Formulas or Friends

Is my pursuit of meaning and fulfillment in life centered on uncovering just the right mix of religious and secular life? Do I find myself trying to learn enough answers to religious questions that I will finally figure out enough of them to pass some test and get into heaven?

Am I combing inspired literature so that I can know what God expects of me, so that He will accept and bless me and give me His approbation? Am I trying to pressure those around me to conform to the routines of worship that I believe are the ones most appreciated by God? Is my life, my heart, primarily motivated by fear of offending God because I am not kneeling at the right time, using the right language or phrases, dressing the right way, eating – or not eating – the correct foods, performing the right ceremonies etcetera?

If I find myself with those around me in tune with these kinds of questions and obsessions, then it is very likely that my fundamental belief is that life is all about getting just the right formula in place in order to be saved. It does not matter that I might be talking all the right talk about knowing Jesus or using the correct texts or believing the right doctrines; if my heart is focused on doing the right thing and getting the right answers and appeasing the right people, then I likely have a formula religion, very similar to the religious people in Israel in the days of Jesus when He was here on this earth.

Yesterday I saw a book in the basement of our church that reminded me of this. It is called Servants or Friends. I remember reading this book many years ago and the powerful impact that it made on me at that time. I am so grateful that I came across that book for it had such a positive influence on awakening my heart to realize the emptiness of the religion I had known most of my life. I began to realize that it is not enough to know about God no matter how thorough that knowledge may be honed. Unless I have an intimate connection with the heart of God and my own heart is growing in warmth and is bonding directly with His heart, I do not have the kind of saving relationship that will prepare me to enjoy eternity with Him.

It is too easy to have the kind of relationship that millions have with the movie stars or the sex symbols that are paraded before the world constantly by the media. Many people spend enormous amounts of time studying the lives and watching the performances and learning the details about their favorite people. They may be sports stars, movie stars, favorite authors or even religious leaders who attract large followings. No matter who they are, if we do not have a personal relationship with them one on one and have an interactive communication with them that involves give and take and sharing of mutual experiences together, it is not really valid to claim that we really know that person no matter how much we may know about them.

My heart is both saddened and alarmed as I watch pastors, leaders and members of our churches obsessed with pushing their particular agenda, their particular preferences, their brand of what is right and wrong in a spirit of fear to conform others around them to adopt their brand of 'the truth'. I learned many years ago that whenever I sense a spirit of fear as the primary motivation in a person's message I need alarm signals going off in my mind that something is wrong here no matter how accurate their quotations may be or how bullet-proof their theology may sound.

Inside, my heart hears a voice saying to me, “Is this how you came to know Christ? Is this in tune what what your heart has been receiving from My Spirit for the past few years as I have been leading you out of bondage and into the freedom only found in a personal relationship with Jesus?” This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you. (Galatians 5:8)

I am not implying in the least that some of these things may be important in their proper order and context. But when I find people obsessing about the right place and time to kneel or arguing about the order of worship and the spirit of the conversation seems more motivated by guilt than with passionate love for God, my heart becomes very concerned that it is useless for cold-hearted people to figure out just what shape our bodies must be configured in to worship God at a particular time or place. It seems to me that until our hearts are sufficiently warmed through a personal encounter with a passionate God who is out to ravish us with His love and grace and transform us into His image from the inside, all of our compulsive conversations about the right or wrong details of what constitutes proper worship and reverence are almost silly if not frightening or saddening.

But in all of this I see myself feeling estranged a little bit more from the mainstream of those who consider themselves the established people of God. And that too makes me feel a little uneasy. I feel pressured between following my heart into experiencing a deeper, passionate relationship with the God who has been increasingly revealing Himself to my heart over the past few years and conforming to the demands and expectations of those in designated religious authority. I realize that this is not a new phenomenon but it is painful nonetheless. The effects of the fear being pushed into my heart by those who believe they are leading others into proper religious exercises and conformity in the name of unity tend to intimidate and threaten the gentle, tender plants of affection for God that have only recently begun to grow and thrive in the damaged places of my own heart.

But I continue to sense that the kind of spiritual nurturing that God has introduced into my life in recent years is more aligned with the kind of principles that I find in my own study of the Word of God. I hear His Spirit prompting me, reminding me of texts that shed light on current conflicts and the distressing strains in my relationships with religious authority.

For you have not received a spirit of slavery in order that you should once more be afraid; but you have received a spirit of adoption, in which we cry out, "My Father, my dear Father!" (Romans 8:15 MNT)
For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7 NKJV)

I do not want my connection with God to be based on formulas primarily but to be rooted deeply in a heart connection with a God who passionately wants me to know Him at the most intimate level possible for a human being to experience. Yes, that will increasingly involve aligning my habits and practices to be more in tune with what is necessary to approach Him more intimately. But if my fundamental motivation becomes infected with a spirit of fear instead of an ever-increasing response of love and appreciation for His beauty and love and attractiveness, then I am in danger of becoming side-tracked back into the performance-based kind of religion that has kept my heart in fear and at a distance from the heart of God for most of my life.

I choose to live with my primary focus on coming to know God as it is my privilege to know Him, the kind of knowing that is like a lover coming to know all the sweet intimacies of a passionate spouse. Anything that moves me in the other direction creates a red flag of warning that my heart may be in danger of substituting formula for friendship.


  1. When others attempt to pressure us into what they consider to be the proper (and only) way to worship God, it's spiritual abuse.

    You are right in perceiving that unless one's heart is right with God the question of when to kneel, for example, is a moot point. Spiritual abuse always results in fear and not the kind of fear (reverence) of which the Bible speaks.

    When petty arguments and formulas, etc. have been swept away it's really what's in one's heart that matters. God wants us to be involved in a romance with Him: deeply, passionately and of the everlasting kind.


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