thought. It is heretical. There is no such thing as secular vs. sacred. God does not value one thing more than another in terms of whether a pursuit is sacred. He made the entire universe and called it good (Gen. 1:31). I spent time with a missionary family when I was living in France, and I overheard one of the women in their social group say, “It took me a long time to even go see a movie. We were taught to weigh all of our activities by whether or not we would want Jesus to come back and find us doing it. I would never want Jesus to come back and find me sitting in a movie theatre! So, I still don’t really go to movies. I think that might be sinful.” This is a Gnostic view of life combined with legalism. Not only was this woman attempting to perform well in order to attain God’s good favor, but she was also categorizing activities based upon that which she believed was sacred vs. secular. Would she have felt better about going to the cinema if she were seeing a decidedly Christian film starring Kirk Cameron? What about this notion about Jesus coming back and catching us in the middle of some secular pursuit? What sort of burden is that to put upon a group of people? How much anxiety do you think that provokes in a faith community? What about important life pursuits such as sex? “Oh no, honey, we better not. I wouldn’t want Jesus to come back tonight and catch us in flagrante delicto!” What about going to the bathroom? “I better hold it. What if Jesus catches me on the toilet?” How many activities of daily life are mundane and fairly base? What about all those dirty jobs that have made Mike Rowe so famous? What about coroners? “I better not perform this autopsy. I wouldn’t want Jesus to come back while I’m weighing this man’s spleen.” What about ranchers? “I better not inseminate this mare. I wouldn’t want Jesus to see me with my hands all up in this horse’s lady business.”
It is the Christian belief that Jesus was fully God, but He called Himself the Son of Man for a reason. It was to tell us that He was 100% human. He was born of a woman. There is no such thing as a sacred/spiritual dichotomy. We need to banish that idea from our consciousness. If you want further proof that Gnosticism and this notion of a sacred/secular dichotomy is completely untrue, then I give you 1 Corinthians 5:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
The Greek word for ‘world’ used in this text is kósmos which means ‘universe’ among other things. It is the word from which we derive the English word ‘cosmos’. What this text is saying is that there isn’t one part of the created order that has been left out of the redemptive work of Jesus. One cannot say that it is holier to go to church on Sunday and less holy to watch a movie. The Old Testament book of Esther does not even mention God one time. Not once! Does this make the book of Esther a secular book? If we’re really being legalistic, the Sabbath, according to scriptural text, begins on sundown on Friday and ends on sundown on Saturday. So, if you are going to church on Sunday, then you have failed to keep the Sabbath holy. That thought brings me to another religious notion–fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism on its own is merely a literal interpretation of sacred texts. There are forms of fundamentalism in every religion. Fundamentalism on its own isn’t necessarily problematic excepting the issue of insular thinking. Fundamentalism, however, rarely exists in a vacuum. There is often a tendency amongst fundamentalist believers to impose their beliefs on others even if that means following a violent call to action. Many sacred texts were never intended to be read literally. They follow the literary traditions of the times in which they were written, and often those traditions involve hyperbole, metaphor, and leitmotifs common to the poetry and literature of the era which would be immediately understood by their intended audience. Context matters. I can’t emphasize this enough. Valuing a sacred text more than one’s relationship with God is actually a form of idolatry. One cannot love one’s neighbor as oneself and love God with one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength and maintain a fundamentalist viewpoint at the same time because fundamentalism, by definition, requires strict adherence to literal scriptural interpretation even at the expense of relationships and community. By definition, one is then in violation of the ministry of reconciliation mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5. This is why fundamentalism is a form of a dangerous religiosity. The primary relationship with God becomes secondary to the texts, and the texts become a means to an end justifying any number of harmful behaviors which are almost always entirely carnal, selfish, and often violent. For example, it doesn’t matter if you are opposed to abortion. In no way are we permitted to murder physicians who perform them. A few fundamentalist believers, however, have justified those actions by means of textual manipulation.
Keeping all this in mind then, what might this multi-faceted “religious spirit” look like in an everyday interaction? Well, I saw it in action at the now infamous brunch. As I said, I was largely ignored, and when you’re ignored, people get comfortable. The niceties fall away. They speak freely. Here’s a part of a conversation I overheard:
“The question you have to ask of addicts is ‘What’s your idol?'”
“That’s an interesting question.”
“Well, yeah. Your emotions will tell you what your idol is. Just ask yourself what you’re most afraid of, and then you’ll find your own personal idol.”
“I don’t follow…”
“Well, if you’re afraid of being poor, then money is your idol. If you’re afraid of losing your family, then you love your family more than you love God. You’re not supposed to love anything more than God.”
“Okay, let me put it like this. What’s the only thing you’re supposed to fear?”
“I don’t think we’re supposed to fear anything really.”
“Sure we are. We are required to fear God. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Have you heard of Tim Keller? He says that if we aren’t being confronted with God every single day then we aren’t in an active relationship with God. Where’s the idol?”
“I’m not comfortable with what you’re saying.”
This dialogue happened right in front of me. I felt like I was watching a Wimbledon match. We have legalism in the form of the question “What’s your idol?” because the question is being asked with a focus on sinfulness. That was a performance question. More than that, there was no understanding of the human heart behind the question. People experience fear for a plethora of reasons, and God’s answer to that is found in 1 John 4:18:
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
This verse is profound if you read it in the Greek. The Greek word used for fear is phóbos, and it is the Greek word from which we derive our word ‘phobia’. It means ‘terror’. It also means, in the Greek, ‘fleeing because feeling inadequate, avoid because of dread, fleeing because of fear of judgment’. We are not to fear, but we are to instead desire the love of God experientially which will, as we sojourn, drive away our many fears which might lead us to build those idols. So, in all those places where we are fearful, we can simply ask God to increase our capacity to experience His love so that, in time, our capacity for fear is decreased. God is looking to penetrate our identities and shift our paradigms so that we see who He really is and, thusly, who we really are. Behaviors change only when identities change. Not the other way around. The end result is transformation.
The other problem with this conversation is fundamentalism. The scripture that the man was quoting is Proverbs 9:10 which is, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” The Hebrew word for fear used in this text is yirah which does mean ‘fear’, but it is also translated numerous times in the Old Testament as ‘reverence’. We can assume then that yirah does not hold the same meaning as the Greek word phóbos since the text clearly indicates that God does not want us to be fearful. Fear and trust cannot coexist, and God’s primary desire is relationship with us. This is why Jesus was born into the world. The man at the brunch who so boldly exclaimed that we should be fearful misread the text due to literalism. He is basing his own spiritual journey on performance which produced an air of judgmental smugness in him. After all, when we begin to believe that our standing with God is solely dependent upon our performance, then we will believe this about everyone else. What do we become? Judges.
What then can we do?
That is, by far, one of the most interesting questions to ask. Firstly, just so that you can get a sense of what God has in mind for how we are to treat each other, read through all the “One Anothers” in the Bible. I made it easy on you. Here they are:
- Mark 9:50 – “Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
- John 13:14 – “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
- John 13:34 – “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
- John 13:35 – “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
- John 15:12 – “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.
- John 15:17 – “This I command you, that you love one another.
- Romans 12:10 – Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor;
- Romans 12:16 – Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.
- Romans 13:8 – Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.
- Romans 14:13 – Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this–not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.
- Romans 14:19 – So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.
- Romans 15:5 – Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus,
- Romans 15:7 – Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.
- Romans 15:14 – And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another.
- Romans 16:16 – Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.
- 1 Corinthians 11:33 – So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.
- 1 Corinthians 16:20 – All the brethren greet you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.
- 2 Corinthians 13:12 – Greet one another with a holy kiss.
- Galatians 5:13 – For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
- Galatians 5:26 – Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another.
- Galatians 6:2 – Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.
- Ephesians 4:2 – with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love,
- Ephesians 4:25 – Therefore, laying aside falsehood, SPEAK TRUTH EACH ONE of you WITH HIS NEIGHBOR, for we are members of one another.
- Ephesians 4:32 – Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
- Ephesians 5:19 – speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;
- Ephesians 5:21 – and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.
- Philippians 2:3 – Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves;
- Colossians 3:9 – Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices,
- Colossians 3:13 – bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.
- Colossians 3:16 – Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
- 1 Thessalonians 3:12 – and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you
- 1 Thessalonians 4:9 – Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another;
- 1 Thessalonians 5:11 – Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:13b – Live in peace with one another.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:15 – See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.
- 2 Thessalonians 1:3 – We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater;
- Hebrews 3:13 – But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
- Hebrews 10:24 – and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds,
- Hebrews 10:25 – not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
- James 4:11 – Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it.
- James 5:9 – Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.
- James 5:16 – Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.
- 1 Peter 1:22 – Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart,
- 1 Peter 4:8 – Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.
- 1 Peter 4:9 – Be hospitable to one another without complaint.
- 1 Peter 4:10 – As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.
- 1 Peter 5:5 – You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.
- 1 Peter 5:14 – Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace be to you all who are in Christ.
- 1 John 1:7 – but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
- 1 John 3:11 – For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another;
- 1 John 3:23 – This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.
- 1 John 4:7 – Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
- 1 John 4:11 – Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
- 1 John 4:12 – No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.
- 2 John 1:5 – Now I ask you, lady, not as though I were writing to you a new commandment, but the one which we have had from the beginning, that we love one another.
Then, instead of ‘one another’ insert ‘myself’ or ‘I’ into the text. For example, “Beloved, if God so loved us, I also ought to love myself.” The reason I suggest this is because we cannot give what we do not have. There is a strong tendency in the modern church to externalize the faith relationship with God rather than first see to it that people know experientially that God’s promises apply to them and their lives before they can go out into the world and “make disciples”. So, when people are reading their Bibles and they see a piece of Scripture come alive right before their eyes causing their spirits to quicken, they assume that the text is coming alive to them so that they can give it to someone else. They don’t understand that the Holy Spirit is speaking to them! That piece of scripture is for their lives and circumstances. Not for anyone else. Just as we first put on the oxygen mask so that we can breathe air before responding to the person nearest us during an emergency, we must know God for ourselves intimately before we can share Him with any sort of truth with someone else.
The religious spirit in all its forms has no place in our churches and, most of all, in our relationship with God. We were not made for performance, criticism, judgment, or striving. We were made for an empowered, joyful, intimate relationship free from all anxiety with the living God who loves us far more than we might even attempt to imagine. May 2014 be the year that we break away from all religious striving and break into the good plans that He is waiting to give all of us.
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love,18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:14-20