Say the word "religion" and watch people bristle. There’s just something about it that causes resistance, and not just among nonbelievers—Jesus-following people who don’t want to be associated with things that seem cold or contrived don’t like it either.
What we really want is spiritual vibrancy of a lasting kind, and we have become increasingly skeptical that religion can fit in that space. Religion itself is not to blame; our religious attempt to impress others or make ourselves feel close to God is responsible. But as a person who has lived the experiences of both playing church and having a new life of spiritual vibrancy, I do not find it contradictory that I consider myself to be in spiritual recovery, and yet I passionately love the Church. Both states are possible, no matter how much at odds they may seem to be.
The Pursuit of Spiritual Vibrancy
The presence of God—not how well we can perform duties of religion—is what creates within us a spiritual vibrancy. This distinction is referenced by Paul: “They will act as if they are religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly” (2 Timothy 3:5). Vibrancy doesn’t come to us through our religious efforts, although discipline, growth and knowledge may. But vibrancy—life within our soul—is the effective work of Jesus.
We can’t pretend our way into a powerful prayer life. Knowledge won’t give us impact. We won’t authentically display something we don’t feel from within. It’s not that we should discount religion; it’s that we should recognize it as being less important than Jesus. The presence of God in our life will produce a thriving spiritual existence that nothing else can generate—creating a genuine passion and concern for those things that once did not compel us.
It’s a metamorphosis I have watched develop in my own life. Out of all the ugly things I have ever admitted out loud, the acknowledgment of being apathetic to people and things around me has been the hardest, as if in my admission, I confess to not having a soul. Who is cold enough to say they just don’t care? Who is honest enough to admit something so blatantly at odds with the gospel? Like other believers who allow the gospel to become largely self-serving, I was most concerned with things that directly benefited me and focused on those aspects, things like the ability of God to help me through tough times and the promises of His faithful love. When religion was primary, those things served me well. It never asked me to go beyond and reach further.
It is a helpless, empty feeling to know that we do not have the depth required to care for these things, only to try to manufacture those feelings on our own and watch ourselves fall short. This happens because our flesh does not naturally crave service or selflessness. Instead, it desires things that directly benefit us: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Romans 7:18).
But when we become whole in our religion, the Gospel becomes far less about what we can gain and much more about what we can give. We become inspired by the life of Jesus Christ, and we want to emulate His extravagant love. Our hearts break over what breaks His. Our spirits become fully alive and our spiritual senses awaken. A natural and deep care develops, sensitizing our soul … compelling our actions. When that happens, we will know that our religion has been made whole. Simply put, we feel differently about things and it flows out of us. Our service becomes grittier, getting our hands dirtier as we become more radical in our faith. We care about all aspects of the Gospel.
Resisting Formulaic Faith
Something else that happens when our religion is made whole is that we develop a solid faith that’s less susceptible to the shifting tides of worldly beliefs. It is the principle from Matthew 7, of the house built on the solid foundation of Jesus rather than the variable sands of religion. Our deep spiritual connection grounds us with Jesus, and there’s nothing more we need in this day to see us through.
I can admit there have been moments in my life when I have wished for a way in the back door—a way that satisfies my need for the easy and concrete. If I can only learn one more formula, maybe that will be it. If I can only read one more book, maybe it will unlock that one elusive truth that will change my life. If I go to just one more Bible study or attend one more worship experience, maybe it will connect me to God. The truth is, it never will. While we depend on those things to make us spiritual, God seeks our dependence upon Him to make us whole.
The outpouring of Jesus from our life that happens when we become spiritually vibrant is sweeping. We watch Him use us in ways our religious rigors would never have made possible, which gives us a taste of what being a representative of Jesus really means, and in turn, we crave to be used by God again. I believe this is one of the core reasons Jesus made the distinction between religion and godliness in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.” He knew that though we would be drawn toward religion, our influence would be found in godliness. Having lived many years with a manufactured faith manifested in rules and rituals but without real depth, I now know nothing could feel more fulfilling.
As I write this today, I don’t know what your life mantra is or where your spiritual journey has taken you so far. You may be heavily in the throes of spiritual recovery or on a wellness journey that is helping you learn how to truly love the Church. Maybe you desire to care about the entire Gospel or you want to build your life on a faith that is solid. These things, as with the power to represent Jesus well, are only possible through a religion made whole. To know you have been a part of showing someone the great benefits of God is a place your addiction to spiritual things will never take you—a place that helps strengthen your faith in the power of the presence of God. It bolsters your desire to stay present in a place of spiritual vibrancy, where holes are not allowed to develop into limiting factors in your spiritual life. It makes your commitment to authenticity worth it, even in those moments when you are faced with the choice of seeing your own hard truth. This is a promise, my friend, I can passionately make. It is the promise of wholeness.
There is no shortcut to becoming an accurate representative of a beautiful, loving God. At the same time, it is not a complicated process—it’s so simple, in fact, that people often overlook it. The key to being real is readying your heart for the outflow of His Spirit. That means getting into the Word and reading it for yourself. It means dedicated, honest, earnest prayer that aggressively pursues knowing God. It means a commitment to focusing on what is real, pursuing spiritual recovery, desiring the vibrancy of God, and positioning yourself to represent Him well. The byproduct of those things is you, made whole, and your beautiful ability to influence others by your life. There is no higher calling or greater fulfillment.