(Originally posted in 2005, but perfectly relevant today)
The Christian world, the entire Christian world, is permeated with a religious spirit. It's in me, in others, in traditional churches, in house churches. It is such a pervasive dysfunction that it's no wonder Jesus addressed it so forcefully.
The religious spirit is not just "them," it's also "us." We think, oh so subtly, that we are somehow better than "them." We look at externals of some kind: how we worship, how we do liturgy or don't do liturgy, how we view Scripture, our pet theological perspectives and we hold tightly to these things because on some level we believe them to be "right." We lose our humility and our "rightness" becomes a judgment of others. We are better than them. We "do it" more correctly. And there it is--a religious spirit.
We take on a religious spirit when we get focused on the way to live the Christian life rather than the Person that we live the Christian life with. We turn relationship with God into rules. A relationship is an ongoing, everyday, living thing. When we are not living out of that living relationship, we begin to retreat into the rules of Christian living as a substitute. We do, after all, know the "right" way to live. It doesn't take long before we are judging others because they are not living the "right" way like we are. We quickly lose sight of the fact that the reason we are in this place of judging others is because we ourselves are unsettled. We have lost our peace because we are no longer fully embracing the Person. We try to repair our sense of unrest by setting up the rules, the structure, in order to live right and thus feel right. We project that onto others. We quickly become the pharisees who encourage others to live for God based on the letter of the law and in so doing we lead people away from vibrant relationship with God.
We take on a religious spirit when our theology becomes more important than the Person behind our belief systems. We believe we know the truth; we often believe we know MOST of the truth even though Scripture affirms that we "see through a glass darkly." Yet we base much of our personal security on knowing "the truth" and we leave little room for humility, for paradoxical theological positions, and for learning deeper truths. Because our "truth" makes us feel secure, we judge the theological positions of others as being "less than." We become the scribes and we miss the heart of the One from whom all truth flows.
We take on a religious spirit when we believe we are part of a "movement" of God that others have not yet experienced but "should." Perhaps what we are involved in is NOT what God is calling someone else to be involved in. Yet we take whatever God has done for us and judge others by whether or not God has done it for them or in them or to them.
We take on a religious spirit when we have been hurt or disappointed by other Christians. Rather than heal, forgive, let go, set boundaries and move on, we become bitter. We find reason to judge them and their "hypocritical" brand of Christianity. We hold up a standard of "righteousness" that we judge others by (because we have been hurt). We become standard-bearers of righteousness seeking to hold people accountable to what's "right." In the process we become the legalists. We forget that we are all just humans deeply in need of the washing of the blood of Jesus Christ and His eternal mercy.
We take on a religious spirit when we fail to recognize God in each and every person that He has created and redeemed. When we believe that we have something to teach others but fail to see what they have to teach us. When we take something from our spiritual life or experience and imagine that we are, in some way, better than those who do not share exactly what we are "into."
A religious spirit robs us of our real spirituality. We do not live out of the vitality of union with Christ, we live out of the push,the guilt, and the shoulds of duty. We live out of a subtle pride; we lose the joy of first love. We may feel good about "being good," but we lack the passion of a lover's life.
Worse, we pass on this spirit into others. We model a Christianity that lacks the zest and peace that comes from relationship. We exemplify a dour, sober, lifeless Christianity. We sometimes even heap the guilt and shoulds on others and, in doing this, keep them from finding the joy of the Person. We take the religious burdens that we have put on ourselves, and we wrap them around others in a way that stifles their openness to a God of relational, creative, beautiful love. No wonder Jesus said, woe unto you!
So, I say, woe unto me. Woe unto us all. To repent and break free of religion in order to experience the power of relationship with Creator-God... isn't that the call of the hour?