I am married to an amazing man. He is a man with a heart for people and love for the Lord. My husband used to be a pastor. Before we were married, he attended seminary, graduated with a masters degree and became a pastor. He was married to someone else and living a life different from the life he lives now. That was a different time and he was a different person.
Not long ago the two of us were having a conversation about grace. He shared with me a story about his time in seminary in which a friend of his fell into sin. He shared that his (my husband’s) response along with responses of other friends to this friend in sin was lacking in grace. He admitted that when it came to those “clearly in sin” his extension of grace fell short. I knew him back in those days and though he was a “nice guy" I had a different opinion of him than I do today. Back then my now husband could be rigid. It felt like he was more into following a “religion” or system of rules and procedures in order to accomplish what God wanted him to do. At the time, I had several friends with husbands in seminary and this seemed to be the general approach. Nothing against seminary, but from what I encountered this seemed to be the trend of those in that circle. They could be “super spiritual” while greatly lacking in the department of grace. At the time that is how I felt about my now husband.
Religion can do that. Religion is complicated because it becomes more about doing than trusting. I found a quote that said, “Religion is man’s idea of God’s expectations.” In the New Testament there were religious leaders who Jesus called vipers (Matthew 12:34) and whitewashed tombs (Matthew 23:27). They were Pharisees and were all about keeping the rules. They had zero mercy and lacked compassion for those who chose not to follow their rules. On top of it all, they had ungodly hearts. These men were legalistic and demanding. To them things had to be done a certain way, their way or they were not acceptable. That is a great description of religion.
Back to my husband who is now no longer a pastor and you may be asking why he is no longer a pastor. Spiritual burnout. Several years ago, when his life began to fall apart he was “diagnosed” by his counselor with spiritual burnout and recommended by the counselor to resign from his church. He did. That may seem like a bold move over something that is simply called spiritual burnout. Maybe it was but it is something that is real. It was something I had never heard of or knew anything about, so I researched it. Spiritual burnout is a “disease” that at one time or another has probably plagued us all. Spiritual burnout can be linked to following a religion. It can be linked to thinking that we must “do” in order to gain God’s approval. It is linked to having unrealistic expectations. It is linked to unconfessed sin. This “disease” is killing people. Now I do not mean that people are physically dropping dead because of spiritual burnout, but I do believe that following a religion instead of investing in a relationship with Jesus Christ can eat away at us much like cancer, leaving us spiritually dead.
So how do we get this “disease?” Religion says that we have to find a way, no matter how difficult it may be, to keep the rules or we must accept the punishment. We set unrealistic expectations upon ourselves. We live a life trying to be perfect and attempting to do all the right things hoping for God’s approval and favor. It is a lot of exhausting work. We seek out looking for God in an intimate way only to find that whatever religious community we are a part of is telling us that we need to “do” and “do” more of it in order to have that relationship. We begin believing that we can only have that intimate relationship if we are good and doing all the “right things.” Religion, or legalism as it is also known, steals life. It is being overly concerned with keeping the rules and exalting those rules over a relationship with Christ. It does not nourish but instead drains us of life. When we follow “the Law” it kills, but when we follow the Spirit, we feel alive.
He has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant. This is a covenant not of written laws, but of the Spirit. The old written covenant ends in death; but under the new covenant, the Spirit gives life.
2 Corinthians 3:6
Trying to follow a religion leaves us unbalanced and we need balance. We do not need to spend every day of the week participating in some church activity or function and then our remaining time sitting at home reading our Bibles. Yes, we do need time with other believers and one on one time with God, but not in excess to the exclusion of everything else, not with the wrong motivation of following a list of rules, and not to the point where we are physically drained. Religious leaders tend to lead in this way. This is not godly. Satan is into excess. It is his playground. When we get to doing something too much, it consumes us and leads us to spiritual burnout. When that happens, if left unchecked, it is the perfect opportunity to backslide. We have to know when enough is enough. We have to know when we are practicing a religion instead of nurturing an intimate relationship with Christ.