Religion. It’s one of those words that stirs a vast array of emotions, ranging from peace to sheer hatred. The feelings are triggered more by our experiences, and how those experiences have shaped our perceptions, than by the word itself.
I admit that I have thought quite negatively about the word ‘religion’ for a long time because, based on my early life experience, I interpreted the word as ‘heartless control’ and ‘lifeless rules’. But religion, as defined in the dictionary, is a positive word. It’s the belief in a God, and worship of a super-power or Creator of the Universe, among other definitions.
Unfortunately, what I once believed about religion—as heartless control and lifeless rules—is what many non-religious people perceive religion to be. And, tragically, it is because they have seen many religious people live like that’s all it is. But what does God think? How does He define religion?
The Bible sheds religion in a positive light, in James chapter 1 verse 27 . “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” When we see it through God’s eyes, religion is all about heart, compassion, caring and reaching out, rather than self-preservation and control.
Being invited to dinner, the homeless man joined the other men at the table, seated himself and reclined with them. He was different. They ‘had it together’, being religious leaders, who lived by rules and laws. He, on the other hand, had nothing. He wandered about the streets, telling stories, followed by an eclectic audience—some who adored him, some who were curious, others who disguised jealously with hatred. Still, in spite of this ‘class barrier’, these leaders had welcomed him into their home and he respectfully accepted.
Word spread that he was in town and reached the ears of none other than a prostitute, who impulsively grabbed a bottle of ointment and invited herself to go see the homeless man. On arrival, she landed at his feet an emotional wreck, letting her tears flow over his feet, and then proceeded to wipe them tenderly with her hair, kissing them gently
It didn’t look good at all. The religious men knew what she was and did. They knew that those same hands, that same hair, those lips, and that body served men everywhere—it was her livelihood. That livelihood had afforded her the ointment in the first place, that she used to massage the man’s feet.
And this homeless man was no ordinary homeless man. He was Jesus—God in the flesh—living on the streets to bring true religion, pure religion to His people. And He—God—allowed her—a prostitute—to touch Him, even though it triggered whispers among the religious. He saw past the scarred reputation, past the misunderstood body language and questionable behaviours, and saw a woman who needed grace, forgiveness and healing. Rather than taking advantage of her the way many had—presumably even the religious—He offered her a safe place and extended forgiveness. Rather than judging her, He saw in her the potential to be free and to love more purely than the self-righteous love of the religious leaders.
That is pure religion. And that is who Jesus was and is. To leave heaven’s perfection and take on the form of a human being, and a homeless one at that, just to offer grace and forgiveness to humanity is the purest form of religion this world will ever know. And that is the religion we are to emulate. By worshipping God with our lives, and blessing others with our service, rather than seeking power, or pursuing selfish ambitions, we live the life Jesus taught us to live and we define religion as God defines it.
I’m still not a fan of ‘religion’ in the context of a set of rules that replace relationship, as redefined by power-hungry men and women, and will be the first in line to take a stand against religiosity. However, God’s religion, as defined by the life of Jesus, I embrace!
At the end of the day, it isn’t about words and definitions, but about the state of our hearts, and the questions we have to answer are, Am I self-serving, or do I serve God and serve others? If my world revolves around me, or even my beliefs, then it isn’t serving God’s purpose. If it revolves around Him, it will be evidenced by the way we handle the moments when prostitutes and other unlikely people wander into our experience. If we love and serve them well, then indeed we have lived a religious life that is acceptable to our Heavenly Father and draws others to Him.