Why Christianity doesn't really work as a religion
I guess I've had the conversation at least five times in the last two weeks. Someone comes across a passage in the Bible and then looks up at me in confusion.
"I don't get it," she'll say, or maybe, "That doesn't seem very fair," or even, "How could God say something like that?" And reading the passage in question on the surface, I tend to agree. God's Word can be hard to get, seem unfair, and feel even downright weird sometimes.
Let's take just a few examples. How about God telling us He's a jealous God (Exodus 20:5 and elsewhere) like that's okay? Or Jesus' parable about vineyard workers who all get the same pay whether they worked all day or only for the last hour (Matthew 20)? And why does Jesus say prostitutes and "sinners" will get into heaven before the priests, the ones who've dedicated every moment of their lives to God (Matthew 21:31)?
What is up with all of that?
To my linear, Western, intellectually inclined brain, none of this makes sense. I thought jealousy was always bad, but apparently God gets to make an exception for Himself. I also tend to think that those who work longer hours should get paid more than those who come in late to the game and slide in just before it's time to clock out. And if anyone is first in line to get into heaven, it should be the "professionals", the ones who spend all their time on God-things when they could probably make a better living doing something else. The thought that prostitutes and the like could jump the line ahead of them is preposterous.
All quite logical thoughts, aren't they? Very linear, concerned with fairness, keeping the rules, and climbing to the top of the religious ladder. Yet Jesus pooh-poohs such thinking at every turn, reserving His harshest criticisms for legalists and Pharisees espousing these views. The most religious people of Jesus' day do not get Him at all. They accuse Him of rule breaking, usurping authority, and general mayhem in light of their tidy religious boxes. As leaders intent on holding up the banners of religion, Jesus makes no sense to them. And I get it. Sometimes He doesn't make sense to me either.
That's because following Jesus isn't about religion at all. It's about something far better, something that plays by a whole 'nother set of rules.
I've had my suspicions for years, but my "this is not about religion" light bulb went on full-tilt once I got to know the book of Ezekiel. If you want to see how God feels about religion or propriety or general sensibilities, get a gander at Ezekiel 16 and 23. God most certainly is not concerned with religious propriety, and He has no intention of playing by anyone's "rules" for what we can say in church when He's got something on His mind. Just try reading one of these chapters out loud, and then remember these are God's holy words of Scripture. But I digress...
God paints a picture through the prophet Ezekiel of something much better than religion. God's whole approach to His people then finds root instead in a relationship He wants to have, not a set of rules. And what kind of relationship does He want? The most intimate one we as humans can understand. A marriage.
As our Heavenly Husband, He wants our undivided loyalty, to be our top priority, and not because He's an egomaniac but because He wants our love just like any other husband. He wants to have influence in every detail of our lives, for us to act like we belong to Him even when we're not "in the room" with Him at church. He wants us to share every bit of ourselves with Him inside and out, and He wants to share Himself with us the same way.
I'm not saying there are no rules to follow or that God doesn't command us to do anything - far from it. Every relationship has it's own set of do's and don'ts to stay healthy, marriage included. I know, for example, that my husband Derry hates having his hair pulled, so I have a rule to not pull his hair if I don't want him mad at me. I also know how to approach him when we have a problem to solve (and how not to), that he likes two straws in his sodas, and if I ever serve brussel sprouts at dinner, I can expect them to be fired back at me like sling shot ammo. And that's aside from the whole don't-go-out-with-other-guys kind of stuff. Rules do apply in relationships, of course, but in a much fuzzier way with more exceptions, and a completely different motivation behind them than religious duty.
But religion makes a whole lot more sense to my linear, logical brain. I'd rather have a check-list to follow so I know I'm getting it right. Relationships like marriages are...well...messy. More fun than rule-keeping for sure, but higher risk as well. They can be unpredictable, and missteps are going to happen as long as at least one party in the relationship has issues and emotional baggage. When it comes to my relationship with God, I've got more than enough baggage for both of us.
But when I start applying this relationship idea to the stuff about Christianity that bugs me, I find things making a lot more sense. Of course God is a jealous God - jealous not to share His "wife" with another "lover", which is exactly how He describes idolatry. What about that whole parable with the vineyard workers? Well, it doesn't really matter whether someone comes into a relationship with God early or late in the game, does it? We're either in or out, believers or not, there is no halfway point. Just like a person can't be sort-of married, partially pregnant, or mostly dead no matter what the Princess Bride movie says.
Then there's the matter of the prostitutes and "sinners" getting into heaven ahead of the religious leaders. See, those folks already know they've blown every rule of religion there is out of the water, so they don't tend to even approach Jesus on that basis. Those among us willing to accept that we are in fact sinners come to Him because He loves us and invites us to come. But religious folk are often too busy trying to keep the rules, and don't have time to figure out how to love a Savior. They'll serve Him day and night but never really get to know Him, and that's not any kind of marriage at all.
Yeah. Christianity doesn't really work as a religion. If we search the Scriptures looking for formulas of how to make this God-Jesus-thing work for us, we'll be frustrated and confused before long. But if we take off the religious glasses and begin seeing our lives with Jesus as an intimate relationship, this whole thing makes a lot more sense.