The look on his face was classic. It registered surprise and a touch of indignation, which was a little humorous. We were sitting across the table from each other and he had just told me that he "wasn’t religious." Since he knew I am a pastor, I suppose he was wondering how I would react to this confession.
He was not prepared for my response (which I’ve given to many people over the years). I looked him in the eye and told him that I wasn’t particularly religious either.
For a moment — I could see it in his eyes — he thought I had just admitted to being a charlatan and a hypocrite. And, religious or not, he felt a flare of righteous indignation. So I quickly explained that one needn’t be "religious" in order to follow Jesus. The Christian life is about the reality of one’s relationship with God, not about the religiosity of one’s temperament.
Some people have a proclivity for religious things — rituals, sacred objects and pious language. They are drawn to stained glass like a bee to a flower — or perhaps like a moth to a flame. Depending upon their particular traditions, the very act of genuflecting or raising their hands or bowing their heads strikes them as deeply meaningful.
These folks have the religion gene. Perhaps everyone has it, but it is dominant in them. It is not dominant in me. I truly believe in God, have committed my life and wellbeing to Jesus Christ and have ordered my life around that commitment, but I’m not naturally religious.
There are many people who love God but do not love religion. One thinks of Oswald Chambers. When he was serving as a chaplain with the British army, a young soldier said to him, "I can’t stand religious people." Chambers, who was a beautiful, godly and strong man, leaned toward him and said in a low voice, "Neither can I."
It is apparent from the biblical record that Jesus himself was insufficiently religious to satisfy many of his contemporaries. They distrusted him because he didn’t keep all their rules. He didn’t seem reverent enough — always hanging around with rule-breakers and religious drop-outs. It’s worth noting that almost every conflict Jesus had was with religious people.
It’s a mistake to think that being godly and being religious are the same thing. They are not. Were God to pack up and leave the universe like a tourist from a bad hotel, a great many religious people would go on doing their religious things without even noticing. They have a "form of godliness," to quote the apostle Paul, but are "denying its power."
Does that mean that religion is always a bad thing? Not at all. To the degree that religion — liturgy, ritual and ceremony — helps us know and worship God, religion should be heartily embraced. And it is only right to acknowledge that religion has through the centuries helped millions of people know and worship God.
But religion can become, and has too often been, a substitute for God. Jesus complained about this and quoted the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to make his point: "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." When it takes God’s place, religion becomes idolatry.
Religion is harmful when it replaces God, but it’s also harmful when it subjugates people. Instead of using religion to raise people to God, it has sometimes been used to subordinate people to a place of inferiority or dependency. The religious elite certainly did this when Jesus was on Earth, and his criticism of them was severe: "You load people down with burdens they can hardly carry," he charged, "and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them."
When religion provides God and people a place to meet, it becomes a sacred temple. But when, due to sin and misuse, God’s presence is absent from religion, it becomes at best a hollow and empty form and at worst a haunt of demons.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Mich. Read more at shaynelooper.com.