The Goal of Religious Practice

CC BY-NC, Hezi Ben-Ari, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Hezi Ben-Ari, Flickr

Do not be hastily critical of Christianity as religion. It is the door by which we enter faith. We are to blame, however, should we not walk along far enough and discover relationship, for it is the heart of the house. What do you seek? If religion is what you seek, then religion is all you will get. But if it is Christ whom you desire, then he will surely be found by you—and your religion will lead you to him.

There are the passionate believers who gripe that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship—and then there’s me.

Trust me: I’m not looking for a fight or trying to be right; I just need to add some depth to the discussion. After all, in a purely superficial way, none of us would be Christians if Christianity wasn’t a religion, its earliest defenders having fought to the death for its doctrines and orthodoxy.

So there is more to be said about what is meant by these comments and still more that some of us need to understand about the worth of religious practice.

Religious Practices

My first task here is to pare down the word “religion” to emphasize the practice and ritual aspects of the word, which is broad and encompasses far-ranging elements, like culture, belief systems, and deities; and focusing on religious practice, enjoin it with our faith and beliefs in the Christian God.

Being so mindful then, what any of us will learn about all religions is that they entail personal and corporate rituals that connect adherents to a deeper reality, spirituality, or divinity. What Christians may find surprising is that their disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, and the like are very much the same practices found in other religions, although they may be performed differently and toward a different end.

Spiritual disciplines (or practices, habits) are tools of the interior life that usher a person into a deeper and more meaningful experience and interaction with his or her value system or divinity. They achieve this by introducing behaviors that eliminate vice, produce virtue, develop restraint, and refine sensibilities; personal results can be highly transformational. Such ardent practice will achieve its purpose whether one is Christian or Hindu.

Christian Spiritual Habits

Christian spiritual formation uses religious habits to develop a loving fellowship with Jesus Christ. Christians practice a catalog of spiritual habits to achieve this: (more common ones like) study (devotional and academic) to know God through the Bible and theology; meditation to fill the soul with God’s words and thoughts; prayer and fasting; confession; worship; (and less common ones like) hospitality and secrecy.

These are very much aspects of religion and an essential part of Christian faith.

Spiritual habits, however, do not guarantee that the one practicing them is connecting (in this case) to God. We all should seek to be very devout persons, but not all will be because, truthfully, they don’t care to be. We should be more concerned, however, about those who do go through the motions…pray, read their Bibles, church, yet their lives evince little evidence of Christ. Either way, there is always more waiting for us.

The beleaguered Christians I referenced earlier are really insisting against being caught up in a system of rules and legalistic injunctions that would extinguish a vibrant faith rather than enhance it. I understand this. But religion and religious practice, although we can personally make it tedious and false, is not the problem.

Buried Treasure

I find that we skip to the relationship aspect of Christianity so quickly that we largely miss the depth and range of Christian religion, in general, and certainly its practice. Ask most people in our churches today anything about classic Christian spirituality, and you may both stand there embarrassed. People convert to Christ with excitement then predictably grow stale and frustrated because they don’t know what living a Christian life entails.

Many of our churches have altogether missed the point. Our purpose seems to feverishly get people saved, an important thing, but we have often not produced a clear picture of discipleship, which encapsulates everything we do, from conversion to converting.

I believe the spiritual habits rest at the very center of a vibrant relationship with Christ and a wholesome church. Furthermore, I think it is imperative that we do more looking back to our moorings and earliest practices to not only avoid sin, but also to ward off the spiritual frothiness of this generation and the proliferation of Christian pop culture that characterizes very many churches.

Means to an End

Jesus was a Jew and practiced the rituals and habits of Judaism. His denunciation of the Pharisees and religious leaders was not an attack on religion, but their legalism.

Christ is indeed the heart of Christianity, but the way we acquaint him is through conscientious religious practice. It is the corridor leading to where he reposes. Remember, the presence of God was at the heart of the Temple, but there was a (God-ordained) manner in approaching it.

God’s message to us has always been “Be ye holy, as I am holy,” but to answer the question of how we become holy, Jesus says things like, “When you pray…when you fast…”

“Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.” I think it’s both.

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