Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Pitfalls of Religious Practices

Ever since the beginning of Christianity, we have found certain practices to be helpful (even necessary) on our spiritual journey. Fasting, praying, church attendance, giving, daily devotions, Bible memorization: all of these have played a big role in Christian history. They can be quite helpful, but they can also become dangerous. The blame really shouldn’t fall on the practices, but our misuse of them.

Pitfall #1: Using spiritual disciplines as a way to impress God

What did the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable do? (Luke 18:9-14) He recited the list of all the great things he had done in service of God. Now before someone starts crying “legalism”, let’s make sure we put the blame where it needs to rest. The long list of stuff this guy did was REALLY GOOD STUFF. The problem wasn’t what He did, it was what he was trying to do with it: Impress God.

Isaiah 66:1-3
This is what the Lord says:
“Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
Where is the house you will build for me?
    Where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things,
    and so they came into being?”
declares the Lord.

I don’t know about you, but when I read that God’s footrest is the entire world, I’m pretty overawed with the bigness of God. I’d even be impressed if the prophet said that’s God’s easy chair was the size of Texas! But no, he’s even bigger than that. When I reflect on how great God is, I realize there’s not much that I can scrounge up to impress Him – even a perfect attendance Sunday School pin looks pretty silly! (which I don’t have, by the way) The passage goes on…

“These are the ones I look on with favor:
    those who are humble and contrite in spirit,
    and who tremble at my word.

You can’t impress God, but you can let Him impress you. That’s exactly what happened to the guy kneeling next to the Pharisee. The tax collector was so overcome with the holiness of God and his own absolute unworthiness that he beat himself on the chest and simply cried out for mercy. Spiritual disciplines cannot be used to impress God. They can be aids in helping us pursue God. They are not meant to change your status before God, they are simply meant to change you into the likeness of God. So no matter how many prayers you say today, or verses you memorize, never forget the value of humility and contriteness before the Almighty. Remember you have NOTHING to offer Him and He has EVERYTHING to offer you.

Pitfall #2: Using spiritual disciplines as a mask to hide our sin

We’ve all done things we didn’t feel like doing. I’m often guilty as the next guy of not feeling like praying, or giving, or bible reading, etc. We all hit dry spells and we need to push through them and not give up. However, we need to be careful that we are not simply going through the motions as a front to hide what’s really going on inside. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13 that it’s possible to give to the poor, worship like an angel, and die as a martyr and it all amount spiritually to zero without the genuine love of Christ in us.

In the passage from Isaiah, that’s what was happening to God’s people. They were still attending “church”, sacrificing the animals, tossing around the incense, but it all meant nothing to God because their hearts were not right. Finally, God simply told them to close up shop because He was sick of it:

But whoever sacrifices a bull
    is like one who kills a person,
and whoever offers a lamb
    is like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever makes a grain offering
    is like one who presents pig’s blood,
and whoever burns memorial incense
    is like one who worships an idol.
They have chosen their own ways,
    and they delight in their abominations;

Often we know when our hearts are straying from God. We stop listening to the still small voice. We start choosing our way instead of God’s way. It’s often not something we intentionally do. In fact, we can deceive ourselves into thinking it’s not really happening. We do this by keeping up spiritual appearances for ourselves and for others. We might make a “deep” comment in Sunday School about a Bible passage. We may sign up for a new ministry (One that doesn’t require us to be too in tune with God). We can volunteer to pray or keep writing that tithe check faithfully. But deep down, we know that there are doors to areas in our life that we’ve closed off to God. We give God just enough to buy Him off – or at least to get our own conscience to shut up.

Don’t get me wrong. The problem is not the “Spiritual stuff”, the problem is you. Fix you and keep on doing the spiritual stuff. But know that God sees right through our hearts and would rather that we not put on our little shows of righteousness as a cover for our sin. Take some time to ask God if you and Him are really on good terms. Is there any sin that needs repenting of? Is there some area that you’ve been ignoring Him in? And then just listen. And obey.

So those are the two pitfalls of religious practices. I’m sure there are probably more, but two’s enough for now. Keeping fighting the good fight!