Heart Matters and the Idolatry of Religion

Here’s a provocative statement that may offend some fellow believers: love and our relationships with God and other people are more important than obeying rules and laws. If this statement is true, howBible then do we reconcile Jesus’s statement, “If you love me, obey my commandments” (John 14:15)? First, we must love, then we can demonstrate that love through obeying His laws.

The Shema (Jewish prayer) from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 emphasizes love/faith over law through this statement, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” The Shema is a filter to be applied to the laws that follow it. Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain in his article Why is the Shema so significant? explains this sentiment beautifully: “The Shema stands out as a cry of belief, something that cannot be simply carried out or avoided but has to be personally taken to heart.”

Religion without Relationship is Idolatry

If idolatry is the act of worshipping something other than God, than it seems fair to state religion without a personal relationship/love of God is essentially idolatry (Colossians 2:23, Acts 17:22). James A. Fowler in his article God Hates Religion puts it this way, “The English word “religion” is etymologically derived from the Latin word religo, meaning to ‘bind up.’ Religion binds people up in rules and regulations or in ritualistic patterns of devotion.” The religious spirit controls its followers through fear and guilt by demanding perfection through works to better one’s stance with God and man (Matthew 6:1-8, Philippians 2:3, and 2 Corinthians 12:7, and 1 John 4:18). In this scenario, God is viewed as a demanding boss; and His followers are underperforming employees with whom He’s frequently angry and dissatisfied.

A sacrifice given out of pride or apathy is another religious idol. It is performed out of self-exalting piety, without thought or thankfulness to God. Prideful giving is often haughty and flaunts how well one is able to meet such requirements compared to others. However, it’s the not quantity of what we give or the awe of others that makes us right with God but the quality of our motivations and the thankfulness of our hearts for all that God has given us. Isaiah 1:10-15 and Amos 5:21-24 illustrate this idea through God’s repeated rejection of “meaningless offerings.”

Cain’s Offering – An Example of Religion, Wrong Motives and Why it Matters

In Genesis 4, we see religion and love’s stark contrast. Abel was a shepherd who offered God the best of his flock which God accepted. Cain was a farmer who offered God some of his crops, but his offering was not accepted. Why? The words “best” and “some” provide clues. Abel gave God his best; Cain only gave God some of his crops, indicating he kept the best for himself. When Cain was angered by his offering’s rejection, God told him that he must first “do what is right.” Instead, jealousy over his brother’s offering lead him to kill Abel. Cain’s jealous was birthed from wrong motivations, giving from an ungrateful heart, instead of thanks. Even if Cain had given the best of his crops to God, the offering would have still been rejected due to the state of his heart.

Other Scriptures Confirming the Importance of Love/Heart over Law

  • Desiring mercy not sacrifice – “But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with such scum?’ When Jesus heard this, he said, ‘Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.’ Then he added, ‘Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices. For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (Matthew 9:11-14).
  • Food restrictions – In Romans 14, Paul instructed early church believers not to judge each other over what food should or shouldn’t be eaten. Christians in the early church were Messianic Jews (Jewish converts to Christianity) and gentiles. Jewish laws prohibited the Jewish people from eating certain foods; gentiles were not required to follow the same laws. Therefore, some believers felt convicted to not eat certain foods while others did not. Interestingly, the Bible says a believer who feels convicted that he should not eat the food in question but does it anyway has sinned; the person who did not feel the same conviction did not sin by eating the same food.
  • Giving, prayer and fasting with the wrong motives – “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them.” (Matthew 6:5-7).
  • Condition of the heart when approaching God with prayer – Before we approach the throne for prayer, God requires that we come to Him with faith and trust that He will do what we ask of Him and that we will pray with the right motives. See Why Won’t God Answer My Prayers? for a deeper study of this topic.
  • The wicked hearts of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah – these towns were destroyed for their willful disregard for others who were suffering and their depth of depravity (Ezekiel 16:49, Jeremiah 23, and Isaiah 1). See the Old and New Testament Parallels, Symbols and Ponderings Series Part 3 – Sodom and Gomorrah for an in-depth study of the people who lived there.
  • Worshipping God with modesty not out of showy materialism (1 Timothy 2:9-10) – See Relevant Magazine‘s article Yoga Pants and What the Bible Really Says about Modesty about this topic.
  • Measuring gluttony  How much of something is too much? Who determines the measurement? Could it be the answer lies in the conviction of the heart about what is just enough and what is too much? (Proverbs 23:20-21)

Jesus is Our Perfection

Doesn’t God demand perfection from us? Yes, He does, and we should do the best we can to live righteously because we love the God who gave His Son for us (Matthew 5:20, Matthew 5:48). However, it’s important to remember, our measuring stick is not how well we’re able to keep the laws because we all have fallen short of the glory of God (Isaiah 64:6, Romans 3:23). Perfection is something we can never attain. Instead of focusing on our lack of perfection, we should fix our eyes on Jesus’s grace (Galatians 2:20). His blood sufficiently covers what we’ll never attain on our own (Romans 3:21-24, 2 Corinthians 5:21).

What Divides Us is not as Powerful as What Unites Us

The body of Christ is going through a “division crisis.” I call it thepraying_on_bible_red “Sneetches on the Beaches Affect” after the Dr. Suess story about creatures called Sneetches who divide themselves into groups based on who has stars on their bellies and who does not. As a friend likes to remind me, if we continue to divide ourselves into smaller and smaller groups over things that make us different from our neighbors, eventually we will find ourselves alone. There’s a lot of wisdom in that statement because we will likely never completely agree all the time on every issue.

Why do I bring this issue up?

In our culture, it is easy to define ourselves by all sorts of things. We like our niches — customizable digital radio stations, anyone? We like being comfortable around others who talk like us, look like us and sound like us. This seems especially true within the body of Christ. Did you know there are approximately 30,000 Christian denominations? That number is staggering, especially since Jesus and Paul were extremely concerned about unity within the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12-13; 3:4).

Why are we so divided?

It seems we divide ourselves over just about anything within the body of Christ (Church): traditional vs. contemporary, style of music, formality of clothing, instruments used, preaching style, church adornment, rituals and sacraments and all sorts of other things (In case you’re interested, I’ve also written about this topic from a different perspective in a previous article: “Unity“). However, one topic seems to divide more sharply and cut more deeply than most issues within the Church — social issues and politics.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I think social and political issues are important; but no matter how important these problems/differences are, they distract from the message of Christ. Before we separate ourselves from our brothers and sisters, shouldn’t we consider the impact of such a divide on our non-beliving family, friends and neighbors? Perhaps, our judgmental, unforgiving reputation is well deserved when we allow ourselves to become a disorganized bunch of hypocrites who backbite each other and point out each other’s flaws in a merciless manner. I recognize not everyone fits into this generalization, and there are lot of truly wonderful Christian people around the world. However, based on some fairly common sterotypes I see in the media and society in general about Christianity, I’m standing firm on my view about how we are perceived by many non-Christians. Let’s change that view.

And before it is suggested, I’m not insinuating we should ignore sin. I’m simply suggesting we change our primary focus to be more Christ-centered above all else. If we, the body of Christ, modeled ourselves after Jesus, would society see us differently? Would they see us as less judgmental and feel like they wanted to be part of the Church if we were more unified, less divisive and more welcoming to non-Christians than we are currently?

Christ is Our Model

Jesus’s primary mission on earth was to demonstrate the depth of the love of the Father and to provide the ultimate sacrifice to cover our sins by dying on the cross. He also healed the sick, set free the oppressed and cast out demons. Everything He said and did was rooted in love. He showed mercy instead of judgment. He released grace upon people who didn’t deserve it. Shouldn’t we strive to do the same even if we disagree with our neighbors?

Our Challenge

The challenge to those of us who claim to follow Christ is simple: love without conditions. Welcome others with open arms. Stop being shocked by the actions of people who don’t know Christ — of course they won’t align with all of your values — love them anyway. Throw aside pride and disagreements within the Church. Be the difference. Be a person of substance and character. Watch the world change around you one person at a time as they see the truth of Christ in your life.

Unity

Many times, as believers, we have the tendency to divide ourselves even though Jesus emphasized the importance of unity in the body of Christ (John 17:20-26).  We disagree about denominations, interpretations of Scripture, worship music, the way we dress, whether to raise hands or clap, and all sorts of other things.  Yes, we are different, but we should celebrate our differences.

I have been in church most of my life. When I graduated from my elementary public school, my parents enrolled me in a private Christian school, which began my journey with God and changed my life forever.  The school was associated with an on-premises traditional Baptist church.  I spent many years in that church, and it became my comfortable, small view of God and expectations about how the people of God should act. I knew there were other churches and denominations out there, but I was a little suspicious of them.  They seemed weird to me — especially those “Holy Ghost” churches where people speak in tongues, believe in healings, and believe God works actively in the lives of people today.  I’m not trying to suggest that Baptists believe other denominations are strange or wrong.  This was just my personal understanding at the time because it was the only true exposure to God I had.  At the time, I was satisfied with simply believing in a Savior who loved me enough to save me from my sins, my failures, and from the depths of hell.  I still don’t believe there’s anything wrong with this view.  I was in a different place of my life then, and it has taught me how to understand that other people around me may be at different levels of understanding, and that’s perfectly okay. None of us will completely understand God until after we leave this earth anyway!

As the years passed, I visited a Lutheran church with my grandfather, went to a few Christmas services with my family at an Episcopal church, went to Bible school during the summer at a Presbyterian church, and eventually regularly attended a Catholic church during the summer with my boyfriend in my early college years.  When I began dating the man I now call my husband, we attended his family’s Presbyterian church and eventually moved to a Southern Baptist church.  Now, we attend a small, non-denominational church.  I love experiencing all the different flavors of Christianity, and I’m extremely thankful for the revelations of God I received with each visit.  I have begun realizing my God is likely much bigger than I could ever understand.  I also have begun to realize people experience God in different ways; and, as long as what they do is Scripturally-based, I can agree with them no matter how different they are from me.  But I didn’t feel this way right away. It has been a slow progression of enlightenment and understanding that each member of the body serves a unique purpose.  God celebrates the different functions of a unified body; and, therefore, I feel we are called to do the same (1 Corinthians 12:12)

One of the many differences we should celebrate, for example, is the fact some churches are passionate about international missions and ministries in particular countries, other churches support varying international communities, while others feel a call to support missions and ministries in their home country, state, or local community. We are all called to fulfill the Great Commission, and I think it’s beautiful that we all hear that call in different ways. What better way to immerse the earth in His love (Matthew 28:16-20)

Another difference that seems to heavily divide the body is the denominational lines, especially among structured and unstructured churches.  Does it really matter whether we’re part of a church that believes in speaking in tongues or a church that believes in the holiness of God to such a degree that they don’t clap in services?  I don’t think so, and I don’t think one version of worship is better than the other.  Some people, I suppose, would disagree with me, but who am I to judge what “flavor” is better?  I believe there are plenty of on-fire Christians who deeply love Christ and the people around them, but they may worship in a manner I would call quiet or reserved.  I will respect the fact they commune with God, even if it’s different from me.

One of the greatest barriers to talking to non-believers about Christ is our lack of unity.  I pray that God will use you to show grace and love to your neighbor and unity with the Body.  God has given us the ability to change how others perceive Christianity.  In Christ’s name, you hold the keys to change the minds and hearts about how people encounter Christ which is a wonderful honor – not a burden.  Let’s rejoice and celebrate and embrace each other as brothers and sisters because at the end of this life, love is the only thing that truly matters.