Dena Johnson Martin Christian Blog and Commentary

Religion or Relationship?

  • blogspot for Dena Johnson of Dena's Devos
  • Published Aug 09, 2021

Have you ever met a religious person? What was he/she like? Did you enjoy being around that person? Did you go out of your way to spend time with him/her?

Or did you go out of your way to avoid that person?

I, personally, have a real problem with religious people. They are really nauseating to me. And, sadly, I used to be one of them.

I spent many years focused on doing all the right things. Never would I allow alcohol to cross my lips. No man would touch me until I was married. I guarded my words so that obscenities never came out of my mouth.

I was a good person.

And I was proud of the good life I lived.

Sadly, my good life often cast judgement on others. I couldn’t comprehend how a so-called Christian would drink. Or dance. Or smoke. Or curse. Or have sex before marriage. Or fail to go to church on Sundays.

Or get divorced.

I was a very religious person…until I got divorced. It was then I understood what God thought of me:

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.  Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness. Matthew 23:27-28

Yes, I was a religious person, just like the Pharisees. I lived a good life outwardly, but on the inside, my heart was prideful, arrogant. In my mind—even though I wouldn’t say it—I was a better Christian than most of those around me. I rested on my laurels, my good life and my faithfulness to the ministry.

I was like a whitewashed tomb.

It’s amazing how a crisis changes your mindset. You see, in the blink of an eye, I was divorced. Me! Divorced! That was never supposed to happen to the faithful pastor’s wife. I loved God too much for that!

I thank God every day that through my divorce, through the season of pain and sin that followed, I gave up religion.

And I found a relationship!

I found a Savior that loves me unconditionally, that pursues me relentlessly, that leaves the 99 to chase after me when I wander from the safety of the sheepfold. I found a relationship that changed everything in my life, it changed the way I look at life, it changed the way I look at people. It was a relationship that helped me find beauty in the midst of a broken life.

I am a true believer in relationship over religion, but how do we know the difference?

Religion is characterized by:

Rules. You know the people who focus on rules. They are more concerned about church attendance than heart condition. They are more concerned about remaining in a marriage than the abuse one partner experiences. They are more concerned with fitting the mold of their human tradition than the true spirit of the gospel.

Critical spirits. People who are focused on rules by their critical spirit for anything that doesn’t match what they believe scripture says. They are so focused on the splinter in your eye that they miss the log in their own. They attack and insult you in the name of the Father. They are 100% convinced that their interpretation of scripture is correct—and the only correct interpretation.

Doing the right thing. I know this sounds like a good thing, but the emphasis is on the doing. God is far less concerned about doing than He is about being. Too often we get caught up in our outward our actions—our doing—rather than our hearts. Scripture is clear that man looks at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 13:14).

The opposite of religion is relationship with the Father. Relationship is characterized by:

Freedom. John 8:32 clearly tells us that we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free. And what is the truth? According to Jesus, He is the Truth (John 14:6)! Knowing Jesus is all about freedom!

If you haven’t read it lately, I encourage you to read Galatians 5, particularly vv 13-23. Just know God wants you to live in freedom!

My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Galatians 5:16

Grace. I have yet to meet anyone who values relationship over religion who judges others. They are the most grace-filled individuals you will meet. Why? Because they recognize they too are sinners, and they understand the extravagant grace poured out on them. Think about the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Do you think she ever judged anyone? I guarantee she was so aware of her own sins, of the debt she owed Jesus for sparing her that day.

When you are focused on your relationship, you are keenly aware of your own sins and shortcomings. You recognize how deeply indebted you are to the Savior for the gift of forgiveness—a debt you could never pay on your own. You only want others to experience the depth of the love you know.

Love. Jesus was very clear on this one. Love is the key. God is love (1 John 4:8). People know we are His when they see our love. Christianity is about love. Relationship is about love.

“Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” John 13:34-35

Unity. We live in a world of division. Our country is more divided than it has ever been in my lifetime. Race against race. Political party against political party. Denomination against denomination. That’s a true sign of religion. But if we are Jesus followers, we will be looking for ways to seek unity.

I’ll never forget the first time I really read John 17. I was overwhelmed that Jesus prayed for me!! All those years ago, and I was on His heart. What did He ask for? Unity. That we, as believers, would be united. That we would put aside the non-essentials and be united in love for God and love for others. That we would clothe ourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, that we would make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends us. We must remember, the Lord forgave us, so we must forgive others (Colossians 3:13).

God only has one law: the law of Christ which is to love others the way He has loved us

If we are living in relationship, that one law will characterize our lives. And in the process, we will draw others to Him.

But if we are religious? We will do more damage to the name of Christ than we can fathom.

I don’t know about you, but I long for true relationship!

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