Here is a guest article from Matthew Garnett, who has a terrific podcast (featured on Pirate Christian Radio) called "In Layman's Terms." I've written on this topic a little bit (Not Feeling It-The Gospel for Everyone Else), but I think maybe Matthew hit the nail on the head. The Bible does not mention a "personal relationship with Christ," even though we've all heard that phrase a million times. The Bible does not mention our need to "spend enough time with God so that you develop an intimate relationship with Him," yet that kind of language permeates Pop Evangelicalism. With those kinds of ideas being so common and prevalent, could it be that you've been given a burden that doesn't come from God? -Steven Kozar
What’s more work? Religion or a Relationship?
I suppose that depends. If your idea of “religion” is a god or gods who demand services from you in order that the god(s) will look with favor upon you, then it sounds like you’re in for some hard labor. Then again, these kinds of religions are often very good about spelling out exactly what it is that the god(s) demand. Practices such as praying toward a certain geographical location, meditation, giving 10% of your income (pre-tax, of course), and the like, might give practitioners of particular religions the clear sense of what it takes to please their god(s).
Want to please your god(s)? Do A, B, and C. Fail to do A, B, or C, and you will displease the god(s). Yes, it might be a lot of work, but at least you know what the score is.
What about a “relationship?"
For those of you are married, you certainly know that a marriage can be a great deal of work. To boot, you don’t have the benefit of always knowing what it is that will please your better half from one day to the next. One day, your husband is thrilled with the fact you took the time to tidy up his study. The next day, he’s enraged that he can’t find his keys because you moved them in the process of tidying up the study! (I speak from experience of course...)
The problem with understanding God in terms of “relationship” is twofold:
One is that “relationship” usually demands something from you. It implies that you do “your part” in the relationship. After all, “relationships” are a two way street. Call me crazy, but a “relationship with God” is starting to sound a lot like “religion." Only in the “religion” you have some sense of when you might be pleasing God by your devotional activity. In the “relationship” you can never be quite sure if you've done your part enough-especially when the other party (God) isn't speaking clear and audible words to you.
The second problem is that this notion of “relationship” implies that our deepest problem as human beings is that we’re lonely and need a friend. While I certainly do not want to diminish the need for relationships, I am convinced, when it comes to God, that this is in fact not our deepest need as human beings. Consider the paralytic dropped through the roof of the house where Jesus was teaching one sunny Galilean day. (Mark 2)
After much effort from friends to see the man healed, Jesus says to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven." (v.5) If Jesus knew that this man’s deepest need was indeed not his paralysis but the forgiveness of his sins, then surely we must conclude that our loneliness is not our genuine problem, but indeed it's the forgiveness of our sins. We don’t need a “relationship” with God as much as we need something else: as His enemies, we need peace with God through the forgiveness of our sins.
Enter the true religion. The Christian religion.
St. James teaches us in his epistle, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. 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.”
True religion is service and love, not toward God, but toward one’s neighbor. And that’s just for starters. Think about the Man who actually perfectly fulfilled St. James’ definition of a “religious” person here. Who bridles His tongue perfectly? Who never deceives His own heart? Who visits widows and orphans in their affliction? Who kept Himself unstained from the world?
No one but Jesus.
There is only one religion in the world where God becomes the servant to help and please us with His actions in contrast to the religions of the world, the flesh, and the devil, where we are required to help and please a god or gods with our actions. Furthermore, there is only one religion in the world where its primary practices are gifts that meet and serve our needs and not the god(s).
Think of the Christian religion’s encouragement to know and to study the Scriptures. “…man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deut. 8:3) We don’t read and study the Bible so God will be impressed with us. We don’t study the Scriptures thinking that in so doing, God will have some special favor on us. We read and study the Bible because it is a gift from our Father.
Think about that in the context of St. James’ words to us. True religion “visits orphans.” God by His word to us visits us who were once indeed orphans who are now true sons and daughters of His.
Think of the Christian religion’s encouragement for us to gather with other believers in our local churches/parishes. This isn’t a demand from God in order that He’d be pleased with us that week, but a gift that we might know we aren’t alone in this fallen world. He gathers us again so we can, without doubt, hear His voice in His Word.
We Christians don’t go to church to pay homage to God. We go there because it is there that He serves us-it is His very nature to do so. There He feeds us with His very body and blood, given to us for the forgiveness of our sins. He reassures us of His peace in the absolution of all of our sins. He reminds us that we are baptized and He has placed His name on us and given us the Holy Spirit. (By the way, did you ever wonder why it’s called a “church service?" It ain’t because we’re serving God. It’s because He’s serving us!)
If there is a “relationship” at all to be had here, it is a one way relationship. A “relationship” where God in Christ does all the giving and nothing is required of us. Call it what you will, but calling it simply a “relationship” doesn’t describe it accurately. At all.
A “relationship” demands something of you. And in this case, with God, it demands something that you simply do not have the capacity to give. I’ll stick with religion. True religion as St. James describes. Where we who were once orphans are tenderly visited by our heavenly Father. Where He gives us gifts of His Word, of the fellowship of all the saints of Christ, and reassures us of that service with His very body and blood to us and promises time and again to meet our deepest need: the forgiveness of all of our sins.
Many fear religion because this word has been perverted into having Christians believe that in order to have favor with God they must study their Bibles, attend church, and give their money. It somehow seems more palatable to call it a “relationship” and run away from the word "religion." It seems clear to me that this is not a very good solution.
Maybe we should come up with a better word, but until then realize that the Scriptures, the Church, and the Sacraments are pure Gospel gifts to us from a God who loves and serves His once orphaned, but now adopted sons and daughters. These aren’t demands of God to be fulfilled by us, but are manifestations of His love and help for us.
Jesus teaches us that: “…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” In my estimation, “relationship” can simply be another form of false religion. I embrace the true religion of Christianity and accept as pure gift the practices that have adorned our Lord’s Church since way before the word "relationship" became enshrined. I hope you do as well!