The Rottenness of Religion
The problem with humanity’s general concept of religion is that it does not work. All religions teach that man, by sheer acts of will and self-determination, can achieve his own salvation, nirvana, or inner-peace; that by living “right”, doing “good”, and avoiding “bad” deeds, man can win over the affections of God or gods or some transcendent force or his personal demons. In the center of all this striving and spiritual effort is the belief that man has the authority, ability, and intellect to make changes that will affect his future destiny. But does man really have this power for self-determination? Or is he, as many Christians believe, simply deluded?
Christianity teaches that man is utterly unable to change the core of his rotten nature. Although he may be able to change some superficial aspects of his character, in the end, he is only able to put white icing over a putrid cake. Even when man desires to attain piety, goodness, and righteousness, something always goes dreadfully wrong during the process. As he strives to be pious, good, and righteous, he starts to become proud of the fact that he is becoming more pious, good, and righteous. “Look at me!” he will say, “I spend more time in prayer, I give more money to the poor, and I do not partake in your sins.” In his effort to be more humble, he becomes proud that he is more humble than his “conceited” neighbor. He is, in fact, utterly deluded. He has not gained any real humility at all! He has only gained the outward appearance of humility while inwardly he secretly holds a condescension for others who may appear more proud. And although he may not behave arrogantly in the public stage, the truth is that, in his heart-of-hearts, he is likely the most arrogant man in the room.
Therein lies the sad dilemma: man’s attempts to be “good” typically does not result in greater goodness, it only results in more insidious badness. We do not become holy; we become “holier-than-thou.” We do not become self-sacrificing; we become self-aggrandizing. We do not become loving; we become legalistic. We end up becoming the very thing that we are striving against! But, as Christianity teaches, that is the way all men behave who apply ointment only to the skin when the disease infects our very hearts. In fact, the only cure for man is one that deals ruthlessly with the disease at its very core—man needs a radical heart transplant.
Sin and Surgery
In the beginning of this post, I spoke of religion in an odd way that seemed to exclude Christianity from its ranks. In fact, those outside of Christianity find it quite curious that many Christians do not consider their spiritual journey as a “religion”—at least not in the typical sense where our striving achieves our salvation. Christians will say strange things such as they are “saved” or that they have been “born again” or that they have experienced the “mercy of God.” All of these catchphrases of Christianity point to something outside of man that does the striving and work of salvation—not man himself. In fact, in the Christian way of thinking, religion is viewed as man seeking after God. But Christianity is not a religion in that sense since in Christianity it is God who seeks after man. Before we desired God, God first desired us. God did all the initiating.
On one lonely and silent night some two thousand years ago, a child was born who embodied God’s initiation. To a dying world perishing from heart failure caused by the infection of sin, he was the message of hope that the Surgeon had arrived and that this physician was willing to remove the patient’s sick and dying heart and replace it with an immortal one without defect or blemish. But then something amazing happened. When the operation was completed and the patient woke up from her sleep, she found that the Surgeon had died. By some work of magic, the Surgeon had removed the patient’s sick heart and replaced it with his very own! The Surgeon gave a gift above and beyond anything that the patient could have ever anticipated. He sacrificed his life so that she could live. And yet, that realization was not even the most shocking news. The real surprise was this: the Surgeon was her father who she had abandoned many years ago despite his loving care and affection. And now, he gave his life for hers—not because she had done anything to earn his love—but simply because he loved her.
In the song Welcome To Our World, singer/songwriter Chris Rice wrote these tender words about the birth of Jesus and how his birth points us to God’s tender grace:
Fragile finger sent to heal us,
Tender brow prepared for thorn,
Tiny heart whose blood will save us,
Unto us is born, unto us is born.
So wrap our injured flesh around You,
Breathe our air and walk our sod.
Rob our sin and make us holy,
Perfect Son of God, Perfect Son of God.
Welcome to our world.
Christmas is our reminder that God is not interested in our religious efforts to win over His affections. God is only concerned that we have a heartfelt and passionate affection for Jesus who did everything for us on the cross.