“I’m not religious!”
When people ask if I’m religious, I usually want to say no. Not because I’m afraid or ashamed, but because I have an inner-resistance to the word religious.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2018), ‘religious’ is defined as “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity”.
My resistance to the word isn’t found in its definition, rather the cultural and societal perceptions around the word.
From my experience as a Christian, I would say people’s biggest assumption about me and my faith is that I live a restricted life, bound by a set of rules, punishing myself into a life of submission, trying hard to be ‘good’, all the while missing out on what the world has to offer.
I have often refuted such assumptions. “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship! I live this way because I love God, I trust what he says is true, and I know his plans for me are good.”
But as much as being called religious makes me cringe, and being aware the very nature of faith invites criticism, I do wonder how much of society’s negative perceptions we invite upon ourselves. Or if in fact they see something we ourselves need to open our eyes to.
Okay, maybe I’m not so not-religious after all…
While rejecting the label, I have come to see within myself just how ‘religious’ I can be. Whenever I consciously or subconsciously try to live out my faith by relying on externally imposed restrictions and rules, rather than living from an inner conviction and freely making choices from that place, that’s religion. And not the good kind.
Religion can too easily become all about playing the part, looking the part, and speaking the part. We can devoutly conform to the rules or expected behavior of a ‘good Christian’, without actually letting God in to transform our hearts. This has been especially easy for me to do, almost unconsciously, having grown up in a Christian home, going to church all my life.
The problem with Christian do’s and don’ts
The problem with relying on a set of Christian do’s and don’ts, is it isn’t sustainable, and it isn’t the freedom God paid such a high price for us to walk in.
While external structures such as church communities, a particular denomination, or friendship groups are important in our journey of faith, they are not guaranteed to remain constant throughout our lives. In fact, we will probably all experience times where these things will crumble around us. Then what? And is living according to a set of rules God’s ultimate plan for us? Sure isn’t (see New Testament)!
When we try to substitute an intimate relationship with God by simply ticking off all the expected behaviors of a Christian, we sacrifice authenticity. That’s the kind of ‘religion’ that is unattractive—when it’s not authentic, real or lived from the heart.
When religion breeds judgment
If our faith consists merely of following a set of rules, we anxiously strive to correctly interpret Scripture, rather than simply engaging with the person of Jesus. When our confidence is found in having the ‘correct doctrine’, rather than our identity as children of God, we risk stepping away from humility and into arrogance, and end up majoring on the minors. Our relationships with other Christians and churches, who have many different expressions of faith, suffer.
How easily we are divided when we elevate the interpretation of doctrine, above our own and others’ heart connection with God! We leave Jesus on the sidelines as we throw stones at each other, under the guise of fighting for truth.
Truth is a person, not an abstract, hard to pin down, theory. When we search the scriptures grasping for any hardline rule we can find, we start to miss the point —Jesus! I am not suggesting we give up studying and learning how to interpret Scripture, but the word of God is living, active and true, and as we read we should ultimately seek to know and encounter the author—the Creator of the universe. It is he, not our clever minds, that will lead us into truth.
I am determined to purposefully lose my religion so that I can find more of God. The more I find God, the more I experience freedom, and the less need I have to cling to the false security of religion.
Freedom is discovered in realizing how much I am FULLY accepted, FULLY forgiven and FULLY loved. I see my weakness and failings, but God covers them like a good Father. He sees me through a lens of love and acceptance, not of judgment.
Does this mean I abandon all efforts to live a holy and righteous lifestyle? No. It means I live joyfully from God’s holy, righteous nature given to me when I said yes to him. It means I don’t live with a constant fear of God’s disapproval, but an awareness of his delight in me. It means I live from the inside out, not relying purely on external structures to keep me in check, but from a heart growing more and more into God’s likeness as I prioritize my connection with him above everything.
It means I am choosing real, authentic, messy, life-giving relationship, over squeaky-clean, outwardly conforming, lifeless religion.
“People judge by the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel chapter 16, verse 7)
Bonnie loves all things old-fashioned, travelling, coffee with friends and being with her family. She is passionate about broken hearts and relationships being restored through the power of vulnerability and honesty with God and others.
Bonnie Dowie’s previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/bonnie-dowie.html