On the journey from religion to relationship, one of the obstacles we must deal with is our innate desire for significance.

On one hand, it is only natural for a devoted Christian to want to “do something significant” for God—but ironically, therein lays the rub. At the risk of being blunt, doing “something significant for God” more likely than not is an indicator of a performance-based mindset foreign to the New Covenant. As followers of Christ and members of his body our significance derives from our identity—who we are in Christ—not from what we do, regardless of how “significant” it may appear to be.

One of the consequences of the fall is shame. And by shame, I do not mean feelings of simple embarrassment—I mean an innate sense of inadequacy, insecurity, and low self-worth. Deep down we do not feel we have any value. Hence, it is our sense of shame that drives our desire to perform or produce. The reasoning becomes, “If I do something that has value, then I am valuable—If I do something significant, then I am significant.”

Unfortunately, religion doesn’t heal our sense of shame, but rather exploits our desire for significance by providing a method for achieving significance that we are told “comes from God”—and this is a powerful motivation indeed. If we believe that we achieve God’s approval (acceptance, affection, affirmation, etc.) by doing something significant (whatever that thing is, especially biblically sanctioned activities like prayer, Bible study, fasting, evangelism, etc.), then we are going to keep doing whatever that thing is, since the more I do it, the more significant I must be.

Furthermore, religion deftly camouflages itself by using “spiritually correct” terminology (kind of like “politically correct” except “spiritually correct”), while the substance of the matter remains quite different.

While most Christians are sincerely interested in “saving the lost,” or “advancing the kingdom,” sincerity is not a guarantee of truth. It is all-too-easy for these labels to be a clever disguise for a deeply entrenched performance-based system of acceptance that we are using to placate our need for approval and soothe our sense of shame.

The irony and the tragedy however is that this quest for significance is not necessarily “evil,” just human. Who doesn’t want their life to count for something? Who doesn’t want to be involved in something bigger than themselves? And as hinted at earlier, “doing something for God” and believing that you are racking up points with the Man Upstairs is big medicine. But the key of course is in how this all gets worked out—by human wisdom and man-made systems? Or by relaxing into the reality of Christ’s completed work?

Confusing the matter is unfortunately easy to do. The scriptures clearly encourage Christians to engage in a wide variety of “authorized” activities (such as prayer, Bible study, assembling together, evangelism, etc.), but the question we must ask ourselves (and be prepared for a potentially uncomfortable answer) is: “Am I doing these things to earn God’s approval (and thereby be deemed significant), or am I doing these things from a place of approval and significance—my position in Christ?” Christianity is rife with well-intentioned believers endlessly searching for that “new thing,” or “fresh word,” that sets them apart from others (and hence, more makes them more significant).

The distinction is between performance and relationship. True significance must be understood in the context of relationship. As soon as we define significance by performance we put it in a context that is impossible to understand and even harder to live up to. Furthermore, when significance is determined by a system, it isn’t actually “real,” since it is based in a thing and not a Person.

I cannot think of a single example in scripture of Jesus affirming anyone’s need for performance-based significance, in fact exactly the opposite. Whenever a person postured for performance-based significance He disarmed them—and those who could not posture for significance He exalted simply because He loved them. And this is precisely the point. There is little doubt that Jesus’ life was significant and that the people He loved felt significant. But Jesus’ ministry (despite what some may attempt to claim because of the “good works” He did) was not performance-based. Jesus never gave his followers instructions on how to perform properly—He spend the entirety of His earthly ministry teaching His followers how to live in relationship to Him as he lived in relationship to the Father. Jesus’ good works flowed from His relationship with the Father, not from an agenda to do good works, or even “advance the kingdom.” On several occasions people questioned Him, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?” And yet Jesus was not the rabbi of a synagogue, was not the mayor of Nazareth, or a priest in the Temple. Jesus did not operate from any recognizable position of authority, influence, or significance apart from His relationship with the Father.

So we can see that significance in and of itself is not a bad thing—but whose definition of significance? Our desire for significance is the driving force behind many personal agendas designed to deliver us from our insecurity by finding value in achievement.

What makes this even worse however is that the value of achievement is always relative and comparative—I have achieved more than you, or you have achieved more than me—turning relationship into competition. Furthermore, our old man/fallen nature does not allow for the “win-win” scenario but insists that significance by achievement means only a few, or one, can rise to the top.

It is in this context that we can begin to understand why so much of Christianity is merely an Old Covenant paradigm with New Covenant labels.

The Law of Moses is the perfect example of a performance-based system of acceptance. Just keep all 613 ordinances and one achieves right standing before God—and if one has right standing before God—one is valuable. Furthermore, even if “I” cannot keep all 613 ordinances perfectly, if I can keep more than “you,” then I can conclude that I am more valuable than you.

The Old Covenant was an external law written on tablets of stone—in other words—a religious system. But the New Covenant is an internal “law” written on the tables of the heart—in other words—relationship.

But in practice, much of Christianity is just as performance-based as the Old Covenant.

Although we no longer (are supposed to) have a physical temple, our church buildings are our sacred spaces. We compete with each other over who can build the most lavish “church”—all “for God” of course. We spend literally millions of dollars on bigger and better buildings that can hold larger audiences, and have better sound systems and spectacular multi-media displays. Bigger and better equals performance, which equals achievement, which equals greater value.

Within a performance-based system of acceptance, bigger is always better, because “bigger” equals more value, and more value equals greater significance.

In addition to the size and beauty of our buildings, and the numbers in attendance, how much money we contribute to the building fund demonstrates levels of achievement and therefore, greater value and significance. This is despite the fact that under the New Covenant, the temple of God is people—valuing relationship over performance.

Although we no longer (are supposed to) have literal “sacrifices,” our church programs are our sacred rituals, and our financial giving and acts of service are considered sacrificial. Some local assemblies value “sound doctrine,” others value evangelism, and others still value “praise and worship.” Regardless of which (or all) programs a local assembly promotes, conformity to these programs is a measurable indicator of performance. Support for programs equals greater value and significance.

Although we no longer (are supposed to) have clergy and laity, and many “pastors” even preach this from the pulpit, most Christian “churches” function according to a hierarchy utterly foreign to the “priesthood of every believer/every member functioning” paradigm described in the New Covenant. Pastors, worship leaders, and other highly visible members of local assemblies become celebrities with loyalty and supporting the “vision of the house” translating into greater value and significance.

The presence of any performance-based system of achievement, by default, generates comparison and competition between members of the community. Each member is able to determine their own, as well as other member’s value based on obedience and conformity to the system. This is of course regardless of how well camouflaged the system is with “relational” vernacular. Plus, when we teach that such a system is God’s design, we up the ante. When we believe that we are validated in God’s sight by obedience to a system, genuine relationship is undermined if not down right impossible.

Furthermore, one does not have to have a genuine relationship with Jesus in order to be a “law-keeper”—in other words, someone who supports all the programs, is loyal to the pastor and the vision of the house, and pays his bills (so-called tithes and offerings). That’s just keeping a system. Unfortunately we are often taught that supporting these things either “is” relationship, or opens the door for relationship, or forms the basis of relationship, etc. This paradigm is precisely Christianity practiced as a religion.

Here’s another way of looking at it—God is first v. God is central.

In our quest to do something significant for God, many of us were taught to prioritize our activities according to “spiritual” priorities. Usually something like this:

1) God
2) Family
3) Church
4) Work
5) Friends

Whether you agree with this prioritization or not is not the point—the existence of such a list is the point. If we live according to a list of priorities, this is just another version of performance-based achievement and acceptance. If (according to the above list) I have a choice between a Bible Study at my church, or hanging out with my friends—if I believe in this scale of priorities, I had better choose the Bible Study in order to stay in right standing with God, and with others who follow this list. Furthermore, I (and others) can then use this list to judge who has greater value due to obedience to the list. This is a performance-based religious mindset.

Ironically, God never asks us to put Him “first” on any such list. What God asks, and what is relational, is that God asks us to keep Him central in all that we do—family, friends, work, church, recreation, etc. Imagine a children’s wind driven mobile. God is the central hub around which all other things rotate driven by the wind of the Holy Spirit. This way we are free to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our hearts as we engage all aspects of our lives with God at the center, instead of having to consult our priorities list that essentially makes the decision for you. When God is central however, unlike the list of priorities, there is no immediate answer to “which one is more important?” and instead becomes an exercise in following the voice of the Holy Spirit—“Where does God want me to be?”

Furthermore, when we follow a list of priorities, regardless of how right and godly it appears, the higher priorities compete with the lower priorities, which results in our neglecting the lower priorities so that I can feel good about myself. But when Jesus is central, He infuses all things with His life. He infuses my marriage, infuses my job, and infuses my church and recreational activities.

One is a system—one is a relationship.

But all that to say this. How does one transition from religion to relationship? Easy—die. Religion and performance-based systems of achievement are endemic to the old man, and he’s dead.

More to come…

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s