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Beware the Religious Spirit (part 1): Genesis

“This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. But in vain do they worship Me…” (Matt. 15:8-9)

“They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed.” (Titus 1:16)

A friend who reads my blogs recently asked me to address a subject on his behalf. He wanted to warn others of a phenomenon he sees on the rise in the church. He has served on the boards of several ministries and churches, does a fair amount of counseling, and is noticing what he calls the “religious spirit” arising to deceive those we would consider most faithful. I’ve never been asked to write on behalf of another before, so I asked him to elaborate. He spoke of many to whom he was ministering swearing allegiance to God, and yet struggling with increasingly sinful thoughts and practices they couldn’t shake. They professed belief in a God who was good, holy, righteous and loving, but their lives which should have aligned more closely with those characteristics? Not so much. The surprising disclosure was these men were church leaders, ministry heads, and others considered shepherds of the flock.

As I began to work through this series it became evident that my friend was a very wise man, certainly God was for telling him to pick me to write it, because the deeper I dove into the water, the more I saw the face staring up at me from the bottom of the pond was mine. So, I say this not from a superior position of any kind, or even as a teacher: as I bear my soul and share my story, I hope we can move through the darkness together and re-establish that all-important intimacy with our Lord and Father. And let me say this, Satan plants traps all along the path for even the most mature followers of Jesus. This series will be precisely about the one he has set for those who lead. Furthermore, it is not one we ever get “healed” of. Rather, it is one me must be ever diligent to guard against as it rears its ugly head time and time again. For you see, the moment we believe we have won the battle we create the very culture to regrow the seeds of the religious spirit.  

I remember once hearing a speaker define hypocrisy as an inability to connect that which we believe with that which we are. It’s a breakdown somewhere between our faith system and how we actually live. Some may call it an incongruent lifestyle, with claims and actions not aligning properly. Now, we could all confess to having our moments when that happens, and we call that sin. Ah, but a religious spirit causes something much deeper and more prolonged than sinful moments. It causes sinful lifestyle—sinful practice. According to the definition of “religion” in its purest form (James 1:26-27), a system of beliefs and practices, our religious beliefs should align with our practices. Yet, the Bible is full of references to those who professed belief in God, yet their practices betrayed that belief. The actions of many since have given the word the definition in which I will use it in this series.

A healthy relationship with Jesus is much the same as one with others we love. We build a relationship with another person through our personal, intimate time with them. Think of how excited people get when they finally meet someone famous whom they’ve only observed from afar! They may know the person well through all they’ve read, heard, or seen, but it’s nothing compared to actually meeting them personally and getting to talk to them. The wealthy will pay thousands of dollars a plate to be with politicians and dignitaries at fund raisers, when they could at much less expense read their many press releases. Why? Because people build true relationships through personal contact. You cannot know someone, much less have them know you, through press releases. It is much better to hear from a person and to touch them than to merely study them from afar. What would you get more reality from? personally discussing life with them or reading what someone else has to say about them? 

The source of our power and belief and being itself is in God and the intimacy we have from Him. In Acts 17 we read, “For in Him we live and move and have our being.” When we are wearied from the practices that flow from our beliefs, even those that emanate from an abiding (John 15) relationship with Jesus, He calls us back to His rest (Matt. 11:28-30). Resting in Him means simply “being” a child of God. Rest, by definition, means ceasing from our labors and our efforts, even the good ones. Isaiah 74 tells us all of our righteous deeds are as filthy rags, and in His rest is where we are reinvigorated in His Spirit to make certain any deeds we do are His deeds. Exodus 20, along with many other references, make it clear God wanted the Sabbath, the day of rest, to be holy to His people. He never said that of the other six days of the week, though many good deeds were being done in them. In rest is where we hear God’s voice [see 2 part series: http://theawakenedchristianman.org/2019/10/23/hearing-and-understanding-or-studying-and-observing/] where we have that critical mano-a-mano meeting.

We are like flashlights that must be plugged in to our power source, for if we continue to run on exhaustible sources [our plans and works] it leads to burn out and, eventually, defeat. Remaining plugged into Jesus through the Holy Spirit must be that priority where everything originates and flows from. True, it is that very source that then calls us out to do good deeds as He did, but that is the natural outflow of the “being” and not a separate pursuit called “doing.” It is in this relationship between doing and being we find the genesis of the religious spirit.

In an excellent article a friend sent me as I was writing this blog [surprise, surprise], Johann Van Der Hoven does an outstanding job of defining religion as most do today, to wit:

  • It is every effort of worship on the part of man that is not Inspired by The Holy Spirit.
  • It is the practice of “Christianity,” void from being directly under the influence of The Holy Spirit and void from being led of Him. Or [following insertion mine] operating under man’s governance vs. God’s governance.
  • Religion is the lie that comes to deceive us to make us believe that we are in fact living and being led of The Holy Spirit, while we are doing our own thing.
  • It teaches people to rely upon God’s principles, rather than upon His Presence. 

The religious leaders of His day Jesus regularly crossed swords with were perhaps the best examples of this but there were many others. So, to say it couldn’t happen to us?

According to Johann’s definitions above, religion is the practice of “Christianity,” without being led by the Spirit, and that which deceives us by making us think we are walking in the Spirit when we are not. Obviously, anyone who says they believe one thing and yet practice another is deceived. It matters not whether they think they are or not. Part of the religious spirit is to believe we are the last ones to be afflicted, and that is deception. While the source of temptation and its various manners of sin may be the flesh, the source of hypocrisy and deception lies in the spiritual realm. Thus, a “religious spirit” comes from a once pure pursuit of God being derailed by the powers of darkness, causing an inability to connect that which we believe with that which we practice, yet all the while thinking we are good with God.

How does a religious spirit form then? What is its genesis? I would venture a guess that few, if any, people who end up oppressed by a religious spirit started out their journey seeking to be hypocrites. I doubt the Pharisees began their searches of the ancient texts with the intent of being the enemies of the Messiah when He came. I don’t think they awoke one morning declaring, “I think I will enter into a life-long search of the ancient scrolls so I can become an enemy of the Promised One!” Much in the same way many do today, I don’t believe they got baptized only to become deceived hypocrites. What goes wrong?

Those in the lending profession regularly deal with what are called Amortization Schedules, which chart how much of each loan payment made goes towards principal and how much towards interest over the life of the loan. The ratio of interest to principle paid looks something like a large “X” turned on its side. In the beginning [left side of graph], at the bottom leg of the X on the left is the principal paid, of which there is little. The top leg of the X represents interest paid, of which there is much. However, as payments are made over the years, the center of the X is crossed where the amounts of principle and interest credited in each payment meet. Thereafter, payments increasingly apply to principle over interest. At the end of the loan

[right side of the graph]

, the upper leg represents principle and the lower leg interest. You glean far more benefit, as far as the goal of paying off the loan is concerned, from the same amount of payment at the end than you did in the beginning when you were paying largely interest.

Hebrews 12 states, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful. Yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” In the walk of the believer, we can call the disciplines [the “doing” immaturity side of graph] in our Amortization Schedule[see graph below] the interest, and the peaceful fruit of righteousness [the “being” maturity side of graph] the principal. Like paying off the loan is the goal of payments, so also the peaceful fruit of righteousness is the goal in the life of the believer. But, to get there we must make those interest payments in the form of engaging in the disciplines. Any endeavor in life is like this. Great athletes do not win Olympic medals or Super Bowls until they have paid a severe price to put themselves in the mental and physical shape to compete at elite levels. Those astute in business do not make fortunes without putting in copious amounts of time, effort, and money to assure the success that comes only after they have done that.

In the beginning, the disciplines are both critical and necessary to a maturing faith. Regularly reading our Bibles, praying, and learning to love others through fellowship, ministry service and outreach is how we get to know Jesus and move in the Spirit, when upon conversion we hadn’t a clue. But there comes a time when we cross the X and we begin to move closer to the goal, and as we do it takes far less “doing” and more “being.” When it is time to move fully into that peaceful fruit of righteousness—into being—if we continue to put our trust in the disciplines that, my friends, is where I believe the religious spirit finds its genesis! Rather than maturing into an abiding relationship with Jesus, where the Spirit naturally dictates all we do, we remain in the disciplines—the doing—where we dictate life through our works. Now, anyone who reads my blogs knows I fully believe there is room for good works under grace. In fact, grace should, like walking in the Spirit, spur us on to good works but His good works. I believe Paul would have put it this way, “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh” (Gal. 3)? At that point God withdraws and allows us, like the Prodigal Son, to go out and eat our pods with the swine.

In the next article in this series we will track this phenomenon in the life of the Pharisees, but there are other examples. We find a parallel passage in Matthew 7, where Jesus declared, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” Those Jesus was referring to here were performing all sorts of what they considered good deeds for God, when He declares to them two critical judgments: first, He never knew them, and second It was their practices that condemned them. Good deeds that don’t originate from a “knowing, loving, intimate” relationship with Jesus are like the proverbial acts of faith Paul speaks of in 1st Corinthians 13 without love. Nothing. Deeds done through a religious spirit are but “noisy gongs and clanging cymbals” in His ears.

The insidiousness of this spirit is found in the fact the people who are infected by it think they are not because of all the good things they do. And the way they try to stay in relationship with God and fix their problems is simply to do more! Not realizing it was moving from being to doing that got them into trouble in the first place, people infected think the way out is to work harder at doing more for God when their goals and dreams for their relationship with Jesus don’t materialize. They double down on the very activities and thinking that now holds them back.

Do your plans and dreams remain frustrated, even though they seem godly and righteous and timely? Do they remain on the drawing board even though you’ve done everything you can think of to get them kick-started? Or, is there that nagging sinful addiction or practice you just can’t seem to shake because, bottom line, is you’ve lost your trust in God to take care of things and that anxiousness leads you to “medicate?” Understand with the introduction of the religious spirit God withdraws, and everything stops insofar as His involvement is concerned. If you hear nothing else, hear these two truths from one who has gone down that road: doing more is not the way out, and, stop thinking it could never happen to you because of all the good things you do for God! Doubling down on works and deception is the way to remain locked into your heartache and frustration, not the path to peace.

And so, I say as a friend and fellow victim of the religious spirit, perhaps it’s time we stop doing Christianity and get back to simply being His children, rebuilding that precious relationship we lost somewhere in all the good things we’ve done. Will that guarantee success in what we perceive to be our visions? Will that end our struggles with our addictions? A mentor of mine, Michael Wells, was fond of saying “There is nothing the nearness of Jesus can’t cure.” The Psalmists put it this way, “But as for me, the nearness of God is my good” (Psalm 73). Getting nearer to Jesus always helps. What I fully believe, for me, is it will bring is peace in getting back to that abiding relationship with Jesus. The further we stray from that, the more frustration and anxiousness and religion we find. Ridding ourselves of this curse may take us into an entirely different and new vision or confirm the present one. Solomon said, “Many plans are in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the Lord will stand” (Prov. 19). Most importantly, wherever it leads us will be His path, not ours. That path will be imminently successful in kingdom of heaven on earth, and that’s the only success that really matters. We never want to hear, after a life of seemingly good deeds accomplished, “Depart from Me. I never knew you!”

In the following parts of this series we will examine the lives of the Pharisees, talk about living in past accomplishments, making excuses, the curse of knowledge, and where the religious spirit ends in a damning phenomenon called “lawlessness.” Understand again, I am uniquely qualified to write about them because, when it comes to them, I’m Mr. Beenderdundat. Hope you’ll join me for the ride so, together, we can increase our awareness of this insidious seed to hopefully be able to spot it when it rears its ugly head and like the Prodigal Son “come to our senses,” and return to our Father’s love.

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