One of them: If you memorize Scripture, pray a lot and do religious stuff, you will sin less, be more obedient and have a powerful witness for Christ in the world. The principle is: Garbage in, garbage out.
I’m a lot older and somewhat wiser. I now know that this idea suffers from two fatal errors…maybe more.
The first fatal error: The belief that we are a lot worse than we think we are and it’s up to us to make us better.
Do you know what bothers me? Systems for godliness. I want to please God more than you can imagine and I read more books than you can imagine in the fond hope that someone will tell me how to be please God. What they say simply doesn’t work and, if I end up meeting the people who wrote the books (and I often do), the truth is, it hasn’t worked for them either.
Every time someone tells me the ten ways to have a closer walk with God, I go off on another tangent of praying more, memorizing Scripture more and doing more stuff that I think will be pleasing to God. And then when I find that “Jesus has left the building,” I keep kidding myself that he is still there and that I’m quite godly. After a while, I’m so phony I can’t even stand myself.
Religious stuff doesn’t make us better…it makes us more religious.
That’s what Jesus meant in John 5:39-40 when he criticized the religious people for thinking that the Scriptures would give them eternal life when, in fact, all they did was point to him in whom was life.
I think it was the late Vernon McGee who said that the danger with most Christians is that we say what we’re going to do, talk about what we’re going to do, and think that we have done it when, in fact, we haven’t done it at all. That is, of course, true of religion. We think that the more we “do” religion, the more godly we are. Sometimes just the opposite is true.
The second fatal error: The belief that being more godly, spiritual and religious is even the point.
What is the point then? The point is Jesus.
Jesus said that if we were really tired, we should come to him.
Jesus said that if our lives were empty, we could come to him and he would give us abundant life.
Jesus said that if we were sick, sinful and very needy, he would be there for us.
Jesus said that he came to love the people who couldn’t pull off the religious thing.
Jesus said that he was a shepherd and not a butcher. He loved the sheep and gave his life for them.
Jesus said that he was light for the darkness, bread for the hungry, water for the thirsty.
Jesus said that if we ran to him, he would never kick us out.
In fact, Jesus’ harshest criticism was reserved for the religious, the sanctified and the pure.
The spurious idea of “garbage in, garbage out” is just that…spurious. I don’t know about you but I’m quite good at multi-tasking. I can memorize Scripture, pray, and sit in church, and at the same time, hate, lust, covet and be really ticked off at and unforgiving toward the person who is sitting next to me. Not only that. I found that the garbage doesn’t come from the outside but is a lot closer to home…me (Mathew 15:10-20).
Am I saying that we shouldn’t read and memorize Scripture, that prayer and going to church are bad things? Are you crazy? I’m a Bible teacher, I couldn’t survive without prayer, and I make my living working as a religious professional.
To play on the words of C.S. Lewis, those who run to Jesus get him and his love with forgiveness, eternal life and sometimes even godliness thrown in. Those who focus on godliness get neither Jesus nor anything else.
Time to Draw Away
Read Psalm 23 & Romans 8
What’s your personal “system of godliness”? How’s it working for you? Most often the result is frustration, exhaustion and discouragement rather than obedience, holiness and purity. So what do you do? Run to Jesus. Forgiveness and love—and sometimes even godliness—will be yours. And they’re only found in Jesus’ grace store.