In the Appalachian Mountains where my father grew up, when people turned from a life of sin to follow Jesus, it was said they “got religion.” “Getting” religion involved more than a mere profession of faith. New believers put aside sinful practices, rededicated themselves to their loved ones and joined with a church family.
I am not certain when the word “religious” fell out of favor with Christians and non-Christians alike. It is now common to find churches publicly disavowing “religion”. Some will say, “We are here to tell you about a relationship, not religion.” Not long ago I saw an Internet post that read, “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus.”
But wait! Is it possible for any follower of Jesus to make the claim he is not religious, with any sense of honesty? Religion, after all, is a set of beliefs and a form for expressing those beliefs in our daily lives. If we believe in the Word of God and the good news of Jesus, we are religious. If we try to follow Jesus’ teachings in our conversation and walk, we are religious. Perhaps the only thing really non-religious about Christians telling people they are not religious is that they are breaking God’s command about bearing false witness (Exodus 20:16).
Alright, I’ll admit I am playing the devil’s advocate. While I am confident nothing I have said here is untrue, I also realize it is impossible to miss an important nuance in the subject of religion. Religion can be misguided and devoid of value. In the same chapter we find Jesus’ directive to “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Matthew 5:6) we also find this strong judgment: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The Pharisees had turned religion into a vehicle through which they had proclaimed themselves righteous and condemned others who failed to live up to their expectations.
I will leave it up to sociologists to determine when our culture developed its current mainstream distaste for religion, but I feel very certain the cause of this development is akin to the error of the Pharisees. Today, religion is seen primarily as a vehicle through which Christians promote themselves, or a personal cause. Whether these perceptions are completely fair or accurate is beside the point. They have become reality in the minds of the people we are seeking to reach for Jesus.
As a result of these developments, we must bring definition to Jesus directive to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Surely, it is possible to allow God to use us for his purposes in this process, and avoid the trap of religious opportunism.