We often use the word religion to mean “a particular system of faith or worship” (thanks, Google dictionary). In this sense, it is more of a categorical tool to label certain people groups and practices as distinct from others in matters of faith.
But there is a deeper and more insidious reality to the term religion: it is literally a spiritual force to keep people in bondage through rituals and traditions of men. This “spirit of religion” can move subtly and often works overtime in the midst of the very people who desire to please God the most.
Unfortunately, many faith communities are home to a spirit of religion, as it is that pressure that keeps people in line and conforming to the community standards, which makes us feel safe on a superficial level, and generally keeps God in boxes that we are comfortable with.
But, Jesus came to show a different way - not a membership to an exclusive club of lookalikes - but the way of love and relationship with him. What he offers is a spiritual walk of increasing awareness of himself in and around us, eventually expanding to a place of perfect union and love, that still mystically honours our God-designed uniqueness. (The union and love have always been there because of his presence in us, it just takes us time to believe it!)
The religious spirit is often veiled in humility, a desire to help others do life better, and a righteous vigour, but any time we measure what others are doing and judge their actions, we are going into territory that Jesus himself did not go on earth.
“God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)
The religious spirit provokes guilt and pressure and places a burden of bondage upon people, often manifesting as guidelines and best practices, masked in inspiration. I know, because I spent many years lost down the maze of trying to “live righteously” according to sanctioned lifestyle practices. The only problem is that this leads to increased awareness of and focus on avoiding sin (which magnifies a sin awareness in our hearts), and a narrower and narrower life experience of righteous freedom, because now we’re living from a place of fear instead of victory!
The strain to live constantly in line with higher and higher standards of visible righteousness or specific traditions, or avoiding "evil" practices is to succumb to the lie that it is the law that saves us… that if we just get our act together enough, or check off enough “do-gooder” boxes, or distance ourselves appropriately from “bad guys” we will be pleasing to God. When we live from here, we have agreed to continue living under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (just like Adam and Eve chose to do)! Yet our striving to please God, our conforming to a set of sanctioned practices is taking back a yoke of slavery, when we were made to eat as royalty from the Tree of Life.
This misunderstanding highlights the central point of the gospel that many faith communities are missing: the finished work of Christ.
Because of Jesus, all the effort, all the trying, all the comparing, all the judgement has been swept away forever because he has consummated us with himself and now we are one: when God looks at us, He sees Jesus in us, as us.
When God looks at you He sees His heart’s delight; He sees your fantastic uniqueness and adorable quirkiness, He sees your beautiful heart. When He looks at you God sees His child whom He loves: He sees Jesus.
Remarkably, what happens when we begin to internalize the unfathomable goodness of the good news - that we are right with God NOW - we begin to live into our real identity, literally as children of God! That's when the Kingdom of God begins to manifest around us, because:
"For as a man thinks in his heart, so is he..." (Proverbs 23:7)
Religion enforces “righteous” behaviour from the outside, but grace woos us into the righteousness that we already are because of Jesus. The Bible teaches that the fruits of the spirit will be the increasingly evident fruit of our lives, but for those who follow Jesus, it is ultimately our love that is the mark that identifies us, not measurable attempts at outward ideals.
“People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7
So, when you are part of a community where you can’t ask questions, can't express your real self and share your honest process, feel like you have to hide pieces of your life, where you have to follow "the code", perhaps obey a hierarchical structure, disavow certain things, or when you are required to conform to outer rules in order to belong you’ve stepped into some “spirit of religion”.
The only way to dismantle the spirit of religion is through grace and love, but we are not obligated to remain under it’s death grip even as we do our loving.
“…wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” 2 Corinthians 3:17
The frequency of fear cannot be what guides us into the heart of God. At times, we need to distance ourself from this kind of religion (that operates from a place of fear and obligation) to clear a space wide enough to hear from God Himself as He speaks love, freedom and delight over us. As we move into this place, we will naturally and effortlessly lose our appetite for "bad stuff"and righteousness will begin to dawn within us in increasingly visible ways.
Religion is a losing game, but walking with Jesus is about living in eternity now: glory everywhere!