Today is the kick-off day for the 40-day journey to Resurrection traditionally called Lent. Christian communities all over the world use this time to intentionally make room for God in their lives through fasting, praying and special gatherings. It constitutes what I think can be good religion.
I get that there is a bad kind of religion—the human-centered kind that tries to act in certain ways in order to earn brownie points or merit badges from God (truth is, none of us wants what we have earned from God!). Connecting with God does not happen through our performance of religious practices—connecting is all about a relationship with God and what God “performed” in Christ for us. If that is not understood, religious actions can actually kill living faith. That’s the negative side of religion—the side that sullies the innocence of faith. James called it “worthless” religion (James 1:26).
But there is another side of religion that is not bad. In the same place James spoke of “worthless” religion, he said there was a “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless.” This is religion born from God’s initiative, and it is undefiled, innocent, and powerful.
The word, “religion,” comes from the Latin religare, which means “to tie fast” or “to bind to.” Bad religion is about binding yourself to actions that you think earn you favor from God. Good religion is about binding or tying yourself to practices because you have experienced God’s favor. It is a way for us to love God back, as well as a way for us to move deeper into his grace.
In this context, James mentions binding ourselves to “good works” (i.e. caring for those less privileged than ourselves), as well as binding ourselves to things that keep us from “being polluted by the world.” That could be anything from serving those who have shattered lives (i.e. orphans) to prayer to fasting to engaging more deeply within the Christian community. Here’s the question: What helps you stay clean in this fallen world? Bind yourself to that—that is good religion.
Scripture encourages all believers to “devote” themselves “to doing what is good” (Titus 3:8), as well as to “devote” themselves to prayer (Col. 4:2) and the reading of Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13). The word “devote” is derived from the word “vow.” Its etymology is the Latin word, devotus, which is the past participle of devovEre, which means “to vow.” There are oodles of texts that call the Christian to consider deepening his/her commitment within the context of faith. Why? To make God love us more? Absolutely not.
We should never be nervous about how God feels about us. At the very core of faith is the assurance that God loves each one of us incautiously and recklessly. We should find great comfort in the fact that he knows every stupid, silly, mean, ill-motived, and outright sinful thing about you and me and, yet, he still pursues and loves us. But on some level, I don’t want to just think about that; I want to respond to that.
I want to love God more than I do. Jesus’ words haunt me here: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
I’m not sure I love him with all that.
Oh, I have my moments when my faith is white-hot (an occasion of worship at church or at the apex of a morning devotional), but those moments don’t seem to last. I want to love God more than I do. I want to love God enough to be willing to do what saints who have gone before us have done.
I’m not talking about ordinary faith here. Nor am I talking about something that is required. I’m talking about loving in God in unnecessary, unrequired ways. I’m suggesting that that is good religion.
There is a required love. We’re supposed to love God enough to receive what he has freely given us in Christ. We’re supposed to love God enough to face the cross in order to ensure what Jesus did isn’t ignored by us. Salvation is found there. And that is where our journey of faith begins. This is really all that is necessary or required by God as far as loving him is concerned.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t more.
I think there is plenty of room for believers to love God extra—room for us to be caught up in an infatuation with the Holy. Seasons like Lent provide space for us to intentionally do so. I’m not saying we should try to love him extra in order to make him love us more—he loves us period, not in response to what we do or don’t do. But I do think that loving God back is a natural thing for those who have been deeply touched by him.
It’s sad to me that American Evangelicalism takes such pride in being religionless—ours’ is a believism. To be sure, believing is where it all starts—I’m just not sure that believing is enough to make us world-changing, kingdom people. Richard Foster wrote, “In our day heaven and earth are on tiptoe waiting for the emerging of a Spirit-led, Spirit-empowered people. All of creation watches expectantly for the springing up of a disciplined, freely gathered, martyr people who know in this life the life and power of the kingdom of God. It has happened before. It can happen again…”
Maybe getting a little good religion can help get us there.