George Foster and his wife Dolly were missionaries to Brazil for 25 years in several roles: pastor, publisher, writer, and National Director of Bethany Fellowship Missions. Presently George and Dolly oversee mission outreach in Europe and South America. George's writings have been published in several languages. George will be writing a regular column for Christian Literature Today.
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Copyright © 2001
PEACE THROUGH RELIGION?
"Peace, peace," they say, when there is no peace.
1. WE ARE SPIRITUAL
WE HUMANS ARE SPIRITUAL by nature. God made us that way-spirit, soul, body. With varying degrees of dedication and skill, we try to develop the spiritual side of us.
We pray, we practice rituals, we go to church, mosque, shrine, synagogue, nature. Some look inside themselves for spirituality. Others seek the mystery and power of "the dark side." Whatever we do, wherever we go, our search for spirituality can be classified as religion.
2. DO OUR RELIGIONS MAKE US BETTER?
But does our religion makes us better, happier, kinder persons? Are we more loving, thoughtful, generous, pure, confident, and even-tempered? We expect religion to make us less prone to anxiety, deceit, greed, and war-but where is the sign that it does that? Can we truly say that our religion brings us lasting peace?
If religion is the answer to our need for spirituality, why do hatred, war, crime, divorce, child-molestation, and genocide exist among religious people as well as nonreligious?
3. RELIGIOUS BUT NOT RIGHTEOUS
Our problem is that, despite our religion, none of us is righteous like God is. We practice religion to become acceptable to Him and to pass our own scrutiny. We hope to atone for past, present, and future sins. Is sacrifice required? No problem. We expect to suffer a little for our errors and often feel better once we do.
4. TWO CLASSES OF RELIGIONS
Religion can be divided into two classes: organized and personal. Whether of the folk kind or the highly liturgical kind, organized religion is usually prescribed to us and imposed upon us from childhood. It's part of our culture. It's like buying clothes and being required to reshape our bodies to fit them. Personal religion is the belief system we design to meet our own needs. It's our declaration of religious independence. It's like taking the measurements of our body and designing the clothes to fit. But do they?
Most of us have both types of religion. We may ascribe to the tenets of an organized faith, but we tend to adapt that faith to our own liking-whether we actually practice it or not. Even the atheist, who claims to not believe in God or religion, devises an antireligious religion as a personal support system. After all, if you don't believe in God you also have to believe it's okay not to believe and you need some kind of faith to convince you of that.
Having a religion is both good and bad for us. Let's think about...
5. HOW RELIGION CAN FAIL US
Although most religions have their good points, all of them have the potential of not only failing to take us to God, but actually obstructing the way to Him. Similar to the layers of an onion that surround its core, religion-with its many symbols, traditions, rites, and prescriptions-may keep us from the essential relationship that God wants to have with us. Religion may give us false comfort and prevent us from finding a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
My work frequently takes me to Europe and affords me opportunity to speak with European young people. When a young man from Switzerland saw the title Religion or Jesus Christ?, he pointed to the word religion and said, "Europe doesn't need any more of that." Then he pointed to the words "Jesus Christ" and said, "Maybe that's what Europe needs."
6. LAYERS OF RELIGION
Unfortunately the layers of religion have kept many in Europe and around the world from seeing what Jesus Christ is really like. Their search for spirituality, instead of taking them to the incomparable person of Jesus Christ, takes them away from Him. They equate Him to what they think the church might be teaching about Him, and they say, "Sorry, not interested." Traditional religion, including many forms of Christianity, has failed the youth of the world. So they look for spirituality from other sources such as New Age philosophies, or, in despair, they abandon the search completely.
7. JESUS AND THE RELIGIOUS PEOPLE
Jesus has not always been well served by those who profess religion. The greatest opposition that He faced on earth came from the leaders of organized religion. Because they were religious but not righteous, Jesus corrected them and revealed what they were like.
On the outside you appear righteous... But you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Matthew 23:28).
Remember, it was not the secular Romans who called for the death of Jesus. Religious leaders incited the people to cry, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!"
8. LEADERS AND LADDERS
Even today, many are like those leaders. Through religion they attempt to build a ladder to God. Up and down they go, trying to negotiate with God in the hope that He will relate to them on their terms and according to their beliefs. They take the initiative so they can gain control of their own lives and sometimes the lives of others. They present their expectations and deliver their orders for God to carry out. They try to make use of God when they need Him without humbling themselves or surrendering to His kingdom. They neither admit they are wrong nor acknowledge His authority.
9. WHEN RELIGION BECOMES IDOLATROUS
Religion becomes a system that forfeits a relationship with God in favor of rituals, rules, or a combination of the two. Since neither ritual nor rule satisfies their inner needs, people eventually construct a personal god in their own image or in an image they prefer. They call it religion. God calls it idolatry.
It's hard to forget the well-known example of idolatry that occurred in the time of Moses, as recorded in the Old Testament. While Moses had an intimate relationship with the living God on the mountain, the people, whom he was attempting to lead, practiced religion in the valley until they felt the need for a visible god. It took the form of a golden calf before which they frolicked and fornicated. (Exodus 32:1-6).
What is an idol? Anything we worship instead of God or that is more important to us than God is. An idol is anything that competes with God for our love and loyalty. An idol may take the shape of a person we cling to, a possession we cherish, a position we aspire to, an athletic team or political party we support, a tradition we honor, or an image of ourselves we attempt to project to others.
An idol is whatever we use to substitute for full allegiance to God. It might even be a church or a religious faith.
10. A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD!
Most of us have observed the self-righteousness, pride, prejudice, even violence produced by religion. Wouldn't we agree that religious wars are the most brutal, merciless, and senseless of all?
What God wants for us and offers to us is not the false peace obtained through religion, it's the true peace that comes from a personal friendship with Him. He wants to free us from the limitation of trusting in our beliefs and enable us to trust in our Creator and Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
True Christian experience is the opposite of religion. It's not we who are reaching up to God; it's God reaching down to us in the person of Christ.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
I [Jesus] am the way and the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father, but by me (John 14:5).
What wonderful news! God is reaching to us in mercy through Christ. It's not our effort to find Him. It's his untiring love searching for us! How tragic it is that we fail to encounter God reaching to us through Christ because we're too busy trying to reach Him through religion. We lose the blessing of salvation in the formulas of religious tradition.
I recently spoke with a young woman who wore a simple but elegant gold cross and chain around her neck. I asked her if the presence of the cross signified that she was a Christian.
"Yes," she answered, "But I seldom go to church because I hate the intolerance that says that Christianity is the only way to God."
I think her difficulty stemmed from her view of Christianity as a religion-one among many, each with its claims and virtues.
She was like those who study "Comparative Religions" and become comparatively religious. She had found religion, but seemed to be hiding from Jesus.
11. NO NEW RELIGION-JUST NEW BIRTH!
Nicodemus was a religious leader who was steeped in tradition, respected by his colleagues, but uncertain and dissatisfied in his soul. One night he had an interview with Jesus.
"Rabbi," he said, "we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."
Nicodemus, like many today, appeared to be searching for something to add to his religious practices in order to guarantee his acceptance before God. Jesus let him know that his works of religion were of no avail. He didn't need more religion, he needed a transforming experience that would initiate a personal relationship with God. Jesus called that experience the new birth. He needed to be born of God's Spirit.
The source of true spirituality is Christ, who brings the life of God the Holy Spirit into our spirit, establishing a relationship between God and us.
Jesus said of Himself, "...The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). We don't find Him, He finds us.
Like the good shepherd who left ninety-nine sheep in the fold and went out to search for one sheep that was lost, Jesus is pursuing us and He longs to bring us peace.
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