How to Be Religious

Being religious isn’t usually thought of as a good thing. In fact, for many people the word “religion” is a negative term. You will even hear Christians who say, “I am not religious. I have a relationship.” And, some will go so far as to say, “Jesus hates religion.”

Which, doesn’t bother me all that much because I think I know what they mean. Except, of course, for the fact that it’s not completely true. Because Jesus was actually pretty religious. He did all sorts of religious things. And if we are going to follow him we are going to have to be pretty religious, as well. Since the book he wrote commands us to do things, like gather together with other believers, and worship, and pray. As Christians, we have a relationship with God, and part of how we express that relationship is through doing things we might call “religious.” It is not wrong to be religious.

We have to be religious. But it is dangerous. It can be a little scary to engage in religious activity. There’s a lot of religious activity that is empty and that does not produce any spiritual benefit. And what’s worse is there is a lot of religious activity that is not pleasing to God—at all. It is not just empty. It makes God angry. We see that in the Old Testament.

For example, God says in Isaiah 1, “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts. Bring no more vain offerings, incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me. I am weary of bearing them.”

Weary. An abomination. That’s God talking.

Just because someone is praying and going to church and giving offerings doesn’t mean he is necessarily pleasing God, because there is a kind of religious activity that he positively hates.

Take the Pharisees. The Pharisees, were this group of people we meet all throughout the Gospels. If you have grown up in church, you know it’s pretty easy to give the Pharisees a hard time. It’s almost like a bad word—Pharisee. It’s not a compliment to call someone a Pharisee.

Except, there’s a lot about the Pharisees that we as Christians would initially respect.

Like their love for the Bible. They didn’t just read the Bible. They studied what it said. And they didn’t just study what it said either: They took a stand for what they thought was true.

These were people with a lot of zeal. Some of them fasted twice a week. And they gave tithes of all they had. Externally at least, they were serious about being holy, and yet as we study the Gospels, it’s clear they were missing what God was doing through Jesus—in spite of all their religious activity—even, we might say, because of it.

They were their way to being damned. Their religious activity was not just empty, it was blinding. It didn’t produce any of the things that religious activity should, like real love for God or real love for people or genuine repentance over sin. Which causes us, I think, to ask: How can we be religious? We have to be religious. But how can we be religious and do the religious things we need to do—like read our Bibles, pray and be serious about corporate worship—without becoming Pharisees.

Personally, I think, that’s a pretty important question. Because, it is easy to get off track. I am sure the Pharisees didn’t start out wanting to become Pharisees. If you asked them, they were wanting to get it right. And yet, in Jesus’ day, they so clearly weren’t. Which I, so desperately, don’t want to be true of us.

I don’t want us to ever become this group of people who are good at being religious when our religious activity isn’t really pleasing to God. I don’t want us to even get started going down that road. Which is why we need to think about how to avoid becoming Pharisees. Because it is a lot easier to condemn. It is a lot easier to say, “Don’t be a Pharisee” and have everybody cheer.

And that’s great, of course. And it is important. And actually, it’s biblical. As you study the Gospels, and in particular the Gospel of Luke, you see Jesus spent a lot of time with his disciples showing the problem with the Pharisees’ way of doing religion.

That’s part of why Luke records the story he does in Luke 14:1–6. In Luke 13, he’s warned that some of them are going to be locked out of the kingdom, and one reason he records this story at the beginning of Luke 14 is to show why. He wants to help us understand the problems with the Jewish leadership—why they were being condemned. And yet, of course, he knows that we need to know more than what’s wrong with the Pharisees if we are going to follow Jesus. He knows we need to know, if the Pharisees’ way of religion caused such problems, what exactly was Jesus’ replacement?

In other words, we need an answer. How can we be religious without becoming Pharisees? This is one main purpose of Luke 14:7–14. In this passage, Jesus gives two very practical, down-to-earth steps we absolutely must take if we are going to do religion right. And we will begin to look at those two steps next time.

This article originally appeared on the author’s personal blog.