“In almost everything that touches our everyday life on earth, God is pleased when we’re pleased. He wills that we be as free as birds to soar and sing our maker’s praise without anxiety.” – A.W. Tozer
In the musical, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, there is a song of longing. It is a song pleading for freedom from the prison behind pillars to breathing in the air of an abundant life.
Quasimodo sees the the streets bustling with people living their lives outside of his stone prison. He wishes for only one day to be among them.
We all have the same longing. We portray ourselves as free people to those we pass in the hallways of our church. That mask doesn’t portray who we truly are. Secretly and hushed, we are prisoners restrained to religion.
Our hearts scream for freedom as we observe other Christians joyfully living a life for Jesus. Their eyes stream tears at hearing of Christ’s love. They fall, but stand back up and keep going. They yearn for transformative and Spirit-guided prayer. Their time in the Word is marked by passion and love.
Yet, we remain imprisoned inside a “Notre Dame.” It may not be a physical building, but we have erected an enslaving edifice imprisoning what God, through Christ, has set free.
The Anxiety of the Imprisoned
We wake up Sunday morning preparing ourselves for church. We pick out our costume to wear, we shower off the sins of the week, we paint on a smiling face, and we brush away the stink of sin out of our mouth. Our mind maximizes the images of people we will come across – those who greet us, those in ministry, those who sit in the same row, those in our Bible study class, etc. Our goal is clear – be seen as the mature, good Christian who is not looked down on.
We may not say this out loud, but we secretly hoard these thoughts as we put together an image we want those in our church to see.
This pageantry isn’t only played before our peers, it is played before God. Our Bible study consists of finding those “lists.” You know which ones I’m talking about – the “to do” passages. Ephesians 4:17-5:33, Matthew 5-7, Psalm 15, Philippians 4:8, and the whole book of Proverbs have become mind-masters of our actions. We desperately want God to accept us. We crave for the blessings promised in Scripture. We, therefore, take verses like Matthew 5:48 and I Peter 1:14-17 to the extreme. If we want God to love us and bless us, then we must do a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t….
Our fight against sin becomes our fight for God’s acceptance. Our fight for sanctification becomes our fight for an image.
We read and devour theology books, carry the correct study Bible, listen to only specific music, eat at certain places, only watch certain things, associate with only certain people, take the opinions of certain people…. and on and on the list goes as it creates a mountainous migraine whipping us into submission.
The anxiety over our image and actions becomes like a monster who will not die. We are imprisoned by this anxiety, and in our prison our insanity sets in to strangle us.
The Prison Guards Condemned
Where does this mindset come from? It did not originate in our days. It was alive and enslaving people during the time of Jesus.
Mark 12:41-44 paints a scene where rich people came to put money in the offering, but a widow could only put two tiny coins in. We see an attitude in the temple. It is one of presenting a certain image – “Look how much we do for God and how good of a follower of the law we are.” But, this is apart of the spiritual culture during Jesus’ time. It was not the rich or the poor who started it. Then, where does it come from?
Matthew 23:1-32 pulls back the curtain for us. Jesus calls out the religious leaders for abusing God’s Word. They created rules and images for people to follow. But, it lead to only condemnation of the religious leaders from Jesus. Even in the parable told in Luke 18:9-14, Jesus rips off the mask. It is the religious leaders who used and abused God’s Word to put people in a hierarchy based on the following of laws, rules, and traditions.
And the saga continues in our lives. We submit to the prison guards of rule following, image keeping, and tradition upholding. We struggle to keep these things in order to be seen as good before men and God. It is never said from the pulpit or the classroom or the Bible study we believe this. But, we sure act like we believe it and treat other Christians like this is really what it means to be a Christian.
Jesus Fulfilled And You Live
“But, isn’t it right for us to pursue godliness and holiness in our lives?” Why, yes it is. But we have missed the true motive for living for God.
Matthew 5:17 states clearly Jesus came to fulfill the law. He didn’t do it to prove it could be done. He fulfilled the law for you, so you could stop striving to fulfill it yourself. It cannot be done. The law is to show how broken we are. Yet, Christ comes and fulfills it on your behalf. This is what it means to have the righteousness of Christ – we get his credit. We no longer have the duty to fulfill any law or rule. We no longer need to strive for perfection. We have Christ’s.
Ephesians 2:8-10 shows us we do not have an image or a work to be prideful over, because it all comes from Christ. He did this for you and me, because he loves us. It is because of Christ’s reckless love for us we live. We no longer are prisoners to religion, but free to be in a relationship with Jesus. When we live in his love, there is no fear of being rejected or not being accepted (1 John 4:18). We live for Jesus out of his love for us.
We have missed this in our churches. We follow rules and traditions hoping to be “more accepted by God” and be seen as that “good Christian” before others. We do not need more acceptance from God. We have it already because of Jesus. We do not need to parade ourselves like the pharisees as we mask ourselves as the good Christian. Jesus stops the performance. He doesn’t want actors. He wants testimonies of grace to stand up in a courtroom of condemnation.
Free From Religion; Free To Live
“Religion says, ‘I messed up. God is going to kill me. I need to clean up this mess.’ A relationship of freedom with Jesus says, ‘I’ve messed up. Jesus, I need you and that’s all.'”
Our chain, as Christians, isn’ the sin we must get rid of. Jesus already took care of that. It is, in reality, a chain to religion. It is a prison of perpetual rule and tradition keeping. Jesus broke that chain of a haughty holiness to give us a life of love – for him and others. If the greatest commandment is to love God and others, then why are we following rules and traditions? How are those things promoting love?
Recently, I have fully realized how my own life and beliefs were chained to a haughty holiness. I craved to be like others – perfect, no struggles, and always following God. I would read my Bible more, dig down into systematic theologies and other resources to help, I would pray, I attended church, I memorized Scripture. Yet, it imprisoned me more by each passing day. I was going insane with all I needed to do in order to be seen as good enough before people. I hid who I really was (even though it was who God made me to be), because I wanted to look good by someone else’s standard. Then, the light came on. My goodness is not based on a label, a rule I follow, or an image. Because Jesus loves me, he has become my image. He gladly gives me his righteousness out of love expecting nothing in return. I do not have to present myself to him in the right way. He will break down every wall and lie to be with me. That truth causes me to run to him. I love Jesus, because he first loves me. His burden is not a yolk of work, but it is a burden of rest.
What is keeping us in these chains of religion? Is it wanting to have the right theological label on every point? If so, burn your theology books. They have only become an idol. Is it wanting to be seen in a certain light? If so, open up about your struggles. Your self-protection has become your idol.
Religion chains us. There is no freedom in rules and standards. There is only freedom in Christ and experiencing his love.
Our hope is not in the perception we give, or having the correct theological beliefs, or in following standards and rules. Our hope is in Jesus. Whoever believes in Jesus will be saved (John 3:16). That’s it. Nothing more we can do. When we live loved, our actions will be out of love for God and others. That is true freedom.