Ramadan started last week and where I live, the 30 million citizens are following their religion’s instruction not to eat or drink during daylight hours. It’s illegal to eat in public, so if anyone does get an urge to cheat, they need to do it in secret. When I go out at sunset, there is an eerie quiet in the streets, as the entire country sits down to break the fast.
Many are using this time for increased spiritual reflection, hoping to gain self-control and sympathy for those who never have enough to eat or drink. Others are doing it simply out of obligation. Either way, a religious practice like this illustrates one of the main points in J.D. Greear’s book “Gospel.”** The default mode of our heart is religion, not grace.
“Martin Luther said that our hearts are hardwired for “works-righteousness”— that is, the idea that what we do determines how God feels about us. Unless we are actively preaching the gospel to ourselves daily, we fall back into “works-righteousness.”
That’s why Greear’s meditation on the good news is a great beach read. Seriously. The summer is the time when we get out and relax. And what better way to relax than reflecting on grace?
“God’s righteousness has been given to me as a gift. He now sees me according to how Christ has lived, not on the basis of what kind of week I’ve had.”
Consider that, and a smile starts to bloom.
“Abiding in Jesus means reminding ourselves constantly that there is nothing we could ever do that would make God love us more, and nothing we have done that makes Him love us less.”
Think about that, and feel a sense of deep relief.
“What about if you gave away all your money, wouldn’t He love you just a little bit more? Nope.
What if you went to live on the foreign mission field? No again.
What if you finally began to treat your spouse with grace? Nada.
What if you took out the trash for her like she asked? She might love you more, but God wouldn’t.”
There’s nothing wrong with religious practice per se. Jesus talked about how to fast, how to give alms, etc. But the problem is devotion doesn’t save me. Faithfulness doesn’t fix what is broken in my life. No matter what I do for my religion, in the end it doesn’t change my heart. I can look pious and saintly, and yet have a cesspool inside.
“Preaching Christianity primarily as a set of new behaviors will create people who act right without ever loving the right. This creates hypocrites, weary and resentful of God… When our acceptance is based on our performance, we exacerbate two root sins in our heart: pride and fear.”
What’s the cure? Greear reminds us that it’s not a matter of reading books [or blogs!], intensifying our self-discipline, memorizing Scripture, or belonging to an accountability group.
Then he tells the story of how Jesus called a man down from a tree and invited him to share a meal:
“Jesus looked at a wee little bad man in a tree— who was there because he was despised, an outcast, and rightfully so— and gave him an invitation of acceptance and intimacy. That experience changed Zacchaeus forever. Every other religion in the world would have said to Zacchaeus, ‘If you change, you can find God. If you change, you can find acceptance and salvation.’
But the gospel is the opposite of religion. Jesus said to Zacchaeus, ‘Zacchaeus, salvation has come to you. You didn’t go out and find salvation. It has found you.’”
Because of Christ, I’m on a permanent vacation from my job of trying to get God to love me. In fact, Jesus fired me from that job and closed down the shop.
What I need to give up–and not just for the month of Ramadan or for 40 days of Lent–is the idea that I can earn my way into heaven. I need to fast from my default mode of thinking that if I’m good and comply with the commands of the Bible, it will be enough. It isn’t and never will be, now and forevermore.
I need the heart change Jesus offers. I need to come and rest in Him. Then, without me trying, without me working at it, I will realize summer has come, and the tree is full of fruit.
“Live in Me. Make your home in Me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with Me.”
John 15:4 The Message
What about you? What part of religion do you need to give up?
The Kindle version of Gospel: Recovering the Power that made Christianity Revolutionary by J.D. Greear is on sale this month for $1.99