The Powerful Difference Between Religion and Faith
I once sat at my kitchen table with a young lady who had visited our church youth group for a while and then left because of an argument with our youth leader. She had visited another church but had been bullied out of it as well, because of her ongoing battle with depression and drug use. She sat at my table and said, “I don’t know Mrs. F, you say there is hope for me, but you seem to be reading a different Bible than them. How are the things you are telling me so different from what they say?”
You may have felt like my young friend at some point or other. You have probably seen the good and bad behaviors in Christians. You may have experienced the beauty of God’s love and wondered how to reconcile it with the power grabbing, abuse, and arrogant celebrity pastors. You have probably heard extremely different opinions of what the Bible means, defended violently. You’ve probably wondered how there can be so many different views. How can any of us know what is correct?
The two words we need to clearly define and thoroughly understand are: religion and faith. Though we often use them interchangeably, they are actually two very different things.
First, let’s look at religion:
There are two different Greek words which have been translated as religion in our modern English Bible translations. One word meant “dread of the gods” and referred to things the pagans did to appease their gods out of fear, and the other word simply meant “ceremonies and rituals”.
And guess what? These two words only show up in the entire NT, in three different passages.
So, after intensely studying all three of those passages, I read Skye Jethani’s book With and Bertrand Rusell’s book Why I’m not a Christian
Bertrand Russell was an extremely influential leader in modern criticism of Religion. In his book, he says that “Religion is based . . . primarily and mainly upon fear . . . fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore, it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.” Bertrand Russell and Skye Jethani both say that fear is the basis of all religions. Skye goes on to say that Jesus taught another way. Bertrand, not so much...there’s a reason his book is called, Why I’m Not a Christian
I put all of this information together into the following definition: Religion is any set of beliefs or practices that a person follows in order to gain control, influence, or special favor with their version of God or to gain control over uncontrollable, uncertain, fearful things in our world.
The key to this definition is that it is about using things to gain control over what is uncontrollable. Ceremonies, rituals, and spiritual disciplines can be very good things if they are used to help you know God more but they can become evil if they are used as an attempt to gain a sense of control.
Which leads us to the other important word that we need to be clear on our definition of:
Faith. Quite simply, faith is trust.
It is knowing God and trusting him.
To quote my good friend Andy Mineo “The opposite of faith ain’t doubt, It’s when you got it all figured out.” In other words, it isn’t about being rewarded for having all of our beliefs perfect, it’s trusting God.
And, guess what? Faith is mentioned over 450 times in the Bible. It’s really what the Bible is all about.
In a lot of ways, I think faith is the opposite of religion. Religion is seeking control. Faith is learning to trust the one who is in control. It’s letting go of control. Faith is about pursuing a relationship. It’s about knowing God and learning to trust in his goodness and love. It’s looking for that goodness and love when your world is filled with evil and hate.
Understanding the difference between these two words changes everything.
It is our faith that saves us. It is through faith that God sees us as righteous.
We are never taught that religion pleases God. As a matter of fact, one of the places that mentions religion, James 1: 26-27 says that if you consider yourself religious and aren’t careful about how you talk about people, you are deceiving yourself. The only ceremonies and rituals that God really cares about are looking after widows and orphans.
Here is where it gets really crazy though. Deep down, I think we all want to be religious. I mean honestly, don’t you want to be in control? Don’t you want a guarantee that your life is going to go the way you want it to? If you are a parent, you most assuredly want a way to guarantee your kids safety.
And that desire for control can take just about any good thing and make it religious. We can start out praying because we really want to seek God and we really want to ask him to work in someone’s life and it can quickly shift to “if I pray enough God has to do this thing for me.” He owes me because I prayed every day for 6 months.
The good news is that this is not a new struggle and Jesus had a lot to say about it. As a matter of fact, it seems like the gospels are pretty much mostly stories of Jesus restoring people to a relationship with him and confronting religious judgmentalism.
One cut and dry example is that there are several places in the gospels where Jesus told his disciples to be on guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Which doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to us, but back in the ancient day, the Pharisees and Sadducees were the respected religious leaders in Israel. We don’t actually have any leaders that would compare to the power and respect that these guys had. We are Americans. We question everyone. Jesus’ disciples grew up being taught to revere these guys. Yeast was a common symbol for evil that spreads. It was completely shocking for Jesus to say “watch out for the yeast of your revered religious leaders.”
Matthew 16:5-12, actually gives us a rather humorous look at how difficult it was for the disciples to accept that Jesus was warning them against the the religion of their leaders.
In this story, the disciples and Jesus are all going across the lake together. The disciples forgot to take any bread. As Jesus is teaching them, he says, “be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
The disciples reaction is really funny if you think about it.
They thought Jesus was saying this to them because they forgot bread.
As if Jesus was literally saying, “Guys, I know you don’t have any bread. When we get to the other side of the lake, don’t go borrowing any from the religious leaders. They got a bad batch going around.”
Matthew 16:7 actually says: “They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”
But that is just how hard it was for the disciples to see that Jesus was telling them to break free from religion and lean into faith.
The story continues: Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? 9 Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 11 How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
In defense of the disciples, it’s really hard to comprehend just how evil religion can be. I’m not going to lie, I had a hard time typing “evil” as I prepared my notes. I kept changing the word because that feels so harsh.
But here is where it gets real for me:
If you want to know what your honest, deep down religion is, look at how you respond to things in your life that you care deeply about but have no control over.
I hope you want to read the Bible to know God. I hope you want to guard yourself against the yeast of religion and lean into faith.
Can you imagine how differently the world would view Christians if we all let go of our religion and focused on pursuing faith?
Different interpretations wouldn’t lead to hate-filled attacks, they’d lead to thought filled discussions where people left feeling valued and supported even if agreement was never reached. How differently would the world see us, if faith was our focus? How differently would those who have been wounded by American church culture be treated in communities based on faith rather than religion.
I hope you are excited about this! I hope this sparks your attention and gives you some new insight on how to read the Bible. I hope it gives you clarity and focus.
My challenge for you this week is to start making a list of religious things you do. Then when you start becoming aware of areas where you are religious, start praying to see how those areas impact how you read the Bible.
I’d love for you to share some things off of your list with us. I have already shared some of my religious practices that I’m fighting. You can find those on my FB page.
Guys, I know, this is a tough one. I’m praying for you all. It’s really hard to be this self-reflective. It can bring up a lot of insecurities. But it is absolutely freeing and I promise it is worth the effort.
As always, I’d love to hear from you. All my contact info and the transcript of today’s episode is on my website rumandcolaforthesoul.com
Thanks for listening.
I hope you feel both energized and calmed like your soul just had some rum and cola.