You can’t always spot a Christian, but you can always spot a religious person. It’s their not-so-pretty mask of self-righteousness.
I remember the singer-songwriter Noel Paul Stookey describe how they turned his chicken coop in Maine into a recording studio. He said that they cleaned it up, steam-cleaned the place, and made it look nice; but whenever it rained, it still smelled exactly like it once was…a chicken coop. Religious people may clean up nice…but they still smell like a chicken coop.
Religious people irritate me. They irritate Jesus too.
So what do religious people look like? What defines a religious show?
A religious show is hypocritical.
“But when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites…When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do…” (Matthew 6:5, 16).
The origin of the word “hypocrite” means an actor, a pretender or a stage player. So Jesus is saying, “Don’t be an actor, pretending to have something you don’t.”
Often Christians are called hypocrites if they aren’t good. That’s a lie. The Christian faith teaches that Christians are sinners. If Christians, in their actions and words, say they are not sinners, then they are hypocrites. If a Christian sins…he may be wrong, he may be disobedient and he may violate the command of love…but he is not a hypocrite.
Hypocrisy is when you proclaim either in action or word something you don’t believe privately. So when Christians call themselves sinners, they are not hypocrites…they are just telling the truth.
Contrary to that, a religious person is an actor playing a part that somebody else wrote. Religion is meaningless. It is mouthing words that have no connection to reality.
A religious show is exhibitionist.
“But when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others…When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting” (Matthew 6:5,16).
True Christian faith is what you “do” when nobody is looking.
One time my friend Rusty Anderson called me in my office, interrupting a meeting. When I picked up the phone, I said, “Hello, Rusty. What’s the Lord teaching you today?” Rusty started laughing and said, “Brown, somebody is sitting there and you’re trying to impress them!”
Jesus says… If you don’t do it privately, don’t do it publicly. If you don’t believe it in your heart, don’t do it in your life. If it isn’t real to you when you’re by yourself, don’t say it’s real when you’re with others.
A religious show is thoughtless.
“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans...” (Matthew 6:7).
Someone has called this the “slot machine principle of praying.” Words in…answers out.
Often the best day in a Christian’s life is the first day of their conversion…simple, childlike and honest.
You can’t always spot a Christian, but you can always spot a religious person.
Religious people pray, “Dear Lord, we have come here to worship you…praise God. And we just want to say…praise God. We are excited about you…praise God. And we just want you to know…praise God.” God responds with, “What?!”
Invocations are another example. “Oh God, we ask for your presence…” That’s a stupid prayer. God is already present.
A lot of Christianity is thoughtless mimicry. Don’t do something just because others do it. That can be dangerous. Thoughtless Christianity is religion for show.
A religious show is verbose.
“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words…” (Matthew 6:7).
The Good News makes its point without a lot of verbiage.
The principle is this: There is a correlation between the reality you know and the number of words you have to use to communicate it.
When you talk to people, say what you mean and mean what you say. Same thing goes when you talk to God.
Jesus says that it takes a lot of words to keep a sinking religious ship afloat.
A religious show is judgmental.
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Jesus is not saying that our salvation is based on works (in this context our forgiveness of others). If you’re forgiven and you know you’re forgiven, it’s natural that you forgive others. If you haven’t been forgiven, you can’t forgive others. So Jesus is simply saying, in essence, that apples grow on an apple tree. The sure sign of a relationship with Christ is the ability to forgive others.
Religion for show always looks down its nose at others. It is narrow, negative and judgmental.
A religious person finds something wrong with everything and everybody. They make others feel guilty. What they have isn’t real. In order to maintain it, they have to judge others. And the only good thing about judging others is that you can’t judge others and yourself at the same time.
A religious show is somber.
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting…” (Matthew 6:16).
A Christian laughs…and it’s the laughter of the redeemed.
A religious person is constantly running through his or her mind, “I must not smile, I must not say the wrong thing. I must be nice.” A Christian is just the opposite. We don’t have to be so tightly controlled.
A great quote from C.K. Chesterton: “The more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”
Somberness is a sure sign of superficiality.
All of this is to say the same one thing. Christianity is having a real relationship with Christ. You don’t have to work it up. It just is.
If you’re religious, though, people will be impressed and admire you for just how spiritual and religious you are. My advice to you is to enjoy it…because that’s all you’ll get.