Religion has stripped the spirit out of spirituality and insisted that the crusty shell of doctrines left over is all there is left to reality. But we were designed by our Creator – who is a Spirit according to Jesus – to live primarily in relationship with Him, not a life of external, desperate, performance-oriented searching for approval and worth.
Doctrines and/or religious emotional highs are alike almost pointless without the engagement of our own spirit in direct connection with the Spirit of God. This is the channel whereby we are to receive life and worth and identity and hope. God is love; and to live without His kind of love – an agape, selfless, passionate love without any agenda of a return on its investment – is to live a fake life, a life without satisfaction of the deepest cravings we were designed to fulfill.
Satan has largely succeeded in keeping religious people unbalanced, either with an obsession with being doctrinally 'correct' or satisfied with weekly emotional injections of fervor and excitement while avoiding conviction of a much deeper problem of being out of harmony with God's principles. Both extremes fail to appreciate the extreme danger of internal sin lacquered over with a heavy veneer of religious piety or pleasure-inducing activities. In both cases the problem is our tendency to avoid the real condition of the heart, our need to get honest about what is really going on deep inside and to become vulnerable and real before God.
The Holy Spirit is neither a teacher to make us smarter so we can feel superior to others, nor is He a part time playmate to titillate us with weekly splashes of pleasure to help us get through another few days of coping with life. The Holy Spirit is far more severe in the sense that He will not allow us to use Him to perpetuate a shallow surface existence and still promise us eternal life. Whether conservative or liberal, true Christ followers must be willing to get real before God and allow Him access to the most painful and shameful depths of the soul in order to effect the healing deep inside of us that must transpire if we are ever to be prepared to live in the consuming fire of God's passionate love.
I fear that nearly every version and flavor of religion today is little more than decoys designed to suit various personalities to keep us thinking we are on our way to heaven while in reality most of us are living in an illusion of reality. Even the meaning of the words we read in Scriptures has been so distorted that we have effectively developed a language that is parallel but not the same in substance as the messages found in the Bible. Because so few are willing to question their assumptions, challenge their paradigms and humble themselves to seek God's face, very few actually experience the conviction and the salvation that is only found in such an encounter with the Savior. But this encounter cannot just be a onetime conversion experience but must be a daily choice to get real and raw before our Maker as we open ourselves up to His continuing exposure and healing each day.
I speak these things from personal experience, not to criticize the religion of others. And while I grew up mainly on the conservative side in a legal-oriented, head-based religious system obsessed with achieving perfection of behavior as the path to heaven, I have also observed the danger of an emotional-based religion that allows people to disdain facing the truths of God principles in order to avoid accountability. And because both sides often base their beliefs on trying to avoid the excesses of the other side, Satan easily keeps all of them from experiencing the real intimacy and life-transforming power only found in a personal relationship with the real God.
Jesus said, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand." (John 10:27-28) But how many people really grasp the true implications of Jesus' words? How many of us are willing to go beyond just repeating these words or reading them without applying them to the much deeper recesses of our heart? How many of us are seeking to really tune ourselves to the voice of Jesus with enough intentional focus and time to begin to discern it apart from the cacophony of distractions all around us?
Jesus told us about the purpose of His Spirit that has been provided to convey His voice to our hearts and lead us into intimacy with the Father. "But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you." (John 16:13-14) Jesus told Nicodemus that we must experience what is called being born again before we can even begin to perceive the real kingdom of heaven. And Paul spells out in Romans 8 vital truths about what a true, Spirit-led follower of Jesus will look and live like. But the most important issue is our own choice when it comes to engaging our heart along with our head in response to the drawing of God in our own lives.
Most Christians sense that we are engaged in some sort of battle. However, many fail to recognize where the real battle takes place and thus spend too much of their energy and efforts trying to fight in the wrong places while losing ground in the arena where the battle is actually transpiring. Many assume that the enemies to battle as a Christian are those who oppose our beliefs, who defy our claims about God or who differ with us on doctrinal issues. But Paul alerts us to a vital awareness that it is not other people who are our main concern. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:11-12)
Our greatest battle is not in seeking to change the minds of other people by opposing their ideas and trying to force them to agree with ours. The real battle that too many of us miss noticing is taking place between our own ears; the battle over the control of our own thinking, our own desires and passions, our own spirit. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)
The fortresses that are in need of dismantling are found deep in our own hearts, heavily fortified secret places of pain, fear and shame infected with lies about God and about ourselves. Most of the time we are terrified to even admit they are there if we are even still aware of their existence. Yet inside these internal fortresses lurks powers that hold us hostage anytime we try to respond to the work of God's Spirit in our heart. When love tries to take root in our hearts it is often sabotaged by the strong effects of beliefs about ourselves entrenched behind the fortresses of lies hidden deep in our memories.
Notice that Paul is talking about internal opponents here, not enemies to attack on the outside. Our real enemies are speculations that sound so logical to us, that we have believed all of our lives. They are lofty ideals we derive from religion or from the social network around us growing up. They include anything that prevents us from allowing our hearts to really know the God of agape love who longs to dwell in us and heal us through His grace. But not until we allow His Spirit to take every thought inside of our minds captive will we be empowered to experience the joy of real obedience to Christ which only can spring from a heart of gratitude and a true perception of God's passionate love for us.
When Paul speaks here of the obedience of Christ, I am reminded that Christ is our perfect example of obedience. But far from the self-generated, buck-it-up obedience that I long assumed was needed to get my act together so God would finally accept me, the obedience that Jesus demonstrated sprang from a daily connection with His Father so as to tap into the infinite reservoir of selfless love so He could pass along that love to sinners who did not believe it was true or even possible.
The reason so many open sinners were attracted to Jesus was not because He was so religious but because He was so accepting, open and caring about people at the deepest level without even a hint of condemnation relating to their problems. That creates a completely different view of the nature of obedience from what I long perceived. The more I come to see the real truth as it is in Jesus the more I am amazed at how little it resembles the religion either of my youth or that I see around me today.
I have been earnestly seeking to become aware of my own spirit for a number of years now and learn how to listen through it more acutely for the voice of God's Spirit that is ever seeking to commune with my heart. John says that we are to test every spirit and not just believe anything that comes along in the spirit realm. That means that the Holy Spirit will never be offended when we obey that instruction and test even Him to see if He is the right one. But it takes time and immersion in the Word of God to learn how to test spirits. But as I have been learning, the Spirit of God and all who are in harmony with Him will be always reflect the very essence of God who is love and love alone.
For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. (Romans 8:14) I find it compelling to compare this alongside the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount where He lays out seemingly impossible descriptions of what a real Christ-follower will look like; things like not resisting an evil person, loving our enemies and blessing those who curse us. Yet the reason Jesus gives for all of these things is convicting, for He says that this is how we are children of our heavenly Father.
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44-45)
Our Father in heaven, continue to heal my spirit, to dismantle the hardened fortresses still hiding deep in my heart and to bring every thought and imagination captive to the Spirit of Christ dwelling in me. Keep increasing my capacity and appreciation for the love in Your heart that is starting to emerge into my consciousness. You have a great deal more work to do inside of me, for the more I perceive the real truth about You the more ugliness I find staring back at me when I look inside. Mentor me in Your ways; transform me by renewing the way that I think and react and process inside. Make me a full-blown experiment and demonstration of Your grace so that my life becomes reflective of Your graciousness and agape love.