Going Through the Motions

Standard

A person can attend every church service, faithfully tithe, and beneath this righteous public display be concealing an adulterous affair.  One can go through the ritual of Holy Communion without being truly reconciled with their brother or right with God. False religion makes a mockery of the Church and the true faith of the Saints.

It is because of that fake devotion that many do throw the baby out with the bathwater and conclude that all religious practice is useless.  My generation, for better or worse, longs for authenticity and has rejected the motions of religion on that basis.  We all know hypocrites, those who dressed in the correct prescribed manner, who acted right and abused, neglected, or mistreated us.

This is likely one of the reasons why church attendance is dropping.  People had a bad experience (or many) and decided it is better to stay home than to simply show up for sake of appearance.  Why hang out with people who are phony, who do not truly live out what they claim to believe, yet will judge you because you are sincere and don’t follow all of their forms?

This is, after all, what Jesus did during his ministry, he challenged the pretentious, the religious elites, and brought the focus back to being genuine in love for each other.  And yet this is not to say that he was not an observant Jew or irreligious.  We know he was taken to the temple as a child, we know he was active in his own synagogue and kept the feasts.  

Sure, he chased out the corruption.  Sure, he corrected the misuse of the law.  And there was also the condemnation of those who were circumcised and imposed their tradition on new believers.  But that doesn’t mean that Christianity was without ritual or religion, it certainly does not mean we would be better to practice our faith only when we feel like it or completely agree with the application.

Authenticity is a good thing.  However, as an artistic cousin of mine (employed as a writer and musician in Nashville) once told me, you must practice even when you do not feel like it.  That is why I write almost constantly, and whether I feel like it or not, because regular practice is the only way we get better at anything.  If we always waited for the right amount of inspiration before going to work we would severely limit our potential.

Practice makes perfect and going to the gym every day, the repetition of various motions with the right amount of intensity, will allow us to build strength over time.  That is the power of religion.  It is not vain repetition to go through the motions of prayer or treating others with love, that is what builds muscle memory and leads to gain.  Had we just stayed home, to prove our authenticity or whatever, we would miss out on the opportunity for growth.

The danger of taking authenticity too far is that we never show up because we don’t feel like it.  My natural disposition would be to attend St. Mattress on Sunday morning and not have to face some people and their hurtful behavior that is inconsistent with their Christian profession.  It is triggering, it feeds deep-seated doubts and makes me uncomfortable.  Still, I go to work in the morning or the gym despite feeling unmotivated.

That is why we go through the motions of religion.  Faith is what it does.  And, if you want to move mountains or slay giants, then you need to show up for the small tasks as well.  David was a good shepherd who tended and protected sheep before he became king of his people.  Daniel prayed, faithfully, three times a day, before he faced down the lions.  Religion, going through the motions, can strengthen us.

However, at the same time, we can’t expect any gain through the ritual alone, at some point this must translate into tangible acts of love or it is fake. The Pharisees, we are told, were diligent in their religion and yet unloving in their actions. The church should never be a toxic environment where problems are never adequately addressed. St. Paul was brutal in his letters in addressing neglected issues. James too makes it clear that profession without concern for our brothers and sisters is not enough:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

(James 2:14-17 NIV)

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

(1 John 3:16-18 NIV)

Religious discipline, without love for each other, is only ever a dead work.  It is false security for those relying upon their own strength.  We’re not saved by the number of prayers we pray nor by our participation in the rituals and tradition of the Church.  All of this, without genuine love, is “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal,” a hollow act, worthless noise, and meaningless.

Maybe do not have any unmet material needs anymore, like those mentioned in the passages above, but we do have emotional needs and a need for real connection. And, let’s not forget that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, we can even go through the motions of intimacy and love. The truth of our faith depends on the authenticity of our love one for another; what we withhold from our brothers and sisters we withhold from God.

It is disappointing when the church is like a social club, people go through the motions of relationships, and there is no true depth or commitment to real love. It does seem that many lean towards this idea that Christianity is a “personal relationship with Jesus” or something between them and God alone, basically impractical religion, but that is not the attitude of those in the true Church. There is no love for God required to sit alone at home.

Christian Love Is Not Asceticism

Standard

Christianity prioritizes the spiritual without sacrificing physical practicality.  It is about faith that expands possibility and potential rather than limit it.

Many religious people teach some form of asceticism.  This an idea that individuals who empty themselves totally of physical desire will find something spiritual and redemptive.

In the early church many did give up their material possessions (Acts 2:45) and were willing to sacrifice their all in faith as Jesus taught:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.  And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)

Paul builds further on the same theme while encouraging the early church:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (1 Corinthians 4:16-18)

This is acknowledgement of reality.  This world, our life in it, is temporal and will pass away.  But in faith we can see what cannot be known through physical means.  Through the Spirit, through the mysterious backdoor of our consciousness, we are able to see spiritual reality greater than what physical senses can detect.  It is for this reason that we adjust our priorities according to what we know as the greater transcending reality.

But this is not asceticism in the sense of merely our emptying ourselves as an individualistic spiritual pursuit.  No, this is intentional self-sacrificial love that compels us to go beyond our own individual gain and love as God loves.  Our cross is not suffering for the sake of suffering, it is not a Gnostic self-loathing of our physical bodies, but is rather a means to the end and expression of deeper divine love.

Many practice asceticism as a means to judge their neighbors.  Many deny themselves as to prove themselves superior to others and earn their salvation.  However, this is not the way of Jesus.  Jesus did not need to die to save Himself from sin or earn God’s favor.  He did not sacrifice to prove our inferiority and bring judgement or condemnation:

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:17-18)

It is simply reality that we will all eventually die a physical death.  That is true by default and not something inflicted upon us for sake of manipulation.  This is scientific, a result of physical processes, something with causal explanation, and established.  You will not physically die because you reject Jesus, but rather you will eventually physically die (with or without Jesus) and the only way to eternal life is faith in Jesus:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

We are saved because we believe in Jesus and through our belief are empowered to love in a way that transcends individualism and becomes all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) so they too might be saved.  Jesus explains obedience succinctly:

“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

It is that simple.  This is not denial of physical desires for sake of individual spiritual gain or asceticism.  This is denial of self for the collective good, as directed by the Spirit in those who believe, and so the lost can be saved.

It is not sin to enjoy life.  It is in no way wrong to enjoy sexual pleasure (in appropriate context) and relationships based in biology.  Having friends because of our physical proximity and the community we were born into is not inappropriate.  However, when our preference for what is familiar supersedes Christian commitment, when we prioritize temporal pleasure over eternal gain, then we must repent.

Ultimately, what we do or do not possess individually and materially is of little consequence.  It is not sin to have a successful business, big family or nice car.  What ultimately does matter is that these pleasures of physical life do not distract and blind us.  We must find our security in God rather than our possessions or other worldly pleasures.

To be in this world but not of it doesn’t mean a life of misery and complete abstinence from pleasure.  Rather it is to possess the transformation of mind (Romans 12:2) that enables us to love more completely and experience greater joy than the world offers.

If you sell all or leave family behind, do it out of genuine love for your neighbor and not asceticism.  Give freely because you believe in the eternal life Jesus promised and love God.