Religion vs. Christianity

This reflection series,  “The Impossible Religion,” reveals five specific problems that people have with the gospel of Jesus. These impossibilities arise when Christianity is a religion to achieve, rather than simply the “good news” of grace and redemption that will naturally transform us. Christianity outside of Christ’s redemption is in fact impossible, but with God nothing is impossible. For the next five weeks, we’ll go through Scriptures from five different areas of the Bible in order to confront these impossibilities:

  • Impossible Devotion
  • Impossible Standards
  • Impossible Trust
  • Impossible Power
  • Impossible Purpose

Impossible Devotion (Numbers 6)

This particular chapter in the book of Numbers, found in the first five books of the Bible, also known as “the Torah,” discusses a particular vow taken by some, but not all, Israelites.  This vow was “the vow of the Nazirite.”

For the purpose of time we will not discuss the details of the vow in depth. The main idea is that it was a vow of extreme devotion to God.

To many people, Christianity is where you “try your best.” But, deep down, we do this with a prepared surrender to the idea that we cannot achieve the devotion to God that is not merely suggested, but expected.  This rebellion and resignation arises out of a distinct misunderstanding of Christianity and the relationship to God depicted in the scriptures.  This rebellious resignation implies that the purpose of Christianity is to try your best, out of your own power, to please an impossible-to-please deity.

The problem with this perception is that, throughout the entire Bible, God speaks directly to his people, telling them that if they don’t want to serve him, if they don’t want to worship him, if they don’t want to love him, then there is no place for half-hearted attempts.

The Nazirite vow was chosen, not compulsory.  God did not demand this life from all of his people.  However, the heart of the Nazirite vow is a life that God’s people should ultimately desire.  The life of the Nazirite was one of complete and utter devotion to a God that deserved such worship and commitment. The Nazirite understood that living this way was the only way to justify the balance of what God had already done and what we could never do.  The Nazirite vow revealed a commitment to God that seems unrealistic: a level of self-denial that is offensive to some and impossible to the rest.

The only way in which to desire such a vow, such a life, and the only way by which to maintain this level of devotion is to understand the reason behind the choice to take it.

Taking a Nazirite vow does not mean that you try harder than the rest and therefore will receive greater praise from the creator.  Rather, the individual perceived this option as the choice that would best honor the relationship between a “Creator” and his “Creation.”  Taking a vow like that only arises out of the knowledge and understanding that anything less would be unworthy worship and service given God’s sacrifice for us already.

Being a Christian with the commitment like a Nazirite is impossible, if one approaches Christianity from the perspective that following God is simply something to add to your repertoire of good deeds and characteristics.  The vow is impossible from the “point-earning” perspective.

The only way that this level of devotion is possible and, more importantly, acceptable to God, is if it is born out of a new identity that surrenders the heart totally to God, the only one worthy of such praise.  Only a person remade in the image of Christ can willingly and wholeheartedly undertake such a vow.

This reflection series,  “The Impossible Religion,” reveals five specific problems that people have with the gospel of Jesus. These impossibilities arise when Christianity is a religion to achieve, rather than simply the “good news” of grace and redemption that will naturally transform us. Christianity outside of Christ’s redemption is in fact impossible, but with God nothing is impossible. For the next five weeks, we’ll go through Scriptures from five different areas of the Bible in order to confront these impossibilities:

 

  • Impossible Devotion
  • Impossible Standards
  • Impossible Trust
  • Impossible Power
  • Impossible Purpose

 

Impossible Standards (Proverbs 31)

Whenever I read the book of Proverbs, I always start pen in hand, intent on underlining “the good parts.” But every time, I quickly realize that to underline “the good parts” would find me underlining the entire book.  In 1 Kings we read about the gift of wisdom granted to King Solomon and the proverbs are proof of that gift.  The wisdom in the book of Proverbs is unique, different from anything else.

The Proverbs do not necessarily strike us as “impossible” as we read the sayings and feel intrigued, rebuked or encouraged.  That comes when we attempt to put these perfect words into practice in our admittedly imperfect lives.  The sayings in real-time and real-life swiftly transition from wise words in private to a burden too heavy to bear in public.  When faced with the challenges of this world, whether riches, anger, impatience, or pain, we tend to shake off “the good parts” as we indulge in our truly natural “human nature” and err on the side of the sinful flesh.

Throughout the entire book of Proverbs, Wisdom is depicted as a woman.  This woman of wisdom cries out to the passing pedestrians on the street, pleading with them to listen to her. All the while, she is challenged by an opposing voice from the opposite side of the street, also in the form of a woman, however, not a woman depicting wisdom and righteousness but rather “foolishness” or sin.  Throughout the entire book of Proverbs this woman of wisdom pleads for the people to listen, often to no avail.  It is her voice that we are meant to hear as we read the Proverbs and her words that we find perfect at one moment and burdensome at others.

The difficulty in taking advice stems from lack of trust in the source.  As we listen to the advice we are constantly evaluating the source giving the advice while perhaps making snap-judgments along the way.  “Does this person have a right to advise me?”  “What do they know about this?”  “Who are they to talk?”  It is from this mindset that we make our decision whether to follow the advice or not.

The proverbs are potent and almost hypnotic, small bursts of wisdom that captivate with their clarity. We chuckle from time to time as we read, saying things like, “That’s so true.”  But when the time comes to practice the sayings in our daily life, we take offense at the words and the source due to their unrealistic standards.  We don’t like to look like failures, and when we compare our lives to the wisdom of Proverbs, we often do. It’s easy to feel like a failure when confronted with the perfect advice and standard of Wisdom embodied.

Proverbs 31, the final chapter of Proverbs, is particularly fascinating: we finally get to meet the source of the sayings and words. At last, we meet this “woman of wisdom.”  Not only does she have wise sayings to offer us, she is, more importantly, an individual that puts the words into practice.  For all intents and purposes, she is perfect.

We might wonder how knowing that this woman practices the sayings is any help to us. “Good for her, but we still feel like the loser.” The only way to have confidence in advice is to trust the source, and to see the source likewise practicing the advice.  One of the things that hurts the church the most is that Christians fail to “practice what they preach.”  It is because of this careless, irresponsible and hypocritical approach to the Gospel that many avoid church, fall away from the church, or in general fall apart.  Superficial belief and worship was what most offended Jesus during his three-year ministry.  The idea that people tailored religion to fit their lifestyle led Jesus to call out the religious crowd, not the outcast sinners, as the hypocrites.

When it comes to practicing wisdom and these “perfect words,” the only way we can have confidence that we average people can reflect this wisdom is to understand the source.  In Proverbs 31 we meet the woman of wisdom.  However, as we know, this woman is not real, she is a literary device created to embody the sayings and to relate the words to us in a way we could understand. The true source of our wisdom is the “teacher of all teachers” and “shepherd of all shepherds.”  He is the one that said the sheep listen to his voice.  He is the one that promised and delivered the impossible.  He told us that we cannot do it alone, and that to attempt to reflect the wisdom of the proverbs using our own effort is futile.  With him, through him will we be awed by the wisdom, and ultimately overcome and transformed by it.  The voice of Jesus, the one that spoke the truth and is the true voice of wisdom that we can confidently follow.

This reflection series,  “The Impossible Religion,” reveals five specific problems that people have with the gospel of Jesus. These impossibilities arise when Christianity is a religion to achieve, rather than simply the “good news” of grace and redemption that will naturally transform us. Christianity outside of Christ’s redemption is in fact impossible, but with God nothing is impossible. For the next five weeks, we’ll go through Scriptures from five different areas of the Bible in order to confront these impossibilities:

  • Impossible Devotion
  • Impossible Standards
  • Impossible Trust
  • Impossible Power
  • Impossible Purpose

Impossible Trust (Malachi 3)

In studying the Bible with people of various levels of faith, I encounter various levels of opposition to the Gospel and to God.  One of the main reasons people resist the Gospel is that they don’t trust God, and thus don’t trust the Gospel.

The Bible is clear about what God desires, and what he desires is echoed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  He is not interested in a two-hour block of your Sunday schedule to accommodate worship, fellowship and Bible study.  He wants everything.  When most people hear that, their eyes widen in suspicious disbelief.  This is an understandable reaction to such a request. To feel this initially is not wrong by any means.

Imagine yourself walking down the street. A stranger approaches you and says, “I want everything you own right now! I want your family, your possessions, your dreams, your deepest thoughts, your time, everything!”  Our natural reaction to that person would be similar if someone were trying to rob us in broad daylight.  Interestingly, robbery is what God is charging us with in Malachi 3.  Where we feel that God is demanding everything, leaving us with nothing of our own, God views our stubbornness to give back what was his in the first place as equally unjust.  However, only one of these perspectives views the other as a stranger and not an ally.  We view God as a mysterious figure demanding more than we want to give him, but he views us as children whom he has provided for who refuse to acknowledge his provision.

We humans are extremely protective beings.  We know what belongs to us and we know what we have to do to protect our possessions.  We also know that it is wrong for someone to take something that does not belong to them.

The reaction to God’s demand for “everything” is determined by whether we view God as friend or foe. The more we come to see God as he truly is, as a friend and not a foe, the more willingly and naturally we will allow him access to all of our belongings without hesitation or suspicion.

We don’t trust strangers because we know nothing about them, or about their interests and intentions. With this perception of God, the suspicious reaction to the request for “everything” is then quite natural.  To react otherwise would be naïve and dangerous and rather unnatural.  One of the first lessons that parents teach their children about going out in public is, “Don’t talk to strangers!”  Is this because our parents want us to grow to be anti-social and reclusive?  Hopefully not.  On the contrary, it is to protect us from being harmed. It is no surprise that we instinctively react with suspicion when we read that to follow Jesus means to deny ourselves and find ourselves in him alone by committing everything to him.

Many people have self-created ideas of God, perhaps formulated from their experiences of “church” and “Christians.”  Perhaps they have mistakenly followed the path of least resistance that, to our current culture, is the online landscape of blogs and websites where everyone is an authority.  Perhaps they read one passage of the Bible dealing with gardens, snakes, sacrifices, etc. and concluded that Christianity was not for them.  Regardless of the influence, everyone has an idea of God that leads each person to relate to God in different ways.  The danger or our self-created ideas that come only from experience is that in forming them we often disregard the source of our understanding of God’s character.

In the Bible, one finds the uncompromised nature of God. With this portrait of God one can confidently and fairly arrive at the truest picture of who God, and not others, says he is.  Unfortunately, to do so leads down the undesirable path of actually sitting down and reading the Bible, which is long and often difficult to understand.  However, it is only by this method that one can finally meet the “stranger” personally and understand his interests and intentions.

By reading the scriptures we can come to realize the identity of this stranger who requests “everything,” and what he wants to do with our “everything.” What we find might surprise some.  The reality laid out in the Bible is that this stranger is no stranger at all.  He is a father who has known us longer than we have even considered him.  He always has our best interests in mind.  He specifically designed every aspect of our characters.  He is a father that delights in us and delights in our existence, and always desires to give us more.

In Malachi 3 we learn that God does not want to take from us, but rather desires to give us more than we ask for.  In fact, we learn in this passage that he actually wants to shock us with how much he plans to give us.   We read that he simply wants us to test this promise and then experience the realities of the promise fulfilled.  God doesn’t need your money for himself.  He doesn’t need money.  He doesn’t need your time because he is bored or lonely.  He doesn’t need your dreams because he wants to deprive us of satisfaction. The only reason he desires everything from you is because only when he has full access to your heart will he be able to release the potential of your existence that he created from the beginning.  Only upon receiving your “everything” will he know that you trust him with “anything.”

We are like an addict who feels totally fulfilled, yet to the outside is completely in need of care, incapable of helping ourselves efficiently.  God wants us to be free to experience a life of pure satisfaction that we cannot possibly fathom given our current state.  In the gospels, Jesus echoes this promise when he tells the disciples that none who left everything would not receive one hundred times more in return.

Jesus told his disciples that he does not give as the world gives.  So to understand God’s promise as a guarantee of financial or material exchange is to completely misunderstand the teaching.  What Jesus promises us is that when we give him access to our entire being, he will unleash desires of the heart that go beyond a one hundred dollar bill in the wallet.  He will release desires of the heart that we try each day of our life to satisfy.  He is the bank that we deposit our life savings in, that promises to yield an interest that is unparalleled and unfathomable.  He is the promise that will always be fulfilled.  What we learn from Malachi 3 is that it is up to us to test him on this radical promise.

The Impossible Religion