Picture this: you’re sitting in your car, stopped at a traffic light, and notice a bumper sticker on the car in front of you that says “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship with God.”
Maybe you agree wholeheartedly with what you just read. Maybe you roll your eyes at what, to you, is a corny one-liner only “Jesus Freaks” use. Maybe it gets you thinking: “What are we calling religion, and how is it different from a relationship with God?”
Christianity, based on the teachings of Jesus, is by definition a religion: “a system of beliefs, attitudes, and practices” (Merriam-Webster). If you think about it, this definition is a little cold. Hopefully you’ve encountered a Christian who describes their experience with religion as a life-giving, inspiring, and encouraging way of life. Unfortunately, you’ve probably also met someone whose understanding of Christianity – and Jesus – is more like the dictionary definition: systematic, repetitive, and monotonous. If you’re being honest with yourself, this may even describe your feelings about God, faith, and church.
Religion focuses on what we must do in order to earn God’s favor. It’s the idea that what God wants most from us is to do more good things and fewer bad things to get his approval. It often leads us to start bargaining with God, cashing in our “good behavior” for things we want from him. “If you’ll help me get this job, I’ll start going to church again.” “If you help me get a good grade on this exam, I’ll read my Bible more.” This kind of thinking makes our relationship with God transactional, all about giving God what we think he wants so that we can get what we want. It starts to feel like a game. The problem is, we know inherently that relationships don’t work that way.
Meaningful relationships aren’t built around what other people can do for us – they're built around spending time and growing in our familiarity and appreciation of each other. What we “get out of it” is a support system that celebrates our wins and mourns our losses, ready to step in and help when we need it most.
Believe it or not, you can have a relationship with God that looks like this too! But pursuing empty, meaningless ritual will break your relationship with God. Here are two signs that you may have fallen into playing the religious game:
You’re doing things out of duty
If the habits designed to bring you closer to God feel more like a checklist to get through, you might be operating out of a sense of duty. You feel obligated to check the box, complete the task, and go about business as usual for the rest of the day.
This is why many people grow bored with religion. What could be an enriching, fulfilling experience with God is reduced to a lifeless routine. It’s not a relationship, it’s a job: you show up, clock in, and pay your dues. Not because you want to, but because you feel like you have to.
Romans 5:8 challenges this kind of thinking: “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” Galatians 2:21 adds, “if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.” God loves us and desires for us to experience the love and freedom he’s so eager to give us. His love doesn’t depend on us doing the right things or following an empty, monotonous routine.
The antidote to obligation is gratitude. When you begin to appreciate God for who he is, your desire to learn about him and spend time with him in prayer and Bible reading will increase. Try starting with this Bible Reading Plan that walks you through five characteristics of God that will fill you with gratitude.
You feel like you’re messing it up
“I started going back to church, but my marriage hasn’t changed.”
“I got baptized, so why am I still struggling?”
“I prayed and prayed and prayed and nothing happened.”
“What am I doing wrong?”
If this sounds like you, there’s a good chance your motivation isn’t in the right place. Your routine of going to church, praying, or reading the Bible is rooted in the hope that, by doing these things, you’ll get what you want. The underlying fear is that if you mess up, you’ll put what you want from God at risk.
Religion will rob us of a relationship with God because it will make everything about how we relate to God transactional in nature. It makes us believe that, when bad things happen in our lives, it’s because God’s punishing us for not being good enough.
Jesus reminds us in Matthew 11:30 that our lives aren’t going to be without struggle. He invites us to follow him, saying “my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” Jesus isn’t saying that all your problems will go away when you come to him, but that he will be with you no matter what you face.
Your struggles don't mean you’re messing it up with God – they're often just a byproduct of living in a broken world. The good news for us is that Jesus offers us peace in the midst of our struggles. He encourages us in John 16:33, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”
When we truly place our faith and hope in Jesus, we don’t have to panic every time something goes wrong in our lives. Instead, we can rest in the assurance that God is right beside us in everything we face, and his wisdom is readily available in the Bible. If you want to learn more about God’s wisdom, check out this Bible Reading Plan that walks through the book of Proverbs, which is full of practical direction for our lives.
God’s love is already available to us. There isn’t anything we need to do to earn it or keep it, and nothing we do can ever make us lose it. There’s no need to go through the motions or keep track of your rights and wrongs. God wants a relationship with you, one where you relate to him out of love and freedom, not fear and obligation.
Learn more about quitting religion and pursuing a relationship with God with these helpful resources:
The Truth About How to Earn God's Love
Does Prayer Work?
3 Ways Going to Church Makes Your Faith Stronger
Bible Reading Plan: The Lost Ones
Bible Reading Plan: The Power of Prayer
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