On the inside cover of my Bible, there is a hand-written quote by C.S. Lewis. It reads, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that.” Today, however, it seems so many of us do just that very thing. We are drawn to religion or a certain faith in the pursuit of happiness. We clamor for this ever-elusive sense of being truly happy and content by way of “religion.”
C.S. Lewis used the word religion here a little differently than most of us today use it. He of course was referring to his Christian faith, in which the grace of Jesus Christ is the defining building block of that worldview. For Lewis also wrote in The Weight of Glory that, “No Christian and, indeed, no historian could accept the epigram which defines religion as ‘what a man does with his solitude.'” Religion, in a broader sense means: the service and worship of God or the supernatural; commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance; a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; scrupulous conformity; a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith. Essentially, if religion had a bumper sticker, if it had any kind of motto, it would say this: “I obey, therefore I’m accepted.”
That’s it. That’s religion more or less when we often hear it mentioned today. Whatever belief system you want to get into, that’s basically it, but that is not the teaching of Jesus; that is not the gospel of grace. Religion says, “Morality and religious observance are means of salvation, happiness, and contentment,” but that is not the message of Jesus. The Gospel is not about what we can do, but what Jesus did.
“If you have religion for your god, you will not have God for your religion.” – John Piper
Christianity, in its correctly understood worldview, is something radically different. Some have even gone so far as to call the entire thing scandalous. Because our Christian faith teaches us that we are not just set free from fear-based behavioral modification, and the vain pursuit of pleasures that never deliver what they promise, but we are saved to the freedom of knowing that God’s affection for us does not waver despite our persistent failures and shortcomings. We have been set free to enjoy the love of our Father as adopted sons and daughters (Ephesians 1:4-14).
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” – Ephesians 2:8-10 (ESV)
The teachings of Jesus Christ are the good news, and He is the gospel… Jesus is better than life. We don’t walk in fear of some tyrannical deity, or with this sense of having to behave to achieve a better level of material abundance or some previously elusive state of happiness, but rather we walk in love for our adoptive Father. We are no longer slaves to our own insecurities, rather we have been set free from fear-based behavioral modifications, free from the pursuit of ultimate meaning in ourselves, and into the love motivated pursuit of what we long for most. We’ve been set free from the pursuit of pleasure that has an aftertaste of guilt and shame, and into the pursuit of pleasure that leads to ever-increasing joy. We have been blood-bought, purchased out of slavery to sin.
“Religion stresses holiness over grace. Irreligion stresses freedom over holiness. Christianity is freedom through grace that leads to holiness.” – Tim Keller
The grace found in the cross and resurrection of Jesus really is scandalous. It kills our pride. It devastates our sense of spiritual self-sufficiency. It may seem ludicrous, but it actually offers us the greatest hope we could ever ask for: Jesus. Because of Him, whatever you accomplish today, you are no more justified than you are right now in Christ. We ought to work from rest, and rest in His finished work.
Give Matthew 6:25-34 a good read sometime, and then ask yourself: when you think of God, how do you think of Him? How do you approach God? How do you commune with God? Why do you approach God? When do you approach God? What causes you to want to know more of God; to know more about God? Do you seek God for the sake of His own great worth, for the sake of His name, because of how beautiful and wonderful He is? Does your communication with God come from an adoration and abundance of thankfulness for His amazing grace?
J. Gresham Machen describes a particular concept of the Christ-like, biblically-centered, view of God so well, that I’ll just let you read what he penned in his book What Is Faith? (pages 72–74):
“Many men . . . make shipwreck of their faith. They think of God only as one who can direct the course of nature for their benefit; they value Him only for the things that He can give.
We are subject to many pressing needs, and we are too much inclined to value God, not for His own sake, but only because He can satisfy those needs. There is the need of food and clothing, for ourselves and for our loved ones, and we value God because He can answer the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread.” There is the need of companionship; we shrink from loneliness; we would be surrounded by those who love us and those whom we can love. And we value God as one who can satisfy that need by giving us family and friends. There is the need of inspiring labor; we would be delivered from an aimless life; we desire opportunities for noble and unselfish service of our fellow-men. And we value God as one who by His ordering of our lives can set before us an open door.
These are lofty desires. But there is one desire that is loftier still. It is the desire for God Himself. That desire, too often, we forget. We value God solely for the things that He can do; we make of Him a mere means to an ulterior end. And God refuses to be treated so; such a religion always fails in the hour of need. If we have regarded religion merely as a means of getting things – even lofty and unselfish things – then when the things that have been gotten are destroyed, our faith will fail….
… When loved ones are taken away, when disappointment comes and failure, when noble ambitions are set at naught, then we turn away from God; we have tried religion, we say, we have tried prayer, and it has failed. Of course it has failed! God is not content to be an instrument in our hand or a servant at our beck and call. He is not content to minister to the worldly needs of those who care not a bit for Him. . . .
“If God be for us, who can be against us?” – that does not mean that faith in God will bring us everything that we desire. What it does mean is that if we possess God, then we can meet with equanimity the loss of all besides.
Has it never dawned upon us that God is valuable for His own sake, that just as personal communion is the highest thing that we know on earth, so personal communion with God is the sublimest height of all?
If we value God for His own sake, then the loss of other things will draw us all the closer to Him; we shall then have recourse to Him in time of trouble as to the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. I do not mean that the Christian need expect always to be poor and sick and lonely and to seek his comfort only in a mystic experience with His God. This universe is God’s world; its blessings are showered upon His creatures even now; and in His own good time, when the period of its groaning and travailing is over, He will fashion it as a habitation of glory. But what I do mean is that if here and now we have the one inestimable gift of God’s presence and favor, then all the rest can wait till God’s good time.”