*Before you read: I originally wrote this article for a religion class I’m taking at the University of Florida. The question was centered around my relationship with religion…including a host of questions like “what does a relationship with Jesus look like? Is there a reciprocity to that relationship? How does faith work in the confines of religion?” etc. Initially, I didn’t know where to begin, but after taking a look at my thoughts about religion, I’m more confident than ever that a relationship with Jesus is far more important “religion”…
Religion tried to ruin my life–and millions of other people’s lives as well. In the form of crusades, genocide, wars, bombings, and malicious slander, this thing we call “religion,” crept into people’s lives like a cancer, turning them against one another in the most deadly of ways. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In order to fully understand the atrocities dealt at the hand of misled religion, it is important to understand what religion is, why it’s important, and why relationship trumps religion.
What is religion? By definition, religion is “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially God or gods” (Oxford American Dictionaries). Religion is based on faith whether you believe in a spider or some transcendent being, a big-bellied buddha, or a man hanging on a cross. The crossroads of every religion is faith. The great discussion over the years about religion is centered around discovering who’s faith is right. This struggle has initiated wars, separated families and divided nations.
Religion can perhaps be understood as a restaurant. Religion plays the role of the corner restaurant on every town square, specializing in decadent choices. The menu offers choices including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Atheism, and Christianity. Each specialized menu item is different; however, the question is, which religion is true, or right? In order to establish one religion as truth, does it require one to demonize another? Or can a particular faith exist by simply promoting its internal faith as standard?
Religion has many different objects. For me, how I first began interacting with religion began not by my own decision, but by the decision of my parents. I propose that for many, their first dance with religion came through a family or community relationship. Sometimes that initial religious experience through Roman Catholicism and a CCD class or Judaism in a Bar Mitzvah class or Protestantism in a Sunday School class catches fire and grows. Often, if there’s not a personal connection with the core beliefs of a particular religion and a relationship established, the person no longer has interest and the religion becomes irrelevant. If the family or community base continues to force that religion, often people walk away, become disfranchised, or even anti-religious.
My journey with religion happened very young in my life. From my earliest days, I can remember being under a steeple. The pictures, smells, sounds, and relationships are still etched in my memory. My journey began as my parent’s decision because my Dad is a pastor. I grew up in a world of Sunday School classes, Bible studies, and sermons. However, everything changed when I encountered Jesus Christ. I began to see that a relationship with Jesus isn’t confined to a steeple. A relationship with Jesus Christ is rooted in mystery. It’s a walk on the beach, journeying through the story of Esther, the fragrance of a pine tree on Christmas morning, and sitting at Thanksgiving dinner. Having a relationship with Jesus isn’t about a set of rules, rituals, or a steeple.
To many, this seems too good to be true, or just too plain easy. Is there a reciprocity to having a relationship with Jesus–as in Jesus does something for you and you do something for Jesus? Yes and no. No, in that it’s not a barter system where Jesus does x, y, z and therefore requires a, b, c. My journey with him is stepping into the story of who he is. Jesus is living a story and he has invited me to step into this story. So, does all of this mean surrendering, as in “thy will be done”? A relationship with Jesus is a deep belief, by faith, that the creator, designer, guide and director knows best. Much like using a GPS system, the GPS connects with a satellite that has a broader base, understanding my current location. I yield to that, although I can’t see the satellite, I can see the by-product of the satellite.
A relationship with Jesus is both the certain unknowing and the certainty. Inside the mystery is a journey. The certainty is inside the journey. There is certainty in the unknowing. Can the creation articulate the creator without reducing the creator? If the creation can articulate the creator, then he is no longer the creator. Doubt and confidence are two sides of the same coin in this relationship. In Mark 9:24, a father looking for a miracle for his sick child told Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Faith in Jesus is based on deep truths that can’t be proven–the truth that a virgin became pregnant with God’s son; the truth that a dead man came back to life after a horrific crucifixion; the truth that a man swallowed by a whale survived and was spit onto a sandy beach; and the truth that a Jewish girl became a queen and saved her entire nation. Christianity is based on deep, rich truths. I cannot prove these truths, and I’m not trying to prove them because then it would no longer be faith. Hebrews 11:1 says “Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.”
For me, this relationship with Jesus by faith began to make sense in one of the worst years of my life. In 2009, religion attacked my family. During this time, I saw religion’s ugly head rear back and take root in the lives of good ‘ole church going folk. These people who said with their lips that they were Christians lived in a way altogether different. At the church my Dad was pastoring, a group of pastors and church members maliciously attacked my Dad with false accusations. The brunt of pain came one Sunday morning when a mob flooded the stage, forcing a security detail to escort my family home. In the midst of this chaos, I saw the difference between religion and a relationship. Those who were clinging to religion with an iron grip were focused on rights, church membership and rituals. Those who by faith focused on a relationship with Jesus were living lives filled with love, compassion and forgiveness.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl argues that when a man understands why he exists–when he knows what his meaning is, he can withstand anything. My relationship with Jesus Christ gives me purpose for living. It was–and is–my relationship with Jesus that helped me withstand the pain of 2009 and be able to choose to love people no matter what they do. Understanding religion and how it affects us–me–is important. Religion is based on faith. It’s what I choose to do with religion that makes all the difference. For me, my relationship with Jesus is it; it’s why I exist and what gives me meaning–what gives me the strength to withstand anything.