We sat across the table from each other, sipping our coffee. He wasted no time. "Mike, the first time we met I would have told you I had perfect doctrine. I wouldn't have said it that way, but the truth is I thought my doctrine was perfect. For the past 47 years, I have been to weekly bible studies, many short-term missions, church twice on Sundays, regular family devotions, and the list goes on. I was pretty proud of my theology, and took a secret pleasure in feeling sympathy for those who didn't think like me."
I said, "Wow, that can also be a very tricky, lonely place."
He gulped back a deep sigh, and said: "You don't know the half of it." His gaze dropped to the floor. His voice took on a trembling meekness as he said: "Mike, I don't know Jesus."
This is more common than you may think but how could it be? After all, we do all the right things. Sometimes we mistakenly substitute religious activity like church attendance, tithing, bible study, our knowledge of the bible, prayer meeting and even our 'good behavior' for an experiential relationship with Jesus. To that end, I know many who are haunted by an unsettling quote from Jesus when He talks about those who cry Lord, Lord but He says I never knew you! The religious folks of the day were certainly challenged by Jesus' statement as I think many of us are today. I am suggesting, that if Holy Spirit is challenging you with this that we resist the temptation to feel condemned and we hear these words through the ears of love as an invitation. A generous invitation to genuine relationship with Jesus.
As good as these things can be in a healthy context, for many these things can become a substitute for faith. For some, they haven't made the connection yet, for others it may be a way to practice a form of piety without having to genuinely surrender to the Lord. Removing any personal judgment of character or motive, this can be a form of modern day idolatry. Idolatry is anything that becomes a substitute for God, it looks Godly but there is no power to it. It only produces self-righteousness and not real life.
This self-righteousness is the worst kind of pride. It acts as judge and jury condemning those who don't measure up to our own ideas of piety. In essence, we are getting life from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, rather than the Tree of Life. Is it any wonder, sooner or later, we hit the wall? Is it any wonder that some awaken to discover a mountain of ash.
Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real"
- Thomas Merton
What tree are we actually eating from? Paul's letter to the Galatians speaks of the fruit of the Spirit; But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These characteristics can't be faked without producing self-righteousness, but the authentic work of the Spirit brings about the genuine transformation that is the natural and legitimate fruit of a life in Christ. This is humility. When we understand that it is indeed the work of the Spirit we cannot take the credit but only respond with gratitude.
Scripture tells us the enemy masquerades as an Angel of Light; religion without relationship (experience) has historically deceived many by spiritualizing violence, politics, money, the abuse of power and control but often times religion; chapter and verse, a thus says the Lord and a verily I say unto thee can prove just as tragic. There is no life in this because it exchanges one form of bondage for a religious one, which sadly leaves one in a worse state.
Let's not let our correct thinking about God, our wonderful pious activity or even our super morals become an idol, a cheap substitute for a life walking with God in Christ. Authentic life with Christ produces healthy thinking, healthy actions, and moral behavior. These and so much more flow from life in Christ. If we set out to acquire these separate from this relationship, or as a means to earn God's favour the fruit is always self-righteousness (pride). Always. Let's us not forget the words C.S. Lewis that we get the lesser with the greater, but never the greater with the lesser.