Summary: Demonstrates how religious ritual, even good religious ritual cannot bring the spiritual satisfaction that we crave. Only an intimate encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ can bring what our souls desire.
An Encounter with the Risen Lord
Christianity and the Bible make a lot of promises. When we tell people about Christ we promise them fulfillment: peace, and joy, and happiness. We promise them that Christianity is a relationship with Christ that will bring meaning to their life. And we offer all of the promises of the Bible, because we believe them. So, we ourselves have believed and those we tell believe, expecting to receive all of these promises. And yet sometimes, it seems that we miss out on them. For all the peace that’s promised, we experience a lot of turmoil. For the joy that’s promised, we experience grief. Instead of fulfillment we find emptiness. And we wonder why all of this is happening. Why aren’t we experiencing God’s promises. Why does Christianity feel like a restriction instead of a liberation?
Sometimes, after getting the message straight, our actions become reversed. We spend so much time working through our religion, that we forget the heart of our “religious practices.” Define for yourself, “What is it to be a Christian?” If we were to ask the world, they would probably come up with something like: “People who go to church every week and don’t do a whole bunch of things.” That’s expected of the world. If you were to poll Christians today on what a “good Christian” is like, you would probably get an answer that includes believing in Jesus, going to church, being baptized, reading the Bible, praying every day, and a whole list of things they don’t do. And all of these things that I’ve just named have two things in common. First, none of them are bad things. Indeed, they are characteristics of a Christian life. But the other common aspect is that none of these things is the end goal of the Christian life. While these things can indeed be meaningful and beneficial, they can also be ritualistic and empty. Our satisfaction in life, all of the things that are promised, cannot be found in empty ritual. And so, if our faith, our view of Christianity is following these rituals, we will never find the promises of God fulfilled in our lives.
The Apostle Paul knew religion better than anybody. In Philippians 3:4-6, he explained his religious experience like this:
4 Yet I could have confidence in myself if anyone could. If others have reason for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more! 5 For I was circumcised when I was eight days old, having been born into a pure-blooded Jewish family that is a branch of the tribe of Benjamin. So I am a real Jew if there ever was one! What’s more, I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. 6 And zealous? Yes, in fact, I harshly persecuted the church. And I obeyed the Jewish law so carefully that I was never accused of any fault.
Paul was dedicated to his religious experience. Now we often fail at these rituals. We forget to pray or read the Bible—or we miss church—and we think that if only we could get ourselves to be more faithful, everything would be better. Have you ever said to yourself, “If only I read the Bible more often… If only I prayed more faithfully… my life would get so much better.” Please don’t think that I’m trying to convince you today to stop reading the Bible or praying. But these things in and of themselves—especially when completed out of a sense of mere obligation—are not the answer.
I remember when I was a kid, I used to pray every night before I went to sleep. I didn’t pray because I was in love with Jesus and just had to talk to him before I went to bed. I prayed because I was convinced that if some tragedy fell upon me in the middle of the night and I had failed to pray, then surely I would go straight to hell. And recently, I was reflecting back on that time while in prayer, and I came to a realization. This may come as a shock to some, but I don’t pray every single night before I go to sleep. There are nights when I forget, or nights when I’m just too tired. But I was reflecting one night and I realized something. How much more precious my prayer must be to God now. Sure I miss sometimes. Sure it’s imperfect, but when I don’t forget it’s birthed not out of a need to pray, but out of my intense love for my savior. Do you think that God would rather hear a tape recorder every night, parroting something that doesn’t come from the heart, or would he rather the earnest outpouring of an imperfect heart?