Why Beliefs Aren't Enough
It’s a familiar saying among evangelicals: “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” It’s true, of course. In theory, it ought to always be our reality. In practice, however, it is far more often quoted than experienced. It’s frighteningly easy for us to slip out of relationship mode and into religious belief.
For most of my adult life, I’ve studied theology. Not that I’m a theologian, by any means, except in the sense that anyone who thinks theologically is a theologian. What I mean is that I have centered my life around the study of God, his Word, and his ways. I’ve learned various doctrines and wrestled with issues of faith that defy easy explanation. And, I must confess, that has been a problem for me. Here’s why:
While most ordinary believers would not consider themselves theologians, all of us have what we call a system of beliefs—a doctrinal statement that probably applies to our particular denomination and certainly to our own view of the Christian faith. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, it’s unavoidable. Good theology and right doctrine are essential, and when we speak of Jesus we can’t help but speak theologically. The problem is when our system of belief becomes the substance of our discipleship. And for many of us, it frequently does.
I lapse into that mindset often. My discipleship quickly becomes based on a set of doctrines and principles, tenets that frame my thinking and define my interpretation of God’s Word. When that happens, I’ve practically separated myself from my source of life—Jesus. I’ve moved out of the arena of relationship and into the arena of law. I’ve tried to systematize an infinite Person, and that’s a foolish thing to do.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s important to study theology and know doctrine. But if our focus is on the principles rather than the Person, we’re no different from the Pharisees of the New Testament. We’ve got a philosophy of life that may be closer to truth than that of the Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or other religionist, but it is of essentially the same nature—it’s just a philosophy. Even if it’s biblically based, it’s still an external set of principles.
For believers, Jesus is neither external nor a set of principles. He’s an internal presence. Any doctrine we hold should be an outflow of the reality of his life in us. Discipleship must be absolutely fixed on this reality, or it’s not genuine discipleship at all—it’s religion.
Learning the Difference
The difference between religion and relationship is vast in essence but very, very small in distance. We rarely detect that difference until we find ourselves in one of those excruciating crucibles life always seems to bring us.
I’ve found, for example, that even the truest principles will not hold my hand in the deep, dark night. Jesus will. Sound doctrine will not warm my heart in the dead of winter. Again, Jesus will. The valley of the shadow of death is not made the least bit easier by good theology. An accompanying Shepherd, however, makes a tremendous difference.
But when life is relatively pain-free and circumstances are not particularly burdensome, we can brush aside the presence of the Shepherd while systematic thinking takes his place. The personal is replaced by the impersonal. Living faith gives way to dead theology. Religion rises up in our hearts, right where Jesus once reigned.
Have you been there? Have you experienced this transition? If you’re like me, it’s a repeated cycle. We seek Jesus through our understanding of doctrine, when instead we should understand biblical doctrine as it reflects our intensely relational experience with Jesus.
One remedy for this problem is to remind yourself regularly that Jesus is alive. It wasn’t a doctrine of deliverance that freed the demoniac; it was a Deliverer. It wasn’t a principle of healing that cleansed the leper; it was a Healer. There’s a huge difference. One approach rests in the mind of man, the other in the Person of God.
Faith in a Person
Christianity is intensely personal. When Jesus called his disciples, he said: “Follow me.” He didn’t tell them to adhere to his teaching or to learn his precepts. He told them to abide in him, and he promised them that his Spirit would come to live in them. He did not give them principles to learn in order to know him better; he gave them himself, and their principles for discipleship came as a result.
There are questions we should ask ourselves daily, even hourly, if necessary: Is our discipleship based on the actual, living presence of the risen Jesus himself? Or have we bypassed Jesus and made a priority of the principles we have been taught? Are we in vital communion with the Spirit who authored the Word, or are we simply gathering information as students of the biblical text? Or, to put it more succinctly, is he real to us?
I’m convinced that many Christians rarely experience the actual presence of Jesus, spending most of their lives knowing about him rather than relating to him. I believe this because I have seen this tendency in myself and suspect that my faults in discipleship are not highly unusual. I have known some, in fact, who have studied God’s Word their entire lives and have still not encountered God.
Knowing something about human nature—mine and others’—I can confidently suggest that, for most of us, it would be a good idea to remind ourselves daily of the personal presence of Jesus and to plead with him to make himself known to us in highly personal ways. And knowing something also about the nature of God, I can confidently suggest that this is a prayer that will never go unanswered.
Pray it often. It makes all the difference.
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