Recently a friend mentioned that she was not a religious person, but liked our ministry. I replied by saying I'm not very religious myself. I was trying to be sarcastic and witty, making a cheap, shallow statement to set myself apart from what I assume most people think of when they think “religious”. Mostly negative things. I did not want to be perceived as negative. It was immature. And probably self-righteous.
I shared this story with a fellow missionary, and he essentially rebuked me, saying that I was in fact religious, according to God.
God made everything. He designed it. He designed us to live a certain way. If anyone deserves to define things, it is Him. Mankind will try their best to make their own definitions. This leads to the creation of man-made systems, traditions, cultures...games, essentially. Games with rules that should be followed.
In stating that I was “not religious”, I was validating a human definition. I was essentially submitting to the game's rules by saying I didn't want to play.
God defines “religion” simply and clearly. “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” [James 1:27 NASB]
Pure and undefiled. In other words, the real meaning, the authentic version. God's religion is involved in caring for the helpless and being unstained by the world. With that said, I am not nearly as religious as I'd like to be.
This “religion” is described elsewhere in scripture. Isaiah 58 is a great example. It paints a picture of a people living out their own religion, prideful and oppressive, and making demands before God. God defies that by declaring the fasting (or religious work) He requires is destroying yokes, caring for the needy, letting oppressed go free, speaking goodness. Jesus declares that to be His follower, we have to lay down our life and take up our cross (crosses kill, you know). That love is an endless act of self-sacrifice.
Instead of accepting man's definition and foolishly exclaiming, “That's not me!”, I should have rejected it, and insisted on recognizing the definition established by the only Person worthy of doing so.
The problem with religion is that it takes your life. It demands it. And yet the act of giving up our life gives us a life much better. A life eternal. And it lifts up those around us.
The problem with religion is that it cannot be self-serving, but only self-sacrificing. It can never exalt our selves, but only ever bring us low. Religion puts us last, in a culture that wants to put us first.
The problem with religion is that it doesn't have a system of weights and measures to balance our actions so we can remain “right” or “favored”. It doesn't have many laws, yet leads us into a perfectly crafted design.
The problem with religion is that it can only be truly defined by its living. It cannot be something that acts from a distance, hoping to control or alleviate. It can only function closely, intimately, in being near to those in distress. It only really works amongst those in need.
The problem with religion is that it becomes claustrophobic in a world where we all want our own space. It takes our things and gives them away. It takes our time and uses it for others. It takes our emotional currency and spends it on those with deeper wounds than ours. It takes our hands and sets them to work that is too big for even our eyes to behold.
The problem with religion is that it snatches away the things we love to hold on to. It constantly turns our eyes away from things we desire. It constantly shows itself worthier than the things we trust. It destroys little rooms that feel safe and known.
The problem with religion is that it becomes confusing in its simplicity. Complicated things are easier to study, to grasp, to wrestle with. Simple things are harder to debate, harder to reject. Religion is stubborn in its bluntness. It is the immovable object opposing the unstoppable force of our pride.
Religion does not provide a lot of options, but presents endlessly inconceivable opportunities of being lived. It is a narrow way, and a straight way, one that starts in death but ends in life.
The problem with religion is that it is so rarely “pure and undefiled.”