You don't have to be particularly insightful to see that most, if not all, of the world's greatest problems have been caused or worsened by people's dogged devotion to one religion or another.
A religion is any system of thought or way of life that people use to better themselves. Whether the intention of the religionist is to worship God or themselves, religion always calls people away from love of God or love of neighbor.
In some religious systems, devotees strive to work hard to please or placate an angry deity.
In some, people strive to become one with a deity through proscribed processes or procedures.
Other religions may not be immediately identified as religious systems. But as Paul Tillich once pointed out, echoing Martin Luther and others, whatever is of ultimate importance to you is your god.
Understood in this way, every day we can observe people who bow down to, serve, and strive to please demanding gods. Some worship in the Church of Money, the Church of Power, the Church of Popularity, or other such "holy" places. Every obsession and addiction on the planet has spawned its own religion and each has something in common: They imprison people, engendering desperation to have enough of what their god seems to offer--from the momentary buzz to personal security.
They also have one other thing in common: None of them can ever make us feel alive or worthy or secure in ourselves. Not even those "good" things that we can worship like spouses, families, and friends.
A woman I met years ago told me the story of what happened to her after a little daughter died of leukemia at age 2. She and her husband had another daughter who was a year younger than the child who died. Because of the loss of the older baby and her overwhelming fear, this mother became overly protective of the younger girl. She rarely let her out of her sight and she showered her with attention and gifts.
One day, when the younger girl was two, the woman was visiting with friends. Suddenly, she realized that her daughter was gone, nowhere to be found in the house. They discovered her at the bottom of the friend's pool. She'd been there for awhile and it was doubtful that the little one would live. You can imagine the mother's agony!
But then something happened as she paced in an emergency room waiting area, offering up desperate prayers to heaven. "As I prayed," she told me, "I sensed God telling me, 'You shall have no other gods before Me.'" The words, of course, are the first commandment, found in the Old Testament book of Exodus.
The woman said that she felt God was telling her that she had made her child or being a good mother her deities. She spent each day anxiously pursuing that god, trying to placate the demands it placed on her life.
Any time we allow anyone or anything other than the God we meet in Jesus Christ to be our deity, we're engaged in religion and anxiety will be the result.
When we surrender to Jesus Christ, relationship--with God and with others--replaces religion and peace replaces anxiety. Not perfectly, of course. We're human beings; we carry a lot of baggage. But Jesus brings peace, freedom, and hope. Jesus frees us from religion.
These are the great themes of this chapter in Matthew's gospel, seen first in Jesus' condemnation of critical, whiny religiosity and then in the freedom and peace He offers to all.
Matthew 11:1-19: The chapter begins with emissaries from John the Baptist asking Jesus if He really is "the One we've been expecting"? Apparently, like every other mortal human being, John had questions or doubts. He needed reassurance that Jesus really was the Savior, sent to free those who turn from sin and turn to Him, to live with God forever.
Jesus invites John and his followers to consider the evidence:
The blind see,After John's followers leave, Jesus speaks of John's place in history and says that no one born of the mortal race was ever greater than John. But, Jesus says, "in the kingdom he prepared you for"--the kingdom that Jesus is bringing into being--"the lowliest person is ahead of him."
The lame walk,
Lepers are cleansed,
The deaf hear,
The dead are raised,
The wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side. (Matthew 11:4-6)
For some, Jesus knows, it will seem odd for Him to be saying good things about John. These critics--representatives of the prevailing religious view of the time--look at the externals of John's and Jesus' lives and ministries and think that they must be at loggerheads. John was ascetic in his lifestyle; Jesus was known to enjoy wine and good food. John led a spartan life; Jesus partied. John was careful not to associate with sinners; Jesus seemed to seek out their company.
Neither one could please the good religious folks though, something that Jesus points to bluntly and fiercely in His words here:
"How can I account for this generation? The people have been like spoiled children whining to their parents, 'We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always too busy.' John came fasting and they called him crazy. I came feasting and they called me a lush, a friend of the riff-raff. Opinion polls don't count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating." (Matthew 11:16-19)So long as one isn't abusing oneself or others or violating God's will for human beings, there are a million different ways to live for God and in ways that are pleasing to God. The key is to be surrendered to God, not to the standards of the world and its religious systems.
Those caught up in religion though, have a desire to control the behavior of others. They're so miserable with themselves, so afraid of losing control, and so fearful of moving out of sync with the grim demands of their deity-of-choice that feel it their appointed duty to act as vigilantes against other people's behaviors.
Some of these practitioners of religion may even see themselves as being Christians, followers of Jesus. But their version of Christianity is always about rules, whether for worship, or proper attire in the church building, or politics.
There was a sect of first-century Judaism with which Jesus locked horns, whose devotees often displayed these traits. They were the Pharisees. In a way, the Pharisees were the group of Jews most like Jesus. Like Jesus, they believed in repentance. Like Jesus, they believed in a resurrection, something to which the Saducees, another group of Jesus' fellow Jews, did not subscribe.
But the Pharisees were like an alcoholic who knows the Twelve Step program inside out, who is capable of reciting it chapter and verse, yet is unable to do what an alcoholic must do to get free, admit their problem and surrender to their "Higher Power." The Pharisees of Jesus' day hadn't really surrendered to God. Instead, though they would never say it, saw themselves as God's equal, looking down their noses on the sinful human race the way they supposed God did. They used God's laws like whips on those they deemed spiritually inferior to themselves, even on John the Baptist...even on God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ!
Jesus was clear that He hadn't come to abolish God's law. God's law has three major purposes: to be a mirror in which we see our deficiencies in righteousness; to drive us to turn to God as we realize our human incapacity to obey God's law; and once we've turned from sin--repented--and received the assurance of God's forgiveness, as a guide in our desire to please the God Who loves us completely. Jesus, with His sinless life, fulfilled the demands of the law and so opened the possibility of life with God for all who entrust their lives to Him.
No wonder Jesus was so critical of the religion of the Pharisees. Later in Matthew, we'll see just how critical He was. But consider a few of Jesus' words about them: "You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You go halfway around the world to make a convert, but once you get him you make him into a replica of yourselves, double-damned." (Matthew 23:15)
Jesus didn't come into the world to make us like everybody else. He came to set us free to be our true selves, our God-selves!
Matthew 11:20-30. The Good News is that Jesus wants to set all people free of religion and of all the stresses their life-sapping demands impose on us. After lamenting the unwillingness of the world to accept the free gifts He offers, Jesus turns to the crowd surrounding Him and asks (I love these words so much!):
"Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to Me. Get away with Me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me--watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with Me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly."Jesus Christ can free you from religion and give you a relationship with Him that will change your life. It begins when you come to Him and let Him give you rest.