By Alex Himaya
The best compliment I’ve received in a long time was “Really? You’re a pastor?” It was on an airplane and it was from the man seated next to me. We had been talking for over an hour, mostly about the business trip he was on. When he finally asked me what I did for a living, and I told him I was a pastor, he responded with, “Huh. But you seem so down to earth and you haven’t judged me.”
When I meet someone new and they ask me what I do for a living, I almost cringe. I know that once I say, “I’m a pastor,” the conversation is going to veer off from there. I like to get to know people in a very authentic way, and once they find out I’m a pastor they either put up a wall or put on a mask and try to act good.
There are so many ways that we as Christians stop conversations short. When that happens, we miss out on the opportunity to really get to know someone. Instead of having a conversation, maybe we end up in an argument. The best way to stop a conversation short is by being judgmental and “religious.” By that I mean we come off as confrontational and condemning rather than relational and loving.
Religion, for me, is a man-made path to God. It’s a list of things we can or can’t do that will either make God happy or make him mad. When we go down that dead end of religion, we usually end up judging others based on their behavior.
The name of my latest book is Jesus Hates Religion. With a title like that I’ve gotten quite a few questions. “Can Jesus really hate?” “Isn’t Jesus religious?” “Why would Jesus hate religion?” I think the answer to just about all these questions goes to the core of who Jesus really is. Jesus was about love and relationship, not rules and religion.
James 1:27 defends religion. It says that religious people will help those in need, especially orphans and widows. But it’s very interesting that of the four times in the New Testament the word “religion” is used, this is the only time it’s used in a positive way.
James is saying that religion can be good and helpful, but not always and not usually. The whole idea of the book of James is that “faith without works is dead.” But he’s not saying the opposite is true, that “works without faith is alive.” He says that he can show you his faith through his works, but faith has to be there first. Which is the same argument that Paul makes in Ephesians 2:8-9, that we don’t and can’t do anything to gain God’s love and grace – it’s a free gift!
Religion, the man-made path to God, says that if I work hard enough, I can eventually get to God on my own merits. But that’s getting the whole thing backwards. Nothing we do – our behavior, our beliefs, our best efforts – will ever make us good enough to approach God. The only way that happens is through grace.
Starting with love and relationship rather than religion doesn’t change my beliefs; it changes how I communicate my beliefs. Everyday I’m trying to mimic the same manner that Jesus used when he talked to people. When he encountered the woman at the well (John 4) he didn’t start with her multiple marriages and adulterous lifestyle. He started with a simple request that began a relationship, “Can I have a drink of water?”
That woman had been married five times before and was living with a man she wasn’t married to at the time. But Jesus didn’t define her that way. He saw something more in her than her behavior. He saw an opportunity to influence her life forever.
I believe that people are bigger than their behavior too. I believe that people are bigger than gender, sexuality, race, or any other label that is placed on them. Genesis 1 tells us that we are created in the very image of God. To reduce a person’s identity to a certain behavior or single characteristic is to attempt to reduce the very image of God.
At the end of the day, Jesus came to influence people and he did so through love and relationship and not rules and religion. When we define people by their behavior, we lose that influence. We’re trying to take a shortcut that Jesus says doesn’t work. But when we start with love and relationship in mind, there’s no limit to where our influence will go.