The best compliment I’ve received in a long time was “Really? You’re a pastor?” It was on an airplane and it was from the man seated next to me. We had been talking for over an hour, mostly about the business trip he was on. When he finally asked me what I did for a living, and I told him I was a pastor, he responded with, “Huh. But you seem so down to earth and you haven’t judged me.”
I love airplanes. That’s because I love meeting people and getting to know them. And when you’re locked in an airplane for two hours, you’ve got a captive audience right next to you. In the past, I’ve led with “Hi, my name’s Alex and I’m a pastor” and let the conversation be defined by that. But recently, I’ve realized that may actually end up being a conversation stopper. So, I like to just get to know the person, find out what they do and what they’re interested in. Ninety-nine percent of the time the conversation comes around to God and religion without me ever revealing my occupation.
I think we as Christians have a reputation as conversation stoppers. When we engage people on the other side of an issue, most of the time, the conversation doesn’t end the way we want it to. It gets stopped short or our side of the issue ends up being misrepresented. And that’s largely our fault. We prefer to be heard, as opposed to actually listening. We want the benefit of the doubt, but we’re reluctant to give it. Instead, we lead with our idea of what’s right and wrong – our belief – instead of leading with love.
The best way to stop a conversation short is by being judgmental and “religious.” By that, I mean we come off as confrontational and condemning, rather than relational and loving.
Religion, for me, is a man-made path to God. That’s how I define it in my new book. It’s a list of things we do or don’t do that will either make God happy or make him mad. When we go down that dead end of religion, we usually end up judging others based on their behavior.
The name of my aforementioned book is "Jesus Hates Religion." With a title like that I’ve had to field quite a few questions. “Can Jesus really hate?” “Isn’t Jesus himself religious?” “Why would Jesus hate religion?” I think the answer to nearly all of these questions goes to the core of who Jesus really is. He’s about love and relationship, not rules and religion.
Now, James 1:27 defends religion. It says that religious people will help those in need, especially orphans and widows. But it’s very interesting that of the four times in the New Testament that the word “religion” is used, this is the only time it’s used in a positive way.
James is saying that religion can be good and helpful, but not always and certainly not usually. The whole idea of the book of James is that “faith without works is dead.” But he’s not saying the opposite, that “works without faith is alive.” He says that he can show you his faith through his works, but faith has to be there first. Which is the same argument that Paul makes in Ephesians 2:8-9 -- that we don’t and can’t do anything to gain God’s love and grace. It’s a free gift!
Religion, the man-made path to God, says the opposite. Religion says that if I work hard enough and strive high enough, I can eventually get to God on my own merits. But that’s getting the whole thing backwards. Nothing we do – our behavior, our beliefs, our best efforts – will ever make us good enough to approach God. The only way that happens is through grace.