The Problem with “It’s Not a Religion, It’s a Relationship”
January 22, 2014 § 6 Comments
When I was in middle/high school, it became really popular among youth groupy people to define their choice to follow Jesus as “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship”. I think this always rubbed me the wrong way and I was never sure why. I see it posted as people’s religious views on Facebook and for some reason the phrase never appealed to me. A couple years back, Jefferson Bethke made a video about Jesus being a relationship and not a religion. It blew up social media with many people reposting it in agreement. Now, it’s not that I don’t agree per se, I just think it is not the best way that I would want define what happens in my spiritual journey and what happens in the church. I do believe relationship is an important part of it, but I want to argue for a better balance.
So probably three years too late, here is my take on Jefferson Bethke’s video and the idea of relationship against religion.
My first aversion to this phrase defining Christianity is that it is a little too personal.
1. Too individualized, too based off of one person’s experience
I get that when people say this phrase, it is supposed to be more of a blast on legalistic, ritualistic religion. But what I like about “religion” is the common bond, the community. We are bonded together with other people because of a commonality, whether it’s beliefs or in the case of Christianity, Jesus Christ. My problem with a “personal relationship” is that many people can make it too exclusive, too secluded. This is MY relationship with Jesus. I am going about this the way that I want to or what works for me. This phrase also usually comes across to me with an attitude of superiority (and I’m sure to people of other religions it can as well). Behind it I can hear, “I’m not like all you people who are taking things too legalistically, I have a real relationship with Jesus”.
Yes, everyone’s journey and process of faith is different. But my relationship with Jesus is not exclusive. It is not exclusive to me in that I am not the only person “doing it right”, I am not the only person who is seeking Jesus and I am not the only person who has a say on what that means. And my relationship is not exclusive to just Jesus. Sounds weird, I know. The problem with just keeping things between me and Jesus is that it leaves very little room for growth or challenge. I can make God in my own image and I can cater my walk to my wants and my needs more easily when I am not sharing my struggles and my thoughts with the people whom God has placed in my life. He’s not just there to make me feel warm and fuzzy feelings. Which leads me to my next point.
2. Our idea of relationship is flawed
Can I confess that whenever I hear people saying they have a “personal relationship with Jesus” it kinda weirds me out a little bit? I get what they mean, but I just always think of them holding hands with Jesus and flirtatiously texting him during class.
Humans have proven over and over again that we do not really understand what it means to be in a relationship. The divorce rate is more than half, broken engagements, dating relationships and friendships happen all the time. Wars, prejudice, abuse, infidelity, racism, sexism, the list could go on and on, happen on a regular basis.
We don’t know how to get along with each other or stick out hard times if our life depended on it. Surely the kind of broken relationships we encounter on an everyday basis is not the best thing we can offer to the man who gave his everything on a cross.
We like the idea of a relationship because it brings warm, fuzzy feelings of love and companionship to mind. But that’s not necessarily what Jesus offers. As we know, relationships are hard and can rip out any sense of self pride you may otherwise have had. So if I’m going in expecting some love dovey affair, I may be sorely disappointed. But if this is really what it is about, being in a relationship with a selfless, sacrificial, loving, compassionate person who would do anything for you, and you just get to benefit from that, well then who in their right mind would reject that? But people do all the time. Why? Because Jesus is hard.
Which leads me to my next point.
3. It’s not just a relationship
It’s not just about a friendship, or knowing him personally. It’s about conforming to Christ. And he is challenging. It’s not just the nice idea of “if you spend enough time around someone you pick up some of their idioms.” But conforming to someone who is the standard, someone who is hard to be like. It’s not just going to happen. In some situations, maybe. But most of the time, Jesus calls us to do tough things that take conscious effort and a LOT of humility.
My encounters with Jesus are not just for me. They are not just to make me feel good about myself or to fill me up. They happen so that I ultimately may be strengthened to be Jesus to others.
We are told in James 1:27 that “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.” Hmm, to me that doesn’t sound so bad. Doesn’t sound like religion that takes things out of context, or too literally, or to rigidly.
Christian, embrace your religion. A religion that operates (or should operate) out of love, compassion and justice. If we were religious about serving the poor, taking care of those in our community, seeking justice for the oppressed and compassion for the oppressor, extending grace and mercy at any chance we get, well then our idea of religion may not be so bad. And our relationship would be acting itself out. There is no need to pin them against each other, but rather to see how they can work together.
I don’t know about you but I know I could afford to be more religious about James 1:27.