I’m not alone in this struggle. Many people are still trying to reach God through religion. They’re doing everything right on the outside and remain empty on the inside.
Maybe you’re in the same boat—caught in the doldrums of wanting more and not knowing how to move forward. Here are a couple of indicators that you need some fresh air in your life. Symptom number one is that you’re doing the right things but you don’t enjoy them. This feeling goes beyond simple fatigue or occasional boredom to indifference. A subtle, unspoken sense of “what difference does this make?” creeps in. You may even feel a little guilty for not having the peace and joy that you once experienced or that you’ve heard someone who’s in love with God should experience.
Another classic symptom is when you begin to envy others who seem to grow closer to God by doing what you’ve done. Doing the right thing seems to be working for everyone but you. As you look around at the people in your church or in your group of Christian friends, you notice that their efforts seem to be producing fruit where yours never have. You read the same books, go to the same small group, even do the same Bible studies, and yet your attempts remain dry, lifeless, uninteresting, and uninspiring.
This isn’t just a twenty-first-century, American phenomenon. In every nation of the world and in every period of time you’ll find people practicing liturgies, reciting prayers, and obeying traditions while their hearts are far from God. They desperately try to know God by doing the right things externally. Perhaps the problem is more prevalent in our world today, though. In our technologically advanced age, where every problem has a solution, every bad habit can be changed, and every flaw can be corrected, we still cannot reduce our relationship with God to a formula.
We get stuck in a mind-set that tells us that what we do on the outside is the end in itself. Don’t get me wrong—it’s good to do good things. We can’t rely on our feelings as the engine to fuel our actions, just like a musician can’t wait until she has inspiration to play, but must develop her talent by practicing every day. It’s the internal motivation, the passion that fuels our desire, that determines whether or not our endeavor has breath.
But how can we tap into this spiritual passion within us? How can we cultivate our relationship with God and not get caught up in the performance trap of religion?
Answering this question has been the struggle of mankind since the Garden of Eden. From the very beginning of creation, people have always been given a choice. With Adam and Eve in the Garden, it was the choice of whether to eat from the tree of life or the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Would they choose the fresh air of relationship with their Creator? Or the performance-only trap of external dead works?
We know what they chose and the chain reaction it set off for all humankind. But why did Adam and Eve make that choice? And why do we so often follow their example? I believe it’s because we think it’s easier to measure, to quantify, and to control our behavior when we have an external set of rules. When we have a checklist to work from, we can track our progress and know where we stand. Besides, relationships are messy.
And yet relationships are what we’re made for, what we all crave on the inside. Most religious people are banking their salvation on what they do right and avoid doing wrong. As long as their behavior conforms to this standard, then they figure they’re in the clear. They deserve to know God’s favor, to live a prosperous and joyful life, and to go to heaven when they die. After all, they’ve done everything right, haven’t they?
Probably one of the most surprising discoveries I’ve made while studying the Bible is that God does not condone religion. It’s a consistent theme throughout Scripture. Religion is man’s external effort to please God. But God doesn’t care about all my efforts to get it right. He wants more, something far greater.
In fact, this is one of the main issues Jesus confronted while on earth. He ignited a huge explosion within the religious establishment because he came and said, “I’m the Messiah, the Son of God. And you know what? Religion isn’t the way to God.”
Most people think that Jesus came to bring about a religious order. Throughout history, people of all faiths have called Jesus a religious leader. I think he would have considered that description an insult.
Some of the strongest, harshest language Jesus ever used was aimed at the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Jewish religious leaders of his day. As we look at one of their confrontations, I think you’ll see clearly that what God wants from them—and from us—is something much more than just obedience.
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?… You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”
Matthew 15:1-3, 6-9
Here it’s clear that clean and unclean have nothing to do with germs and aloe-enriched hand sanitizer! The fundamental conflict was about what qualified a person to approach God. For the Pharisees, it was a matter of keeping their own external tradition of washing hands before they ate a meal. But Jesus quickly jumped to the heart of the matter—literally.
He responded to their superficial question about conformity with a profoundly unsettling question about their heart motives. And for reinforcement he referenced one of their own sources—Isaiah, a prophet they honored. Long before Jesus was born and began his ministry, it seems, people had decided they could give God lip service and remain just as self-centered and rebellious as they wanted on the inside.
Instead of focusing on knowing and loving God, their method became a matter of making and conforming to rules. They set themselves up to determine what was and wasn’t holy and pleasing to God, often based on their own prejudices and self-righteous judgments. They could feel superior about keeping all the rules they had made while condemning people who weren’t doing the same. Their reliance on external regulations and obligations defined religion. God was kept at arm’s length, or rather at heart’s length, because they created their own rules.
When Jesus came along and clashed with the religious establishment, he was engaging in a battle that continues today. And as I see it, the crucial question comes down to this: how can we get to God? Or to back up a bit, how can we really know God? The way we know him is through worship—opening our hearts to him with honesty, sincerity, and humility. Jesus makes it clear that worship is relational, an internal posture of the heart, not a mechanical pose we can strike just for the sake of appearances. Others may not see the difference, but God knows our hearts and clearly knows the difference.