Religion (I will speaking mostly in the Christian context) is as much a group thing as it is a personal thing. Many, in our time and age, have come to take our relationship to God as something intensely personal and private. Any perceived attempt to ‘pry’ into this deeply personal thing will be met with fierce resistance. Understandably so. I think this reaction is a result of many previous abuses done in the name of religion. When religion is in the realm of the public, it can very easily slip into the realm of government – it will become regulated. That’s why Americans are divided over the issue of separation between Church and State (a debate for another day). However, like many things in life, the danger comes when we head into extremes: Either we focus too intensely into religion as a personal thing or we dive headlong into religion as something that is public.
What do I mean when I talk about religion being a personal or a public matter? When I talk about religion as a personal thing, I mean to say that people view it as something private. Religion is a matter that is between “God and myself – and no other”. As such, we view our relationship to God as something that is our own endeavor – something we are personally responsible for, and are accountable only to ourselves.
When I say that religion is a public matter, my meaning is that religion is viewed only in terms of the collective – be it the family, the church, the denomination or even the country or race. Our relationship to God is viewed as a collective endeavor:
“What will my family think of this?”
“What will my church think of this?”
“My denomination doesn’t teach that!”
“To be a person of my race is to be a believer of this faith!”
Religion – Too Personal
There are problems when religion is seen as being too personal a matter. Too much personal time will make us narrow-minded persons. We will not be open to the opinions of others. Worse, we may begin to denounce and demonize anyone who does not think like us. I have seen this occur between churches and denominations.
The other danger of being too personal in religion is that we will leave ourselves open to heresies. When our accountability is seen as something exclusively between ‘God and I’, there will be no one to challenge us if we mistakenly adopt a false principle. Of course, the Bible exhorts us to ‘examine the Scriptures’ like the Bereans did (Acts 17:11). Here likes the problem. We now live in a Post-Modern Generation. Our chief characteristic is that we no longer hold on to the notion of absolute truth. For us, there is no absolute truth. It’s now “Whatever works for you” and “I’ll leave you to your personal truth, if you’ll leave me to mine”. So who’s to say our personal ‘examination of the Scriptures’ may or may not turn up some ‘new’ revelation? God knows how many cults have been a result of this mistake! As a matter of fact, how many of us have taken a Scripture verse and have quoted that verse only, without looking into its context?
Perhaps the greatest danger of Christianity-too-personal is the pride that is involved. We all have a measure of pride in ourselves. Not just the bad kind of pride, but also the good kind. Let’s call the good kind by another name: Dignity. When we are ‘successful’ in our spiritual lives – we do our quiet time devotions daily; we sing a lot every day; we’re in church every week and on time, too; we attend all the other church services; and we even serve in the church’s ministries (Wooo… ministry!) – it is easy for us to take pride (the bad kind) in ourselves. We become modern-day Pharisees as we thumb down our noses on those who just can’t seem to get this spiritual thing right. I know… I’ve been there. As such, the dignity of the ‘sinners’ (especially backslidden Christians) is affected. They feel ‘guilty’ because they just can’t feel God. What’s worse, if they finally make it to a church, they are greeted by reprimanding lectures.
“Why can’t you just read your Bible?”
“What happened to you? Why did you lose your fire?”
“You’d better confess your sins to God!”
It leads me to wonder – Whatever happened to grace? Is the Christian Army the only army in the world that shoots its own wounded? There are those who are weak among us who need a drink of refreshing grace… not a scathing pint of self-righteous judgment.
Pride comes before the fall. At this point in my life, I am now on the other side of the spectrum – now I am weak, weary and tired with ‘Christian’ things. So I understand those of you who ‘don’t feel God’ or feel ‘guilty because you’ve disappointed God’. You know what I’m talking about – prayer bounces off the ceiling after getting sliced by the ceiling fan; the Daily Bread tastes like yesterday’s mouldy toast; and worship resembles little more than Christian karaoke. We lower our heads and feel ashamed because we are wallowing in the mud. But take heart! That’s why Jesus came – “… it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Luke 5:31).
We need to carry on. While we must make our own effort – we are never alone! If you have trusted and mature Christian friends or mentors, turn to them. The Wisdom of Solomon reminds us: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man [or woman] sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). That’s what the Church is meant for – so that we would not be alone in our life’s journey. The infinite wisdom of God knew that we needed peer support. I suppose that is why, before He left, Jesus instituted a Church and not just a movement! Remember what He told Peter? “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18). Not just a movement or an idea, but a Church (in the original Greek, the word used is ecclesia, which translates into ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly’).
I have come to a point in my life where I’ve realized that my life will never be perfect on this side of Heaven. I’ll try my best, but I’ll still fall. I’ve also come to accept that spiritual deserts are a part of the Christian life and that my passion for Jesus is not seen in how much I dance or cry; how high I jump or lift my hands; or even how much money or time I contribute in my worship to God. Whether running, walking or crawling, my need will still be the same. I will always need Jesus in my life. Religion may be seen as a crutch to many people – but I think that’s exactly the point: we are all lame in some way.
Religion – Too Public
Now here’s the other side of the problem: When religion becomes way too public, it can become governed, which opens it up to being too regulated… too regimented (Yes, there can be such a thing as too much order). We will then find it easy to slip into the stream of things – to ‘go with the flow’. Whatever the rest do, that’s what we do. We slip into ‘cruise control’ living – and our faith becomes nothing more than an empty mask we wear on Sundays. After a while, our passionate heart cools and withers… leaving only the petrified. Eventually, the Church mistakes its seven last words for its battle-call: “We’ve never done it that way before!” Those are the people whom Jesus referred to as “…whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.” (Matthew 23:27)
Relying too much on the public aspect of religion can also cause us to become too dependent on others in our personal relationship with Jesus. There is an element of personal ownership in our relationship with Jesus – our family and friends cannot help us get into heaven. That is a personal choice we have to make. Likewise, no one else can make us grow. They can provide the necessary things – teaching, encouragement, and guidance – but we will have to make our own choice, and with God’s help. The problem with relying too much on ‘public Christianity’ is that we slowly find ourselves dependent on the faith of others. Our faith rises with theirs and also drops with theirs. However, that must not be the case. For it is I who “… press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). I press on. I run. Me – because no one else can run my race for me, just as no one else can live my life for me.
The other problem of religion being ‘too public’ is that it slowly turns into a social event, and nothing more. Now don’t get me wrong: a church is meant to be social – the fellowship of the saints is one of the main reasons for a church. However, if we are not too careful, we will slip into being more like a country club than a house of worship. How many churches do we know where members have already developed their own cultures and their own cliques? Where outsiders remain just that… outsiders? Church becomes just another name for our ‘club’ where we have our own rules, our own expectations and our own members (who are pre-selected through our own criteria). Therein lies the danger. We become so group-oriented that we forget the individual. We begin to only care for those who are ‘popular’, ‘in the forefront’ and in the ‘in-group’. Anyone else slips through the cracks. Worse, the needs of the individuals are denied for the comfort of the collective. We lose sight of our lost sheep.
We need to find a balance between these two extremes. Otherwise, we will experience the error of either excess. Too much private time to ourselves – too long a time playing ‘The Lone Ranger’ – and we could end up with dry passions, narrow horizons, and prideful hearts. “Do-It-Yourself” Christianity cannot work because Jesus didn’t design it that way. On the other hand, too much ‘group time’ and we will find ourselves in the danger of forsaking our communion with God for conversation with man.
So what can we do? The obvious answer is to maintain a balance. Easier said than done – how does one ‘maintain a balance’ on this issue? I’m not sure myself, but here’s what I’ve been attempting: I try spending time in both aspects. I enjoy my personal relationship with Jesus, but I also do not neglect friendship and fellowship with other Christians. I try to maintain my Quiet Time (or Personal Devotion), but that doesn’t mean I don’t attend Bible Studies or read books by Christian authors. I try to spend time in personal prayer and worship to God, but I don’t forget to worship in church on Sundays, either. It works the other way too: I enjoy my friendship with other Christians and churchgoers but I don’t forget to spend time with the Lover of my soul. I attend Bible Studies and read or listen to other Christian material, but I do not forget to maintain my Quiet Time. I worship in church, devoutly, every Sunday – but there is place for personal prayer and worship before my God. A balance – being pulled equally toward both extremes. Loving God and loving people – the two greatest Commandments on which everything else hangs.
If you’ve been burned by either extreme, please take heart. You are not alone. Many of us have felt the same thing. I’ve felt guilty over ‘disappointing’ God – my personal failures in my personal relationship with God. I’ve also found myself teetering over the edge of my faith as a result of the actions of others, before. But there is place for both kinds of people in the spread arms of Jesus. There is enough room at the foot of the Cross – for all of us. So, please come… maybe I’ll see you there, too?
* All Scripture references are taken from the New International Version of the Bible.
I wrote this article in response to the many people whom I’ve recently been in contact with. They know what I’m talking about here. Many have backslidden but find it unbearable to go back to Church for fear of the repercussions. Others are wondering about how authentic their faith really is – because they find themselves floundering away from good Christian support. There is place in Jesus’ arms for both groups! It’s sad how Christians serve a God who died for sinners with His arms wide open – yet, when the wounded, sick and weary approach them, they find ‘Christians’ with folded arms.
For those of you who have read this and long for a place to find restoration, refreshment and renewal, can I please invite you to come to The Refuge? Or, if you do not have a church to belong to allow me to invite you to join me at Soulcare Church, KL.
Copyright © March 14, 2002, Wong Giok Leigh. All Rights Reserved.