A few years ago I visited Jerusalem, a place both beautiful and ugly. Centuries of bloodshed have left deep wounds. The sins of human pride, greed, anger and lust have defiled the ‘Holy City’ and continue to do so. Perverted religion has played a major part.
For people who seek to follow Jesus and for whom faith is about a daily relationship of trust with a living person, the word ‘religion’ has always been viewed with ambiguity. Religion can be associated with arrogance, legalism, divisive rituals, spiritual manipulation and hypocrisy. Most committed Christians I know would not like to be called ‘religious’, which often conjures up an image of being 'prim and proper', old-fashioned ‘holier than thou’ or worse.
The message our Western liberal society gives us is that religion is a fact of life that we should know something about, but should be careful not to take too seriously as regards our own lives. It has become derogatory to use the words ‘radical’ or ‘fundamentalist’ when actually those words originally meant ‘going to the root of the matter’ or ‘going back to the foundation’. If the root or the foundation is true and good, we should not have a problem. If it is false and rotten, we will have all manner of problems.
The Bible only uses the word translated ‘religion’ once in a way that is unambiguously good. James 1v 22-27 says “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (NIV translation).
After Israel I visited India, to support a friend who looks after orphans and widows in the State of Andhra Pradesh on the East Coast. Many years ago he turned away from the morally polluting worship of idols, rejected the caste system, Indiaand chose a new life in Christ. He lives simply and non-materialistically and has brought hundreds to know the love and forgiveness of God in Jesus. It is this kind of ‘religion’ that the world needs.
What we do not need is the kind of religion the Bible rejects. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God, they felt exposed in their nakedness and tried to cover themselves with fig-leaves. This was the first attempt at ‘religion’. They tried to make themselves respectable by their own efforts. It did not work. It was God who mercifully clothed them with the skin of animals. These animals had to be sacrificed to provide a covering for our shame (Genesis 3). As a way of truly covering our guilt and making us right with God, man-made religion is just as useless today as it was then. If we think we can merit a place in God’s kingdom by keeping religious rules, rituals, practising ‘jihad’, avoiding certain foods and certain people, or giving the occasional token to charity and going to church at Christmas then we are deluding ourselves.
Only by accepting God’s sacrificial offering of himself in Jesus and by truly following the risen Lord can we fulfil the requirements of ‘true religion.’ All other religion is useless – and dangerous.