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How to Embrace Jesus without Religion

  • Whitney Hopler Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2007 17 Sep
How to Embrace Jesus without Religion

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.

Evil is a reality, and a relationship with Jesus gives you the power to fight it. No matter how much we may focus on inspiration through our religious traditions, we can’t ignore the reality that evil exists. Never become so sophisticated in your religious traditions that you forget the simple truth that you need to fight evil in our fallen world. Ask God to give you the courage you need to use your authority as a Christian to engage in spiritual warfare whenever necessary.

Jesus doesn’t want to just heal you; He wants to know if you really want to get well. Although religious rituals often present healing as a matter of magically receiving an answer to prayer, understand that there’s more to it. Jesus is not a divine vending machine who simply grants or denies requests; He wants to change you in the process. Before asking Jesus to heal you (physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually), first ask yourself if you truly want to get well – no matter what it costs to do so. For example, if you want to be healed of an addiction to alcohol, are you truly willing to make the sacrifices you’ll need to make to start living a healthy lifestyle? Rather than expecting Jesus to magically heal you without any effort on your part, decide to cooperate with Him in the process.

Jesus can seem foolish. Despite religion’s attempts to explain Jesus, He is beyond human comprehension. Sometimes His wisdom will seem foolish to us because we can’t understand it from our perspective. Don’t worry about not being able to explain Jesus’ ways. Instead, let His mystery draw you closer to Him to constantly learn more and more.

Jesus isn’t bound by the limitations of our culture. Recognize that, while religious traditions often vary across cultures, Jesus is the same for people from all cultures at all times in history. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Jesus is like our cultural images of Christians (for example, Jesus isn’t a Republican who lives in the suburbs with a large family). Take off your cultural glasses so you can see Jesus more clearly.

Jesus isn’t to blame for Christians’ hypocrisy. While Jesus grieves the way His followers have sometimes failed to represent Him faithfully, He’s not at fault for it. Look beyond the mistakes of imperfect human beings to the perfection of Jesus Himself, who always stands ready to forgive and help people grow. Don’t use the sins of Christians as an excuse for spiritual lethargy. Know that we’re all accountable to God for our own choices.

Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection stand at the center of all time. Although religious traditions have made stories about Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection seem familiar to you, don’t take them for granted, thinking that you don’t have anything new to learn from them. Give those events your fresh attention on a regular basis. Realize that they form the climax of all of history because of what they accomplished – the salvation of the world.

Jesus doesn’t just promise redemption; He actually delivers it. No religious practice (no matter how promising) has the power to give you the ultimate need of every person – redemption. But Jesus can and will redeem you if you place your trust in Him. Don’t waste your time trying to gain redemption from religion. Instead, turn to Jesus Himself for what you need.

Adapted from Jesus without Religion: What Did He Say? What Did He Do? What’s the Point?, copyright 2007 by Rick James. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., www.ivpress.com
Rick James is a campus missionary for Campus Crusade for Christ and the publisher of CruPress. He is the author of
Postcards from Corinth: A Study in Discipleship.