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Religion Is Not An End In Itself



When Jesus, whom orthodox Christians believe to be the eternal God incarnated as a human being, was on earth, he faced ongoing hostility and opposition from two groups. One was comprised of the political power brokers of the day, whose senses were finely tuned to detect any threat to their authority. King Herod tried and failed to kill Jesus when he was only two years old. The imperial government tried again when Jesus was in his early thirties, and succeeded.

One might expect those in power to resent any threat to their supremacy and respond to it with violence. But one would hardly have expected resistance from the other main group that opposed the incarnate God: his so-called worshipers. Jesus faced greater hostility from religious people than from any other group, and the more religious they were, the fiercer their animosity.

If God really did become human in Jesus, it is surprising and unnerving that religious people hated him so. They argued with him, plotted against him, and crucified him when they got the opportunity. The people who piously praised God in the temple ruthlessly mocked him in the public square.

Again, if the Creator really did become human in Jesus, as Christians believe, how is this possible? How is it that the people who adored him when he was in heaven couldn’t stand him when he was on earth?

There are at least a couple of possibilities. The people who went to the temple to worship God may simply have been insincere. They may have only been going through the motions for the sake of social acceptance. A lie detector, had they existed then, would have revealed an utter disinterest in God.

Or perhaps their worship was sincere, but was the worship of a God they had made in their own image, not the God who made them in his. It is all too easy for us to mistake ourselves for God, and God for us. This is made clear in the Psalms when God acerbically says, “You thought I was altogether like you.” They were obviously wrong.

Voltaire mocked the human penchant for creating pet deities. With rich sarcasm he said, “If God created us in His image, we have returned him the favor.” That is something the psalmist would have understood and affirmed.

The religious people of Jesus’s day loved to talk about God and claimed to be eager for the time when he would draw near, which they referred to as “the day of the Lord.” But when God did draw near to them in the human person of Jesus, they found they didn’t care much for him.

We think of God in rather the same way we think of adventures: they are great in principle, but in practice they are challenging and uncomfortable — and when we’re in the middle of one of them we wish we weren’t. When God really comes among people, the overwhelming reality of his presence chases away the complacency of comfortable religion.

This was certainly true when Jesus was on earth. Not only did many religious people not accept him, he did not accept many religious people. He called them hypocrites. He said (quoting the Old Testament) that their worship was nothing more than “rules taught by men.” It was the religious that he accused of being greedy, self-righteous and proud. Charles Wesley famously referred to Jesus as “meek and mild,” but the opinion held by his religious contemporaries was probably closer to Mark Galli’s description of Jesus as “mean and wild.”

Many people think of religion as an end in itself and assume that being religious is the only thing God requires of them. The Bible doesn’t bear that out. God wants people to be real, to be good, and to become all he made them to be, which requires people to come to him in faith. When religion helps people toward God in obedient faith, it is a very good thing. When it hinders them from doing so, when it becomes a substitute for obedient faith, it is a very bad thing.

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