What’s the difference between having a personal, life-changing relationship with Jesus and going through the motions of empty religion? For starters, you may find yourself bored, burned, or burned-out by the endless grind of going through the religious motions. You probably also see God as the great ticket-taker in the sky, tallying up the points you’ve earned for doing the right things and docking them when you mess up.
Chances are, if you’re stuck in the cycle of playing the religious game, you probably find yourself trapped in a pattern of comparison. That’s because religion, void of a relational connection to Jesus, distorts the way we see ourselves and others. It can puff us up and make us look down on other people, or it can beat us down and convince us we’ll never measure up.
Religion tells us 4 big lies that affect the way we see other people and ourselves:
1. You can’t come to Jesus as you are
One of the most pervasive lies that accompanies empty religion is the idea that you need to clean up your act before you can become a follower of Jesus. There’s no room to be “in process,” and your mistakes can jeopardize your chances at getting into heaven.
Jesus makes no exclusions when he explains who can receive his grace. “I tell you the truth,” he says in John 5:24, “those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life.”
He doesn’t say “those who listen to my message and go to church every weekend,” or “those who listen to my message and volunteer at soup kitchens once a week.” Simply hearing and believing his message is enough to be welcomed into God’s Kingdom.
That doesn’t mean we get a free pass to behave however we want. When we follow Jesus, we become a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), setting aside our old ways in favor of a new way of living. The only way we can change is through Jesus.
2. Stay away from broken and messy people
Similar to the first lie, religion also convinces us that we can’t associate with people we’d consider to be “broken” or “messy” - people we avoid because we don’t want to get their dirt on us.
Don’t be mistaken – the company we keep as followers of Christ is important. Proverbs 13:20 says, “walk with the wise and become wise; associate with fools and get in trouble.” However, that doesn’t give us license to stay away from anyone we deem “too sinful” to be around. We're called in Matthew 5:16 to let our good deeds – sometimes referred to as our “light” – shine out for others to see so that we can point everyone to Christ.
Jesus showed us that it’s possible to be in relationship with people who aren’t always making the best choices. He was often criticized for being a guest of tax collectors and sharing meals with sinners (Mark 2:16). He was not influenced by their behaviors – rather, Jesus set the tone in those interactions, being an encouraging and challenging presence. In other words, Jesus used those opportunities to let his light shine before others who really needed to see it.
At the end of the day, we’re all in process no matter where we are in our faith journey. We all make mistakes from time to time. Choosing to distance ourselves from people just because of the shortcomings we judge them for is a pretty strong indicator of hypocrisy.
3. God’s grace is only for certain people
Religion tricks us into thinking God’s grace isn’t for everyone; there are people who need it more and people who need it less. If you’re good enough – you go to church, give 10% of your income, volunteer every week, etc. – you’ve already done everything you need to do to be made right with God, and if you’re bad enough, that’s when you really need grace.
On the flipside, you might fall for a different side of this lie: God’s grace is only for those who are most deserving. You might believe that if you mess up enough, God will eventually turn his back on you and leave you on your own. There’s a threshold below which you can be unworthy of God’s grace.
Neither of these is true. Romans 3:23-24 tells us that “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.” In other words, Jesus leveled the playing field. There’s no comparison when it comes to grace.
4. Broken people don’t deserve good things
Religion may have left you believing that you’ve messed up too many times to deserve anything good. Or it may make you feel bitter when you see good things come to people who are “worse sinners” than you. This isn’t unique to the religious circle. Many people believe that if you put good into the world, you get good out of it – and if you put bad into the world, you’ll get what’s coming to you.
It all comes back to the idea of reward-based faith; if we do enough of the right things and try not to do the wrong things, God will show us favor. The reality is much more freeing: Romans 5:8 reminds us that “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” Not after we cleaned up and started acting right. Jesus upended what it meant to be “deserving” of good things. It wasn’t because we were good enough that he was sent to die on the cross – it was because we weren’t, and never could be. We simply can’t earn God’s love because it’s already available to us.
What is the purpose of religion other than to strive to earn points with God? Merit-based religion traps us in a cycle of comparing and condemning – either others or ourselves. It can sit us on our high horse or push us down to what feels like rock bottom. The Bible reminds us, however, that we’re on equal ground in God’s eyes. Here are some other resources that will help you debunk the myths of religion and discover the joy and freedom of a relationship with Jesus:
The Truth About How to Earn God’s Love
Is There a Limit to Forgiveness?
4 Signs of Hypocrisy in Christians & How to Deal With It
2 Signs You’re Playing the Religious Game (and How to Quit It!)
LCBC stands for Lives Changed By Christ. We are one church in multiple locations across Pennsylvania. Find the location closest to you or join us for Church Online. We can’t wait to connect with you!