I’ve often heard it said, “I’m not religious, I’m a Christian.” It’s a popular idea often voiced by those who want to separate themselves from the hypocrisy associated with the term “religion.” Both fundamentalists and progressives have spoken to this opinion, and it seems to hit the nerve of real Christians everywhere who are frustrated with the hypocrisy within their ranks. Unfortunately, we threw out the truth of religion a long time before this fad came along. As a result, I never understood what religion really was until very recently.
The term religion is pretty vague. It’s too broad to rule out anything. A belief in a god. A system of beliefs. Attributing value to something. Basically whatever someone believes can be called a “religion.”
That fact serves as a starting point to the discovery of an ancient problem with not-so-ancient consequences. What some might not understand is that being religious has nothing to do with what people call religion these days. It’s become more about traditions, status, reputation, and repetition. This type of thinking has become so embedded into society that even those on the outside hold the church to those standards. Just like the Pharisees Christ rebuked throughout His ministry, we have added to the words of God in an attempt to make sure we don’t cross the line. Unfortunately, people associated with this have been called “religious.” Yet this has nothing to do with real religion. As a result, many are trying to throw out the idea of religion entirely. They think they can revolt from it in the name of humility, purity, and social justice. They renounce religion when all they need to do is understand it.
It’s not popular to be religious.
Religion has an important meaning according to the Bible. James 1:27 says three things about religion.
First, it says pure religion is only God’s concern. James began his discourse on religion by letting us know that God is the one concerned with it. No opinion of man, whether he’s a Catholic priest or a progressive youth pastor, has any bearing on the status of one’s religion. This mistake is the first step on the tragic road of religious misunderstanding. When we are doing something “religious,” its purpose is defeated if we are thinking about what someone else might think of us. Man’s opinion is irrelevant. We cannot further understand religion without understanding that our religious exploits are for God and for His evaluation alone. We have to be concerned with pleasing Him only.
After this, James gave two ingredients in the concoction he calls religion, and what they are might shock you. James said a truly religious person is characterized by both holiness and social justice. That’s right, James thinks we are not only to look after the purity of our hearts and actions, but also to see to the well-being of the “fatherless and widows.” We cannot understand religion if we don’t see a need to show the love of Christ to those who have fallen upon hard times. Granted, that means different things for different situations, but regardless of the situation, the church has failed in this part of religion. We live in a world where churches assume the people to whom they show benevolence should return the favor by faithfully attending the church. And when it does not happen, (which is most times) the church feels slighted, and the downfall of the operation begins. If we would instead allow ourselves to be motivated by a desire to obey, then God would be honored by our efforts and lives would be changed. But until we give up assuming that the broken people of this world should respond to our help with wholesome gratitude, we will not honor God in this area.
The other characteristic is not so hard to understand, so it seems. Holiness is something we conceptually agree upon as Christians for the most part. Yet, none of us have figured it out. There are many whose concept of holiness is actually legalism, and many rationalize all their unholy deeds in order to feel validated, not necessarily holy. But when we look at James’ interpretation of holiness in this tiny verse, we realize he is actually saying we are to be “unspotted from the world.” That means there should be no evidence that our lives are run in a manner similar to that of the rest of the world. That doesn’t mean we throw out our rock band t-shirts and sports jerseys, but that we actually keep ourselves unspotted from the world.
The “world” as it is meant in the Bible usually refers to that which is self-serving, God-ignoring, and Satan-empowering. In the Old Testament, Egypt was a type of “the world.” The world is typically spoken of as whatever is contrasted against God. Sometimes we mistake things of culture as things of the world, when really the selfish idolatry of our culture and the lack of a place for God in our lives are what we should eliminate.
When others look at you, they should see someone who is different than they are. We must live a life that without a word convicts the hearts of the observers. Some people apologize to me for using language in my presence just because I don’t use it and because they know what I am. I have never asked for that treatment, and I shouldn’t have to. If God is radiating in me, then people will see it without so much as a word from my mouth. If that is how we operate, then we are doing more than following rules. Our holiness will be shining a light to a dark, hurting world. At that point, we are following the Great Commission. And that is what religion is.
So if you want to avoid hypocrisy, adopt a World Vision orphan, donate blood to the Red Cross, or make an extra plate from your dinner table and take it to the old lady in your church struggling to make it on Social Security. Give the gift of social justice to those who never had a chance. Take your Bible to work and read it on your break. Give a hundred percent to your boss and don’t complain. Be the only one not participating in the conversations about the wild weekend. Let God convict the sin in the lives of others as they observe your life, not just as they hear you talk. Just be . . . religious. So I ask you, “Is religion really a waste of time?”