Another belief is that, “All religions lead to the same place.” A lot of people would agree with that and further add that what matters most is that you “have faith.” Both these statements sound reasonable, however when you really uncover what is being said, it is not sound. “All religions lead to the same place” is true, but it’s not Heaven and that’s the problem. There is a huge difference between “religion” and a relationship with God. They are not the same. The only people Jesus criticized and really got into it with were the religious leaders of his day. He accused them of “straining out a gnat (in reference to fanatically following the law) but swallowing a camel (in reference to personal responsibility to their follow man and walking in humility before God, which the law also emphasized).
Regardless of the religion, religion is a set of beliefs, a set of rules and to some it provides comfort. To others they think it gives them the right to criticize others, or to think themselves more superior. It is interesting that Jesus never said to believe in a religion, he said to “believe in me.” “Believe that I came to be a ransom for you, so that through faith in me you can know the Father.” Every word that Jesus spoke to his disciples he spoke in terms of a relationship, not religion. A relationship is guided by one’s heart, and religion is led by rules. Rules allow certain personality types the room to become fanatical in their adherence. Paul in the New Testament was exactly like this. He was zealous for the Jewish faith to the point of putting Christians in jail and taking the life of others until Christ met him in the form of a brilliant light (Acts 9) causing him to fall off his horse. Religion in its purest form regards man and beast and keeps a knee bent before God. Unfortunately, it is hard to maintain that without a connection to God. I know because I too in my early years was like this. I could dot my I’s and cross my T’s, at least in appearance. I was able to discipline myself to do and say the right things and read the Bible exceeding many of my friends in the memorization of it. I even taught others. But pride and forgiving others became a problem and I could not see how my “helpful comments” were taken as criticism. I was very religious, having “faith” but not compassion or understanding. I made it to church every Sunday and Wednesday but could not meet my wife half way. I looked good on the outside, really good, but on the inside I was a mess. That to me is the fruit or the result of pursuing religion. You may have a different story, but that’s mine.
THE CHANGE: The change was very painful. As a religious person, divorce was a marked sign of failure. Religious persons were not to divorce; it was like breaking one of the Ten Commandments. Can’t do that and still look at yourself in the mirror. My wife was done with our marriage and we were only three years into it with a little one year old girl. This could not be happening to me, but it was. I asked for her to attend counseling. I was sure that the counselor would see my point of view and help my wife to agree that I was right. The counseling session became a nightmare as he pointed out my rigid stance and almost impossible environment that I had created to live in. I was shocked and confused, having nowhere to go. On the drive home I began speaking to God. It was the longest and hardest 45 minutes I had ever driven; neither one of us speaking to the other and me asking God why He gave me such a bad counselor. As I spoke, He interrupted saying only two words, “He’s right.” He’s right, I exclaimed, as my inside exploded in confusion and pain. How was he right I asked, and the next answer changed my world. “You are trying to earn my love with all your actions, not understanding that I love you as you are. My love can’t be earned; I give it freely.” The best picture I can give you as to what happened next is the picture of an old building that has been condemned and needs to be destroyed. Explosives are set in specific areas of the building and detonated causing the building to implode on itself. It caves in and comes crashing to the ground in a heap of dust and ruin. That was me.
THE NEXT STEP: We finally arrived home and by now I was crying beyond control as a new understanding was arising in me. All my actions and sayings from my past came as a fast forward movie through my mind and with my new understanding I now understood how that everything I did was to earn God’s love. My most innocent actions outwardly had a spin to them, and the strict lifestyle that I had forced my wife to live under because of this, was crushing me inside. What I loved about her was her free spirit. That is what attracted me to her but I had destroyed it in just three years. It was more than I could bear and I cried out to God. I said I needed Him and that I was lost without Him. That if He wanted this mess, I was all His, one hundred percent! The next moment changed my life as His forgiving love flooded my soul. For the first time I knew I was loved, unconditionally. It was all Him unconditionally loving me, for there was nothing in me worth loving. I stayed in my room for some time just trying to understand it all, and when I finally stepped out of my room I stepped into a house that was ice cold. The house that religion built destroyed my wife. I saw her with different eyes now and understood that all I had done was repeat the criticisms she had grown up with. I could have died as I was coming into this awareness. How did I not see it? All I had to do was love her and she would have been the best wife a man could ever have. I now had years ahead of me to prove that I had truly changed. There was no sense in telling her, she had heard those words before – I needed to live them. It was a miracle that she did not divorce me. I still don’t know why, except that God intervened.
FAST FORWARD: We have now been married 35 years. In today’s world of divorce and remarriage it is an impressive amount of time. However the credit is not mine, it belongs to a God who got to me early in my relationship with Him and my marriage to my wife. He showed me the difference between religion and a relationship with Him. Religion is me trying to make myself acceptable to God, to earn His approval. A relationship with Him, is Him reaching down through Christ to me, atoning for my sins on the Cross and with open arms inviting me into a relationship with Him. A relationship that I accept by believing in what He has done for me. And as one cultivates a relationship with a friend by spending time with him or her, so my life has now been spent in studying His Bible, praying and attending church. I did that all before as well, except I did it to earn His love, NOW I DO IT BECAUSE OF HIS LOVE, SAME ACTION, BUT FROM A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT MOTIVE. This is my story, my testimony that I freely share with you. As I mentioned in the first article the best way to help people is to be transparent. Let them see your strengths and your weaknesses. I have hidden nothing and in being transparent my hope is that it gives you hope. Given freedom to work God is able to rebuild us, despite the mess we have caused for ourselves. None of us is beyond His help, or His love that changes us from the inside out.
MY FINAL WORDS: A walk of faith/trust is just that. You can’t see God, but you trust Him and in His Bible He reveals Himself. I have learned to see His hand in my life through answered prayer, as well as through unanswered prayer, through His guidance in tough situations – giving me words to speak, as well as helping me as a landscaper to create beautiful landscapes. The last 30 years of my life of truly knowing God and walking with Him have been very challenging, as my life has not been spared any of the hardships to be found in this life. However, through the pain and challenges I have learned of God’s faithfulness and that regardless of the struggle, problem, or challenge, that God and I equal a winning team. Winning in the normal sense, but also winning in the sense that I no longer live by sight but by trust, and in trust I free God to be God and to do as He sees best. I can trust HIS LOVE.
HOW TO KNOW HIM – In John chapter 3 there is an interesting conversation between a very well respected religious leader and Jesus. The meeting occurred at night, being that the religious leader Nicodemus, who did not want to be seen speaking to Jesus. He acknowledges that Jesus was from God because of the miracles He does. It is interesting to note Jesus’ next comment, “Truly, truly I say to you unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus never asked how can a man be saved, at least not outwardly. However, Jesus knew Nicodemus’ real question and that was it. Nicodemus responded by asking “How can a man be born again when he is old?” He does not understand that Jesus is speaking of a regeneration of the soul, not the body. This dialogue continues till verse 16 & 17 where Jesus condenses salvation and his purpose into these two verses, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son (in reference to His death on the Cross), that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” Religion condemns, but God seeks to save. So the question is, what will you do with Jesus. Is he a great man, a great religious leader, or is He God Incarnate; the gateway by which all men must past to have a relationship with God? I accepted Christ as a young man, but strayed terribly as I tried to prove my worth to Him, a frequent mistake of religious people. There is even an example in the Bible of a man promising God a human offering, “whatsoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer up as a sacrifice” (Judges 11:31). If God gave Jephthah victory in battle this was his promise. This was a rash statement coming from a religious man showing to what extremes religion can go. This was and is contrary to everything God stands for. After the victory he comes home and his only daughter meets him…., he keeps his promise. The house that religion builds is also the house that religion tears down. May Part II clear up the difference between being religious and being in a relationship with God. It makes all the difference in your life and those that you love.
FINAL NOTE: We do a biweekly devotional called Vida4U (Vida is life in Spanish) that I write during my lunch time. It will help you to know The Lord better. Please request it at Arthur@Vida4U.com.
Thank you for reading, stay in touch and may God guide and continue to show you His love, starting with this Christmas as a celebration and remembrance of Christ’s birth. Remember, “FOR GOD SO LOVED, THAT HE GAVE HIS ONLY BEGOTTEN SON….” Christmas is the celebration of that.
Merry Christmas – and Move Forward in His Grace