Posts Tagged ‘Relationship’

In general terms “alone” refers to the physical state of being by oneself, without companionship, help, or participation—whereas “loneliness” is the negative feeling of being by oneself, without companionship, help, or participation. Usually the two go together with the physical state of being alone being the cause of the negative feelings called loneliness—but not always. One can be alone and not feel lonely, and/or one can feel horribly lonely and yet not be alone.

On the journey from religion to relationship, a follower of Jesus, in my opinion, must by definition walk alone (or maybe the better word is “individually,” although there will be seasons of physical solitude). As an illustration, I am a music teacher by trade. At our facility we offer both private and group lessons on a variety of instruments—but group lessons are only offered (to multiple students on the same instrument) within a specific context—they are for absolute beginners only, because after only a few weeks, each individual student is progressing at his or her own independent rate of speed and comprehension. At that point, making all students conform to the same lesson plan would be horrendously unfair, and counterproductive.

Because religion is conformity based, “group-think” dominates and individuality and independence are frowned upon. When a believer leaves the institutional paradigm and strikes out on his own to cultivate an authentic relationship with God, “group-think” goes out the window and the heretofore foreign concept of a genuine individual walk with Christ is thrust upon us. And although there will be significant similarities when comparing the journeys of out-of-the-box Christians, ultimately each journey is highly individualized, varying in speed, intensity, and other factors.

Community then, is a combination of relationships. It is the combination of the relationship between “Believer A,” “Believer B,” and “Believer C,” each with God, and each with each other, plus the various combinations of two or more, with the dynamics varying based on the different combinations. (Which is why conformity kills authentic relationship.) If we continue with the musical metaphor, community is like a band or orchestra. Within the group there are different dynamics between the various instruments. There is a different dynamic between how the piano player and the lead vocalist interact as opposed to how the bass player and drummer interact. Plus there is how each individual instrument, and the group, interacts with the conductor to produce a unified whole (Greek: sumphonos, “to sound together”). Within the group there is companionship, help, and participation, even though individual roles are unique.

Loneliness therefore, is the negative feeling that one lacks companionship, help, and participation, regardless of whether one is physically alone or not.

It should come as little surprise then, that the out-of-the-box believer should experience some degree of loneliness, since this journey by definition usually involves separation from “the group” (external), and demands separation from “group think” (internal) in favor of cultivating one’s relationship with God. Painting in very broad strokes, once “group think” has been dismantled, and a healthy relationship with God established (sometimes requiring a season of solitude), healthy relationships with people should follow, thereby re-establishing some degree of community, and relieving the feelings of loneliness.

The crux of the matter then (pun intended) is the cultivation of a genuine, authentic, healthy relationship with God—and this is where the follower of Christ may encounter a kind of loneliness they never expected.

The Bible clearly teaches that God will never leave or forsake us. Therefore, in theory, the believer should never feel loneliness, even when alone, because God is always with us, right? And yet the Bible is also replete with examples of God operating in darkness and obscurity—in other words, operating in ways that make his presence and methods difficult to see, and thereby potentially producing a feeling of lacking companionship, help, or participation, and hence a sense of loneliness. Examples of God operating in darkness include Abraham in Genesis 15:12, and Moses and the children of Israel in Exodus 20:21, to name just two. Plus Isaiah 45 mentions the “treasures of darkness.” Additionally, David clearly wrestled with loneliness, as reflected in Psalm 22 among others.

But the most significant example of God operating in darkness and obscurity and producing loneliness involves the last person we would ever think could experience it—Jesus himself. But if Jesus was tempted in all things, then he too must have experienced loneliness. Having become sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), and with darkness covering all the land from the sixth to the ninth hour (Matt. 27:45), Jesus could not perceive the presence of the Father and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If that isn’t an example of feeling a lack of companionship, help, and participation, I don’t know what is.

The contrast is striking. The foundation and model of all genuine relationship lies within the Godhead, something with which Jesus was intimately familiar from eternity past, and yet at that moment on the cross, Jesus experienced what I can only describe as what must have been the complete opposite—the feeling of complete abandonment and loneliness—totally without companionship, help, or participation. And the most significant part of all—one that I do not claim to understand—is that he somehow managed to feel the most extraordinary loneliness imaginable without sinning, and that his next utterance demonstrates the most extraordinary trust imaginable—“into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Since the human race was built for relationship, it makes sense that along with shame, loneliness would be one of the natural consequences of the fall, and therefore something Jesus paid for on the cross.

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Just a little humor to introduce what can be a very uncomfortable subject.

Are we really prepared to do what it takes to allow God to deconstruct religion and cultivate relationship in our lives? Because to genuinely do so will require a level of objectivity and introspection that is highly likely to go far beyond anything we have ever experienced before. Will you join the Sacred Cow Tipping Team and be prepared to laugh (and probably cry) at your own religiosity when the Holy Spirit digs you in the ribs and says, “Yes, you actually think and do that.” Or are you already setting out the barbed wire and sandbags and getting ready to defend your favorite pet bovine to the death?

Because frankly, facing religion means facing the fact that we have been complicit in our own slavery, which is neither easy nor pleasant.

I believe the British novelist Donald Wheal (pseudonym Dresden James) summarized religion brilliantly when he wrote:

“The ideal tyranny is that which is ignorantly self-administered by its victims. The most perfect slaves are, therefore, those which [who] blissfully and unawaredly enslave themselves.”

The journey from religion to relationship is not for the faint of heart. We must always remember that God really has only one method by which he engages our personal transformation and advances his kingdom—death and resurrection. And as much as we might like to think so, we don’t get to skip over the death part and go straight to resurrection. As a matter of fact it is religion that teaches us to try to do exactly that—to minimize the reality of the cross—to treat it strictly as a metaphor with no practical or experiential reality in our day-to-day lives. In order to experience the power of his resurrection, we must also share in the fellowship of his sufferings. The road from religion to relationship is the way of the cross. And the death of religion can be excruciating (pun intended) indeed.

Whenever Jesus encountered your standard issue sinner, he always demonstrated extraordinary compassion. And yet there was one particular group of people, that when he encountered them, didn’t seem to engender much compassion—you guessed it—the Pharisees.

Time and time again, Jesus called it like he saw it—“hypocrites,” “generation of vipers,” “whited sepulchres.”

But although not as immediately inflammatory, the phrase Jesus used regarding the Pharisees that I believe should arrest our attention more than any other is this…

“The traditions of men”

Jesus’ accusation against the Pharisees is absolutely stunning—that they valued their man-made (human) traditions over the commandments of God—and that in doing so they actually transgressed the very commandments they thought they were upholding.

The Pharisees were the masters of religion—using human traditions posing as the commandments of God to attempt to stand approved before God—and teaching and requiring others to do the same.

So time for a new shade of meaning…

Religion is: Attempting to use human tradition, effort, engineering, ingenuity, initiative, ability, and/or ambition to try to stand approved before God, accomplish God’s work, gain God’s acceptance, earn God’s approval, obtain God’s affection, etc, etc.

Plus, these traditions, efforts, etc, are often disguised or camouflaged as being mandated by God. After all, what better way to be approved of by God than to utilize an “approved” method?

But unfortunately, when we read about the Pharisees, our reaction more often than not tends to be, “Oh those silly Pharisees, when were they ever going to learn? I sure am glad I’m not like them.” Not realizing that records such as these are actually insights to ourselves.

In order to allow God to deconstruct religion in our lives, we must be prepared to allow him to dissect our “harmless” traditions at the cellular level, and to acknowledge that we have been complicit in our own slavery—that we too have been Pharisees. Please repeat after me…

Hello, my name is _____________________, and I am a recovering Pharisee.

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The distinction between religion and relationship is are not just about new or different ways to “do church,” or learning new techniques or principles for “advancing the kingdom.”

While the role of external religious structures plays a significant role in unraveling the distinctions between religion and relationship, ultimately it is our religious attitudes and behaviors, and whether we will allow God to dismantle and dispose of them from our lives, that tells the tale. And this is not entirely unfamiliar territory. Many of us at one time or another have heard a preacher say, “It only took 24 hours for God to get the children of Israel out of Egypt—but it took him 40 years to get Egypt out of the children of Israel.” And this illustration is exactly accurate. One can walk away from institutionalized Christianity overnight, and yet continue to be a prisoner to religion in one’s heart and mind for the rest of their life.

Jesus did not come to start a new religion or even to perfect an existing one. Frankly, Jesus came to put and end to religion in favor of relationship with him and the Father. Jesus has invited us to a new life—to live in him by the power of the cross that frees us from sin, frees us from shame, and teaches us again how to trust him, so that he can shape our lives as we journey forward.

So what does religion look like? How do we define it? Where do we start?

Well first off, we don’t start with the dictionary definition of the word religion (See What Is Religion?)—That’s not the definition of religion we’re talking about. We’re talking about the definition of the word religion as it is being used in the context of our quote—religion as an antithesis of relationship.

As we continue on this journey, we will discover that “religion” has many interconnected shades of meaning. To share them all at once would be too technical and over burdensome, so I will simply add a new shade from time to time. But as a starting point, let’s begin with this.

Religion is: Attempting to use human effort (engineering, ingenuity, initiative, ability, ambition, etc.) to try to stand approved before God.

The redundancy is deliberate because I want to emphasize the shades of meaning. Although similar, effort is not the same as ability, or is ambition the same as initiative.

Additionally, we can also reveal some of the various shades of meaning by exchanging the phrase “stand approved of God,” with:

• Accomplish God’s work
• Gain God’s acceptance
• Earn God’s approval
• Obtain God’s affection

So now we have…

Religion is: Attempting to use human effort, engineering, ingenuity, initiative, ability, and/or ambition to try to stand approved before God, accomplish God’s work, gain God’s acceptance, earn God’s approval, obtain God’s affection, etc, etc.

I think you get the idea.

In short, religion is substituting human effort (engineering, ingenuity, initiative, ability, ambition, etc) for God’ s ability to carry out his purposes and intentions. (And as I said, I will keep adding and revealing shades of meaning to this definition as we go along.)

Yet Jesus spent almost the totality of his earthly ministry teaching his disciples how to live in relationship with him (and therefore each other) as he lived in relationship with his father. But this is in direct contrast to how they had all been raised in the Hebrew religious tradition. Under the Mosaic covenant, they were all obligated to keep certain rules—eat this, don’t eat that—dress like this, not like that—worship in this place, at this time, in this way, etc, etc.

As a matter of fact, if there could be such a thing as a perfect religion it would be the Law of Moses—it was, after all, written by God. All you need to do is keep all 613 ordinances, and you’re right with God. But therein lies the rub. Although written by God, keeping the 613 ordinances was accomplished by…

… wait for it…

… human effort.

And this of course is the primary point hammered on repeatedly throughout the New Testament. The irony is that we should already know this, but maybe it never really sunk in.

More to come…

Religion Versus Relationship

“Christianity is not a religion. Christianity is the proclamation of the end of religion, not of a new religion, or even the best of all religions… If the cross is the sign of anything, it’s the sign that God has gone out of the religion business and solved all of the world’s problems without requiring a single human being to do a single religious thing. What the cross is actually a sign of is the fact that religion can’t do a thing about the world’s problems—that it never did work and it never will.” [Robert Farrar Capon]

Have you ever heard a minister say…?

“Christianity is not a religion—it’s a relationship.”

Or maybe even said it yourself?

If not, well, now you have. And this blog, very simply, will be devoted to unpacking and explaining this statement. So hang tight for just a moment while I speak to those who have heard someone say this before.

For those of you who have heard someone say, “Christianity is not a religion—it’s a relationship,” I have a question for you.

What does that mean?

In other words, if I give you, say, ten minutes to explain to someone who has not heard this statement before, what it means, what would you say? How would you explain it? What is the difference between religion and relationship, and why does it matter?

For me, in my experience, I have long since forgotten when I first heard someone say, “Christianity is not a religion—it’s a relationship,” or how many times I have heard it said. The first time was easily 15 years ago (or maybe even 20 or more), and I’ve heard it said dozens if not hundreds of times.

But what I have not forgotten is how many times someone explained it to me—and that would be none, zero, zip, zilch, nada. Not once, did anyone ever follow up this maxim with something like…

“Since Christianity is not a religion, and is a relationship—I think it would be a good idea to take some time and really explore what this means and why it matters.”

Not once.

And frankly this is where it starts to get a little uncomfortable.

Because I was hearing this quip spoken so frequently, but explained so little, I began to wonder if those saying it actually knew the difference—so I began to ask them to explain. What happened next, had it not been for my growing suspicion, would have shocked me.

The most common response I got was a shallow answer followed quickly by changing the subject. In other words, while most people I turned to for answers had an idea what this meant, my instincts proved correct, and they didn’t really know what it meant.

And this is where it gets more than a little uncomfortable. Superficial answers, even if “essentially” accurate, were not going to be sufficient—I wanted to know the difference between religion and relationship. If this isn’t just a quip (witty remark), but is a statement of real biblical substance, it deserves (and we deserve) to have it explained simply but substantively so that we can understand it, apply it, and live it.

So I gave my sources the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they knew the answers inwardly, but were just having a hard time articulating them—a not uncommon occurrence when discussing spiritual matters. So I asked again, and maybe pushed a little harder for an answer this time.

Not surprisingly, my suspicions again proved correct and I received essentially the same answers as before, at least as far as the content of the answers was concerned. What was different however was the change in attitude. Although always polite and courteous, subtle phraseology and body language made it quite clear that my questions were making them uncomfortable, and were therefore unwanted. If I didn’t cease and desist, pretty soon “I” would be unwanted as well.

In addition, the double irony is that one of the most frequent answers I got when asked to describe the difference between religion and relationship was, “religion is form without power” (apparently a vague reference to 2 Timothy 3:5). This is a perfect example of what I mentioned previously. This answer is essentially correct, but also grossly incomplete. What these people never seemed to realize is that by not explaining further, they just described their own answer.

This of course led to significant frustration on my part. But it didn’t take very long after my initial efforts at finding an answer were met with a combination of indifference, ignorance, and antagonism, that I realized I had to find my answers somewhere else.

Fortunately, at the risk of sounding cliché, God is good. I prayed a simple prayer asking God for His help in finding the right answers, and began to look elsewhere for them. Soon I began finding sources that could actually explain the difference, or at least were several big steps further along in their understanding than I was.

If this testimony resonates with you, even a little bit, then I hope this blog can help. I do not remotely claim to have all the answers, but I also know that I have a few worth sharing, and more on the way.

This blog is for those of us who have tried religion and found it wanting—for those who are tired of religion, but have not abandoned their desire to connect with God—for those who want to understand, experience, and live the difference between religion and relationship.