What's so Great About Religion?
Have you ever taken a big bite or drink of something that had an unwanted additive? A hair in your spaghetti... a bug in your soup... way too much salt in your eggs... or if you are my husband, cheese on anything. It's gross. It's inedible. It may even cause us to lose our appetite for a short time. But it would be ludicrous to stop eating or drinking altogether on account of a few unwanted recipes or additives. The same is true of any good and necessary thing. The same is true of religion.
Religion gets a very bad wrap nowadays. The word is often used synonymously with coldness, cruel judgement, weakness or empty ritual. Even within modern Christendom that term 'a religious spirit' refers to those under ungodly influence who use God and church as a means to manipulate and control others.
While I understand and believe that the concept of a religious spirit is a reality and can be a true challenge to our faith, the Bible simply does not define true religion using such terms of depravity. In fact, it does quite the opposite. (It would be more accurate to refer to 'a religious spirit' as 'a spirit of false religion.')
According to James 1, those who listen to God's word but don't do it, who claim faith but act and feel with selfishness and malcontent, are not practicing true religion.
"If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world." (James 1:26-27)
Hang on with me for a minute while I 'Greek out' on you again and take back the meaning of this word as the pages of Scripture meant it to be.
The original Greek word used for religion/religious three times in these two passages, comes from the the root threskos, which refers to the acknowledgement and worship of a deity. This is a good and necessary part of our walk of faith, insofar as we honor the correct deity (the ONLY God, in fact) and in the right ways.
James goes on to characterize the nature of proper religion (which is really what we think of as worship nowadays) using two terms: pure and undefiled. The word for pure, kathara, means "without admixture," an inner reality of unadulterated integrity of heart and mind. The word for undefiled, amiantos, literally means "not stained," an outer expression that is free from such pomp and pride as would take the focus off of God.
As an example of these inner and out truths, James cites the quest for holiness ("to keep oneself unstained by the world") as a sign of the inner purity, and our treatment of those in need ("to care for orphans and widows in their distress") as a more appropriate outward expression of worship.
There is nothing wrong with our meeting together to sing, praise, honor God and hear from God's Word in corporate or more formalized settings. Indeed, for Christians to gather regularly for such purposes is an important catalyst for Spiritual growth. But when our declarations and songs continually oppose the reality of our lives, these outward rituals can actually even offend rather than honoring God. Our regular meetings and remembrance ceremonies should act as reminders of a deeper reality.