Friday, May 2, 2008

True Religion

According to Webster, “religion” is:

The outward act or form by which men indicate their recognition of the existence of a god or of gods having power over their destiny, to whom obedience, service, and honor are due; the feeling or expression of human love, fear, or awe of some superhuman and overruling power, whether by profession of belief, by observance of rites and ceremonies, or by the conduct of life; a system of faith and worship; a manifestation of piety.

In essence, according to Webster, religion is a profession of some sort of system of belief that may or may not have any real impact on a person’s life.

For several years now, I have referred to myself as “anti-religion.” I grew up seeing religion as something virtually meaningless. Religion, according to my own mental dictionary, was a hyper-conservative set of rules—rules that, if strictly adhered to, would make a person look “righteous” in the eyes of others. While I have almost always been unapologetic of my faith in Christ, I struggle to see myself as a “religious” person. I even own a t-shirt that boldly declares, “Jesus is not religion.”

In some ways, my antipathy toward religion has been influenced by the opinions of several of my non-Christian friends. It is difficult for me to say that they are wrong in bashing religion, because many of their criticisms of it are valid. They claim that religion is all show and that it means nothing, that there is nothing about religion that truly helps humanity other than its potential to make people feel good.

While my aversion to religion was heavily influenced by my non-Christian friends, the “anti-religion” attitude was widely accepted (even supported) by the church as well. In an effort to emphasize the role of grace in salvation and to avoid falling into formalism, the church ran to the opposite extreme, condemning all things “religious” as being Pharisaical and wrong. Religion was something to be avoided and was constantly set dichotomously against a relationship with God.

God has placed in my heart a desire to enter into the field of social work. I have a passion for women and teenage girls who have been in abusive situations. This passion initially was stirred in my heart after I realized that friends of mine who had grown up in the church, in “perfect Christian” families, were actually being raised in abusive environments. I was disgusted by the fact that churches seemed to be in complete ignorance (or denial) of any such situations happening within their communities. These churches could have been reaching out to these families torn apart by abuse, providing love, comfort, and practical care for them and truly operating as the body of Christ. Instead, they ignored (or denied) that there were problems, because problems would mar their “religious” appearance.

My antagonistic attitude toward religion was suiting me just fine until I was reading through James one day. One verse in particular, a verse that I had glossed over hundreds of times before, suddenly stuck out to me: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27, NIV) It stopped me cold. There it was, that term that I was repulsed by, telling me in my Bible that it was something different from everything that I had thought.

The principle behind this verse made me consider what practical implications it may hold for the field in which I have been called to serve. I started thinking, asking myself who else might be included in the same category as “orphans and widows.” In the patriarchal society of the New Testament, orphans and widows would have been the individuals who were essentially helpless—they had no one to care for them; they were the marginalized members of society. In modern American society, many other people fall into this same sort of category: single mothers struggling to make it from week to week and month to month, children whose parents are never there for them, the homeless, individuals recovering from addictions, and victims of abuse, to name a few. The “orphans and widows” of the world are the people that I desire to serve, and according to James, that is true religion.

This discovery brought with it a revelation—I am not, in fact, “anti-religion.” I am vehemently opposed to what the world sees as religion—the list of rules to be followed in order to achieve the end goal of personal bragging rights in “religious” circles instead of sharing Christ’s love with others. What I truly desire to do, not only in my career in but also in the rest of life, is to live out the religion that James describes: religion that is “pure and faultless” and that focuses first on others, and then on self.

So what does this revelation mean for me practically as I look ahead to my future in the field of social work? It means, first and foremost, that I should be viewing my career as an opportunity to truly live out what I believe every moment of every day. It also means that if I help anyone, that help cannot be about me looking like a good person but about giving glory to God. Aside from its message about religion in regards to the way others are to be treated, James does make it very clear that each individual must also be responsible for his- or herself: “and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This statement may have the most weight to it as I look ahead to my career—believing in the one and only “true religion” also means that I cannot allow myself to be dragged down by all of the spiritual darkness that I am bound to encounter. I am going to have the opportunity to be a light in that darkness, to bring hope to those who have been marginalized by the rest of the world. Unless I am willing to take a stand for “religion,” I cannot expect to truly make a difference in anyone’s life.