The word “religion” is mentioned only a few times in the Bible; almost all of them are negative. Jesus’ harshest words were aimed at the leaders of the religious community.
Many of the world’s most dramatic atrocities were performed in the name of religion, including the Inquisition, Crusades, and Holocaust. During times in history when churches dominated society, we also often found slavery, subjection of women, savage forms of legal punishment, and heartlessness for the poor.
“There was a time when religion ruled the world. It is known as the Dark Ages.”(Ruth Hurmence Green)
Unfortunately, many forms of influence which can be used for very good purposes, such as money, power, communication, and religion, can also be utilized in harmful ways. Yet only religion provides true hope for mankind, serving as the reason and purpose of our existence.
“Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” (Jon Stewart)
Religion refers to an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods. Moving beyond the dramatic historical examples cited above, how can such a well-intended practice become a bad thing in our everyday world today?
When religion does not help people grow closer to God.
Amazingly, we have a God who wants to have a personal relationship with us, and many religious institutions do a wonderful job promoting this type of holy kinship.
Sadly, though, there are many people who have gone to church all their lives, but never got to know God on a personal basis and developed a hardened, cynical view of faith. In these cases, religion has worked to move them further away from God rather than closer to him.
Sometimes, religion may present us with an unbalanced focus on all the things we need to do to earn God’s favor and the terrible consequences of disobedience. In actuality, God’s favor is presented to us as an unearned gift of his grace and love and, frankly, we can never do enough to earn our way into heaven. The truth about God is, truly, Good News.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
When religion neglects its duty to help people improve their lives.
There are many people who, for whatever reason, were never able to find the help and compassion they needed at church.
Perhaps they felt intimidated by the real or perceived “goodness” of the members. Maybe their initial, tentative cries for help were met by uncomfortable silence, followed by a hurried “I’ll pray for you” and a rapid departure. Even worse, sometimes what they came away with was a debilitating sense of harsh judgment and burning shame.
The world desperately needs more institutions that will accept people wherever they are in their spiritual and emotional journey and help them improve their lives with love and grace. Is your church a place where you can openly share your issues, knowing you will receive support in return? The Bible cautions us not to allow ill-founded, non-caring judgment of others overwhelm our sense of compassion.
“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:7 and 11)
When religion is misused as an excuse for hypocrisy or pride.
Religion in its purest form humbles a person. Unfortunately, though, religion can also beget pride, and some people may misuse their spirituality to justify a perceived superiority over others.
A church should ideally be a home for authenticity and transparency. When members focus instead on acting holy and impressing people, they set a bad example that does little to attract people to their faith. When they portray harsh judgment and a “works-based” religiosity, it puts overwhelming burdens on anyone trying to learn from them.
To help us understand his views about pride and hypocrisy, Jesus told a parable about two men who prayed, and his intended audience and main point were clearly stated:
“So practice and obey whatever [the religious leaders] tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” (Matthew 23: 3-4)
Please note that Jesus was not anti-religion, quite the opposite. He was just against misused religion founded on harsh judgment and hypocrisy. He strongly encouraged people to establish the kingdom of God on earth and build up the church. His religion, however, was focused on helping people develop a close, personal relationship with God and achieve more satisfying, purposeful lives in the process.
When religion today helps perpetuate those same ideals, it can be a wonderful thing.
All of us have some hypocrisy and pride in our lives–where is yours?
Action: Identify one way you can use your “religion” to set a good example for others.