We want things no system in the world can provide.
By the time I was fifteen I was done with religion. My distaste for it hadn’t sprung from psychological pressures exerted by freaky religious parents. Neither had anybody in the system betrayed, disillusioned, or abused me.
Plain and simple, I had been aggravated by finding nothing there—nothing at least, worth living or dying for. The dynamite people kept promising had turned up neither in the Catholic or Protestant traditions. The deeper I dug, the dryer the well. Not having found any buried treasure, not even one dry pork bone, I drifted into indifference.
The psalmist might have said, “My cup runneth over,” but as for me, mine remained empty. I grudgingly admitted that religion with its attached synonyms of faith, spirituality, and God, had some constructive benefits, but only in the same sense as fungal cream.
I must have been ahead of my time. Today, hating religion is the new black, and well-meaning evangelicals try hard to prove that being Christian is most definitely not about being religious. But what exactly is religion? I’ve heard all kinds of definitions. One of them says it is a system of rules that affects the outside and does not touch the heart—mere human efforts, externals, behavior modification.
But the more we try to define religion, the more circuitous its definition becomes. For instance, the Bible is full of external commands (Yes, the New Testament, too) and doesn’t bother to ask whether you feel it in your heart before you obey. Neither does God seem to care whether His commands feel normal to us, do-able, or reasonable.
By our own definition, doesn’t that sound like religion?
In the face of such sticky questions, maybe it’s better to start off by asking from the positive angle what reality in Christ looks like. Then we’ll have a better grip on what it isn’t.
Let’s begin with a few basic thoughts from Scripture, like, Jesus being “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
That doesn’t mean He’s fifty percent grace and fifty percent truth. Christ is full of both all at once. He didn’t have to choose between the two.
Neither do we.
Yet Christians who chafe under rules, boundaries, limitations, or any suggestion of judgment, lean into the themes of grace with utter abandon. On the other hand, Christians who prefer tradition, and rules, love to imbibe the elixir of truth. That’s an extreme grouping on either end, but inbetween everybody occupies the spectrum somewhere, and we tend, however unconsciously, toward one end or the other.
The problem is that when we choose one over the other, we warp the Person of Christ. Grace becomes a license for sin. Truth becomes hard-hearted legalism.
But grace and truth together? Now that’s a conundrum that only makes sense in Christ.
First, grace in Christ speaks of unconditional love and acceptance. It’s like the old children’s book, The Giving Tree. That’s the tale of a tree who loves a boy so much that it gives its life and well-being to him. Over the years, the selfish boy eats its fruit, swings in its branches, cuts down its trunk to build a boat, and never once says thank you. Finally there’s nothing left but a stump in the ground. After all that sacrifice, the stump only hopes to be a comfortable place for the boy to sit.
There’s no stopping the grace of Jesus toward us. The twelve disciples found this out after denying Him. They left Him when He needed them the most. Simple selfish fear drove them to save their own skin. But after He had borne the horror of the cross all alone, He came and found them at the beach, where they were fishing. He called to them, “Children, do you have any fish?”, and when they replied that they didn’t, He filled their nets so full they could barely drag them (John 21:5-6).
This would characterize His attitude toward them throughout the rest of their lives. Beyond the giving up of His life for them, His generosity would always continue in gestures great and small, blessing them even when they didn’t notice. John called it, “Grace upon grace” (John 1:16).
But at the same time as finding complete love in the presence of Christ, we also will experience deep conviction. Think about the shrimp trawler that accidentally drags its net along the bottom of the sea and scoops up garbage that has accumulated there. When the net is hauled up, then lost rubber boots, and cans, and old toilet seats spill out on the deck in front of the captain. Likewise, when it comes to Christ, “No creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13).
This is the look He gave Peter the night Peter betrayed Him and ran off crying (Luke 22:61). It’s the exposing word He spoke to the Samaritan woman about her merry-go-round of husbands (John 4:16-18), and to the rich young ruler about his idolatry of money (Luke 18:18-24). There’s no hiding from him and no use arguing. He only needs to appear in order to manifest the real you and your genuine situation. You’ve never been known like this, nor will you ever know anyone like this.
And so the awesome comfort of grace and the conviction of truth fully exist in Jesus, all at once. No wonder His presence creates such a canvas of emotions in us.
Religion (in whatever form it takes) doesn’t do that. It can’t do that. It tries, but fails like the magicians who aped the miracles of Moses, and at some point just had to pack up and go home.
That is exactly what I found. In a sorrowful state, I couldn’t pour out my heart to a religious ideology and expect it to hear and comfort me. While I was confused, a religious template couldn’t assess where I was in life and then call me and challenge me. The practices of religion, which lay like tools waiting to be picked up, couldn’t reach out and pick me up.
Forms and structures can’t speak into the heart of a person, because it takes a person to speak to a person.