May 22, 2008 by

The Strange Appeal of Religion


Categories: changing mindsets, Meanderings (look it up), religion

If you were to know anything about my background, the fact that someone like me is writing a blog called “Losing My Religion” might be enough to convince you that there is a God.

I am the most unlikely candidate for this sort of thing because I have spent most of my life being religious, and liking it.

I like rules; I like to keep rules; I like to help other people keep rules.

I like to know what is expected of me, and I like to meet and exceed those expectations.

I enjoy routine. I like to know what’s coming. I’m not that big on surprises. And I’m not nearly as glamorously adventurous as I imagine myself being.

What the stink is a guy like me doing writing a blog like this??

Two books that have been recently on my reading list–The End of Religion by Bruxy Cavey and The Reason for God by Timothy Keller–have indirectly sparked my thinking on this topic. I am seeing how the message of grace is so contrary to religious thinking.

Religion (of pretty much any flavor) compels its followers to jump through a given set of hoops, either to appease the wrath of a god, curry the favor of a god, or even influence or manipulate a god into doing something. How many Christians treat their faith in this manner–praying, studying, attending church, witnessing, all to be a “good Christian?”

The scandal of grace is that we don’t do anything to obtain it, except simply receive it. Through the cross, Christ did something for us, not the other way around; and the salvation He offers through His cross is sheer grace, which cannot be earned. It’s truly good news, but it messes with our continued mindsets that tell us we must perform a certain way to gain God’s approval. Grace, no matter how amazing, is often hard for people to accept because you literally have to cease from your labors–to stop trying–in order to receive it. It is also profoundly humbling, because the message of grace basically takes things out of our control.

And that’s the rub for me. I love to be in control of things. And that, I think, is why the bondage of religion has been so strangely appealing to me, and why it’s taken such a long and painful process to be extracted from it.

You see, under religion, we have a bit more control over our destiny (we think). We perform a certain way, we expect a certain reward. We know what God expects, and when we do it, we make Him happy with us. When we are blessed, we can take credit for it because we prayed and had faith and practiced the principles and worked the formulas. When we pray enough (whatever “enough” is), study hard, and show devotion to the church, we become self-satisfied in our performance, and we can see ourselves as superior to others who don’t do it as well as we do–and if we’re really good at it, we can conceal our smug pride in a cloak of sugary-sweet condescension and false humility.

Simply put–religion is God on our terms: everything in its place, a system we control by good performance. A control freak’s utopia.

But the problem is, God doesn’t fit in that box at all.

For those who are desperate and at the end of their rope, grace is a welcome thing. But for those who have put so much effort and work and energy into earning God’s favor, grace can be downright offensive. Grace requires us to lay down our efforts, to admit that all our striving cannot bring us one step closer to God or to the salvation He offers–to relinquish control of our destiny.

For me, the de-constructing of my religion pretty much required that I become one of those people at the end of their rope. My religion failed me and died a slow, painful death while for an extended period of time I worked every system I knew, prayed every prayer, made every confession and prophetic declaration I could think of. (See Heather’s post here for a good example of what I’m talking about.) And all the time, God simply refused to jump through my hoops or show up on my terms. Not until I literally ran out of strength, gave up, and fell on His grace, did my situation change for the better. I literally had to see for myself that I never really was in control–that the control my religion had promised me was a myth.

And once I found that I could relinquish control and not die–once I found that things actually got better when I fell upon God’s grace–that is when I began to find true rest from my labors, for the first time in my life.

I have come to understand that religion, although strangely appealing to someone like me, is a harsh taskmaster, promising goods it cannot possibly deliver. And I have come to understand that grace, although offensive to the religious mind, is truly an amazing gift from God.
I hope to continue this stream of thought in future posts. Stay tuned…

Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

11 Responses to The Strange Appeal of Religion

  1. Drew Hill

    Jeff- Thanks for sharing your journey so openly. I certainly echo your thoughts and relate to some of your experiences.

    When I struggle with my own control issues, I try to remind myself that I am not commanding a battleship. I am sailing a little boat and I am not ultimately in control. The wind blows where it will, and so it is with the Spirit.

    I guess it’s a fair trade – we lose our sense of control and gain a sense of excitement and adventure. That’s when the fun begins I think.

  2. Mark

    I echo Barb on this. I have tried to make an entry for my blog that said basically this. Well, aside from the fact that I have never been a rules guy. That is one of the things that always really bothered me about church. But the rest of it is what I have been trying to say. I just never felt like I got it right.


  3. Tracy Simmons

    Jeff, fantastic post! It brought to my mind this sentence of RF Capon’s:

    “However much we hate the law, we are more afraid of grace.”

    It really does seem to be true of us, doesn’t it? Capon also said this about moving from law to grace: “You will cry and kick and scream before you take it, because it means putting yourself out of the only game you know.”

    If you’re not familiar with Capon’s writings, you can read some of his best quotes on grace here:

    You seem prime for him. Most people cannot handle how extreme he goes with grace. Some of his theology is beyond dreadful, but his take on grace is glorious!

  4. Heidi W

    I had a picture in my head a few days ago (ok, confession… during church prayer time). We were all standing in a circle, bending over looking at a box. One of the people opened the box and we all looked in. We decided to give God permission to come out of the box… (not a bad thing, right?).

    So I looked up, and God was behind the guy opening the box, looking over his shoulder to see what was in it. HA! He was never in the box. We just thought he was.

    Ok, that was hard to put into words, and I didn’t do it justice… but it made me giggle.

    Wow do I like to be in control. And yet I’m pretty sure I have never actually been in any control, even when I felt like it.

  5. Sarah

    Great post, Jeff. I believe your life is a prophetic parable for the American church. Control is such a huge issue for us. “You’re a word from heaven” (to quote from Jason Upton’s song Sons and Daughters).

  6. Katherine Gunn

    Very eloquently put. Yeah. For the last 1 1/2 years, God has been saying the same thing to me – over and over (others things here and there, but this is a persistent theme): “Relax and trust Me.”

    And enter into His rest… *sigh*

  7. Old Pete

    Jeff – I’ve just found your site.

    I have been reading “The End of Religion” (and listening to Bruxy’s podcasts) but have not had a chance to discuss them with anyone until now. By looking at Heather’s post I have an idea of where you are coming from.

    I loved Heidi’s picture of letting God come out of the box. I’m 72 and I’ve really been out of the box for some 10-12 years – but in some ways it goes back over 40 years.

    In the summer of last year I read “The Shack” by Paul Young. After 57 years of being a ‘Christian’ I suddenly had something I could share with others!

    But this leaves me with a problem. I’ve found a personal answer to the question, “What is the purpose of life?”. Maybe sharing my journey could help others to find their own answer – but I’m very conscious that we shouldn’t be giving answers to the questions that haven’t yet been asked.

  8. Kansas Bob

    Amazing how similar our journeys have been Jeff.. you are at least 10 years ahead of me though.. I wish I head your insight way back when 🙂

    The idea of control is so attractive because it allows us to live a religious life from our minds.. it feeds our egos and hardly ever causes us to risk anything.. it is a sad commentary on our need to control.

    On the contrary, a life lived from the heart is one that causes us to risk everything.. it causes us to trust God with everything and leads us to reject (not lean on) our own understanding.

    Life can be difficult for those of us who are hard-headed control freaks.. my kids would have been better off if I caught this message sooner.. but things are gettings better.. guess that is what walking in grace is all about – sort of 🙂

  9. Jeff McQ

    Thanks, all, for your comments.

    Barb and Mark, glad I’m striking a chord here. 🙂

    Drew, in a sense it is a “fair trade”. I think for me, since the control issues are based in fear, I have to overcome the fear in order to enjoy the adventure.

    Tracy, thanks for the tip, and thanks for chiming in.

    Heidi–neat picture! (You were in a church prayer meeting? Gasp!) 🙂

    Sarah–I don’t often hear the words “prophetic parable” uttered, and it isn’t something we often say about ourselves…but it certainly is what we have felt: that for whatever reason, God has been painting a prophetic picture with our lives that others are supposed to witness. (It can be profoundly humbling at times.)

    Katherine–I agree. *sigh*

    “I’m very conscious that we shouldn’t be giving answers to the questions that haven’t yet been asked.”
    My opinion only…but I figure if you’re asking the questions, other people somewhere must be asking them, too. That’s part of why we blog.

    Thanks for the remarks; very insightful. I agree with you about the sense of risk. As I mentioned above, control is largely about fear, so overcoming fear is hand in hand with learning to risk.

  10. Anonymous

    Jeff, I stumbled onto your blog though another and boy am I glad. This post on the Strange Appeal of Religion has blown me away!

    I’m 52 and have walked w/ God (Religion) since age 9. Happy for decades, but a growing discontent for the last 10+ years that something was wrong. I am now in the early stages of disillusionment but can still see the path. Your post inspires hope and fear, but it shatters a crust that surrounds!

    While I preached grace, in reality, I lived the law of trying to please and manipulate my Papa. You post is helping to destroy this horrid part of me!

    Thanks, you’ve made a big cracking sound in the hardened outer shell.

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