The Unreality of Religion

I found myself in the parking lot of church talking to my friend, someone I have known for thirty years.  I know he has struggles, long term struggles that he thinks disqualify him from joining a church, attending a church or even going in the door for one visit.  I will never forget what he told me that day.  “I am not good enough; all you people in church have your act together and I am not in that category.  I am just not good enough to go in there.”

I did not have the words to convince him otherwise.  He turned his back on his faith, whatever faith he had.  It is not for me to know his level of belief, only God knows that.  What I do know is that he is suffering from what J.I. Packer calls “the unreality of religion.”  He assumes that all people who go to church are “lilly white,” “pure as the driven snow,” righteous people who are truly on their way to heaven.  He believes he is nothing like those people sitting in the pews.

I found myself in his company at a later time hoping to nudge him toward going to church where I hoped he would find God in some form or fashion.  More importantly, I hoped God would help him with his problems, because all the things he was doing himself were leading to failure.  He knows I go to church and he knows I have a personal relationship with God.  I told him of one of my long-term struggles, just to let him know I am not “lilly white.”  I still go to church, sinner that I am.

The reality of religion is that all God’s children make mistakes.  They always have and they always will.  Packer cites four clear-cut examples from the Bible.  God promised Abraham a son, but God made Abraham wait awhile. Abraham got impatient (like all of us do from time to time) and he got Hagar pregnant and they had Ishmael.   God was not happy.  He did not talk to Abraham for thirteen years, but eventually Sarah had a child (God fulfilled His promise on His timeframe, not Abraham’s). 

Moses felt great empathy for his people as they endured slavery in Egypt.  He was a powerful person in the Egyptian hierarchy and could have a positive impact for his people.  Instead of waiting for God to show him the way, Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster and found himself banished to the desert for decades.  He went from high ranking government official to lowly shepherd.

David was plagued by errors, spying on Bathsheba, seducing her, having her husband killed, neglecting his family etc.  He felt remorse for his individual sins but continued to sin, ramping up his guilt to the point that he felt distant from God.

Jonah got specific instructions from God and instead of doing God’s bidding, he ran in the opposite direction and you know…he found himself inside of a great fish.

These people were people of The Lord, but all of them made huge mistakes.

All people make mistakes, some of them huge.  Even those people sitting in the pews of the church. 

I have been an adult Sunday school teacher for many years and I taught out of a book by Jerry Bridges entitled Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate.  That was one of the hardest books I have ever used in class as all of us squirmed through every chapter.  We struggled through discussions of anxiety, frustration, discontentment, unthankfulnesss, pride, selfishness, lack of self- control, anger, judgmentalism,  envy.  You get the point.

All God’s “righteous people” [teacher included] were in the same category of those who wanted to stone the woman accused of adultery.  “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”  The crowd melted away.  The message was clear.  “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”  After that book, we knew we would have dispersed with that self-righteous crowd.

People who are looking from the outside of our churches suffer from unrealistic beliefs about religion and sometimes those inside of our churches do too.  I have tried to put on the mask of righteousness in church, realizing deep inside that it was only a mask, a veneer that covered my real penchant to sin.  Christians who give their life to God suffer from the need to be something they cannot be—sinless.  They have Bibles but they don’t meditate on the meaning of the stories of Abraham, Moses, David and Jonah.

God restored Abraham eventually; he became the founding father of the Abrahamic religions, the keeper of The Covenant.  Moses (with the help of God) developed the confidence needed to lead his people out of Egypt.  David repented of his lapses and grew close to God.  Jonah cried out to God in the belly of the whale and lived to fulfill his mission in Nineveh.  God used these men who made great mistakes.

God’s people need to realize that God can do wonderful things out of our mistakes.  Packer cites the expression “It is said that those who never make mistakes never make anything” [Packer, 252].   I have made many bad choices in my life and I have suffered agony from those choices, but as time has passed I see why I went down the wrong path.  Failure is a hard way to learn lessons but sometimes the best lessons are learned when we experience the deepest regret.  Packer writes these episodes of sinning are when we begin to know God’s grace, “we cleave to Him in a way that would never have happened otherwise” [251].

“Unreality of religion is a cursed thing.”  Unreality of religion is the curse of the kind of teaching that Packer has challenged throughout his book Knowing God.  It certainly was a curse for my friend who sat on the outside of church looking in, but it is also a curse for church-goers who sit in the pews trying to be something they will never be—sinless. 

For people who believe that church people are too good for them, get real.  Church people are people with as many burdens as those not in church.  For church people who strive to be perfect and earn their place in the pews, relax, you will never achieve that perfection.  You may become experts in covering up your sins, but the sins are still there. 

Packer writes words of advice directly to all these folks: “Is your trouble a sense of failure?  Go back to God; His restoring grace waits for you…God uses our sins and mistakes to this end.  He employs the educative discipline of failure and mistakes very frequently.”

At the end of our sinning He is there, extending His loving hands to pick us up and send us on our way, hopefully with a more realistic attitude toward religion and toward ourselves.

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