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Is Religion a Bad Word?

by Tim O'Hearn

If one listens to some of the songs currently popular on Christian radio stations, it is easy to get a wrong picture of religion. It seems that religion has become something to “go beyond” or that is a weight to drag a person down. Religion, it seems, has become a word that seems to mean mere rote obedience with no consideration for faith and no redeeming value in itself. How different that is from the original meaning of the word, and the picture painted in the Bible.

Religion, in English, comes from the Latin for “to tie again.” The idea is that religion is that which binds us to God. In the Greek, however, it comes from a root word meaning to tremble. The idea is that religion is an expression of fear or awe toward God.

Expression of that awe for God has taken many forms. Perhaps the most common expression in the Bible was falling on one’s face. Now, that may simply mean bowing prostrate in God’s presence, but just maybe it can be taken literally. Religion to people like Moses, Abraham, Balaam, Ezekiel, Joshua, Daniel, and even Jesus, may have consisted of literally falling hard, face-down, in the presence of God. It seems that the actual presence of God (or the angel of God, which in the Old Testament may have been God himself) is sufficient to make a mere human lose all muscle tone.

What does that say about us? When we come before God in prayer, do we literally fall in fear? For most of us the answer is no. Nor is it necessarily wrong if we do not do so. It would make praying while driving a bit dangerous. If our religion does not include such an awe of our creator and savior, then maybe we don’t need to “go beyond” religion, but rather go up to religion. If having a proper respect for God is a weight around your ankle, then don’t pretend to be religious. God may drag you down to your knees or further, but that is a good thing, not something to be avoided.

James tells his readers that there is another expression of religion. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27) It might be theoretically possible that one could go beyond the first part of this verse. Rather than visiting the homeless, a person might also give to those who have their own visible means of support. It is difficult to achieve the latter phrase, much less to “go beyond” keeping oneself unspotted.

When one singer says that all religion has been to him is a weight around his feet, one should wonder what he means. Is helping those in need a burden? Is following Christ a weight? There are solutions. One would be to quit playing at religion entirely. If following God is a burden, why put up with it? The other choice would be to learn to want to do the will of God. Sometimes people expect the feeling to come first, and the actions will follow. That is, if I love God then I will help the widows and orphans. In reality, though, many people need to learn from Stanislavsky. His famous “method” of acting says, in a very simplified form, if you do the action you will get the feeling. For the purpose of this discussion, this means that if one practices religion, one will develop the motivation. If we help others because God says to, then that will, in itself, cause us to love God. If we do our best to avoid sin, then we will learn to love the sinless one. If one practices pure religion, after a while it is no longer a burden but a blessing. It’s pretty hard to go beyond that.