Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Rick James' new book, Jesus without Religion: What Did He Say? What Did He Do? What’s the Point?, (InterVarsity Press, 2007).

The veneer of religion can sometimes distort our view of Jesus. Underneath all the religious traditions, what was He really like? What can we learn about Jesus when we strip away the veneer and look at the unvarnished truth about Him?

Here’s some of what you can learn when you embrace Jesus without religion:

Jesus didn’t come to a Christmas card world. Despite the sanitized images of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph we often see during the Christmas season, Jesus actually entered a fallen world in a dirty stable and began living a gritty life. Understand that Jesus decided to trade the glories of heaven for the struggles of our world, and that His life here was not comfortable in any way. Know that very few of our Christmas traditions have their roots in the Gospels. Rather than focusing just on holiday traditions (like decorating Christmas trees or baking gingerbread cookies), devote plenty of time to meditating on the wonderful implications of Jesus’ decision to visit Earth.

It’s okay for Jesus to shock you. Jesus meant to jolt people out of the status quo and inspire them to turn to Him for complete transformation. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Jesus just wants to be nice to you, no matter how many benign images you see of Him in religious traditions. Realize that He wants to change you. Expect that the radical grace Jesus offers will sometimes shock you because He loves everyone without conditions. Ask Him to help you stop judging other people and start seeing them as He does so you can love them, too.

Jesus reveals your cravings. Jesus isn’t just a distant religious figure. He knows you better than you even know yourself, and He has a unique way of making you think about what’s most important to you. As you pray, let His voice drown out all the noise of distractions in your life and help you focus on your true motivations. What do you really want, and why? Is it what God wants for you? If not, are you willing to lay it down so you can pursue what God wants? Do you trust that God knows what’s best for you? Ask Jesus to change your heart so you want for yourself what He wants for you.

Jesus didn’t speak in sound bites. Rather than simplifying Jesus’ messages as religion sometimes tries to do, realize that there’s a purpose behind the fact that Jesus’ messages aren’t always easy to understand. By speaking in parables, Jesus allowed people who are truly seeking God to unlock the meaning while keeping it hidden from those who aren’t yet ready to hear it.

Jesus is much more than a great leader or wise teacher. Instead of including Jesus in the list of the world’s great religious leaders (along with Mohammed, Buddha, and others), recognize that He is much more than just a great leader or wise teacher. Remember that Jesus claimed to be God, and take Him seriously. Never compare Jesus to religious figures who were merely human, because He is altogether different.

Jesus didn’t come to put on a show. Even though religion sometimes aims to feed people’s appetites for the sensational, Jesus Himself never tried to do that. He could easily have performed any kind of miracle just for the sake of showing off, but He refrained unless there was a specific purpose for granting a miracle. Understand that Jesus wants you to look beyond a desire for miracles to the One who is behind them. Expect that Jesus will sometimes choose to perform a miracle to encourage faith in those who are humble, but that He doesn’t intend for miracles to become substitutes for deeper faith.