Heart Matters and the Idolatry of Religion

Here’s a provocative statement that may offend some fellow believers: love and our relationships with God and other people are more important than obeying rules and laws. If this statement is true, howBible then do we reconcile Jesus’s statement, “If you love me, obey my commandments” (John 14:15)? First, we must love, then we can demonstrate that love through obeying His laws.

The Shema (Jewish prayer) from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 emphasizes love/faith over law through this statement, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” The Shema is a filter to be applied to the laws that follow it. Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain in his article Why is the Shema so significant? explains this sentiment beautifully: “The Shema stands out as a cry of belief, something that cannot be simply carried out or avoided but has to be personally taken to heart.”

Religion without Relationship is Idolatry

If idolatry is the act of worshipping something other than God, than it seems fair to state religion without a personal relationship/love of God is essentially idolatry (Colossians 2:23, Acts 17:22). James A. Fowler in his article God Hates Religion puts it this way, “The English word “religion” is etymologically derived from the Latin word religo, meaning to ‘bind up.’ Religion binds people up in rules and regulations or in ritualistic patterns of devotion.” The religious spirit controls its followers through fear and guilt by demanding perfection through works to better one’s stance with God and man (Matthew 6:1-8, Philippians 2:3, and 2 Corinthians 12:7, and 1 John 4:18). In this scenario, God is viewed as a demanding boss; and His followers are underperforming employees with whom He’s frequently angry and dissatisfied.

A sacrifice given out of pride or apathy is another religious idol. It is performed out of self-exalting piety, without thought or thankfulness to God. Prideful giving is often haughty and flaunts how well one is able to meet such requirements compared to others. However, it’s the not quantity of what we give or the awe of others that makes us right with God but the quality of our motivations and the thankfulness of our hearts for all that God has given us. Isaiah 1:10-15 and Amos 5:21-24 illustrate this idea through God’s repeated rejection of “meaningless offerings.”

Cain’s Offering – An Example of Religion, Wrong Motives and Why it Matters

In Genesis 4, we see religion and love’s stark contrast. Abel was a shepherd who offered God the best of his flock which God accepted. Cain was a farmer who offered God some of his crops, but his offering was not accepted. Why? The words “best” and “some” provide clues. Abel gave God his best; Cain only gave God some of his crops, indicating he kept the best for himself. When Cain was angered by his offering’s rejection, God told him that he must first “do what is right.” Instead, jealousy over his brother’s offering lead him to kill Abel. Cain’s jealous was birthed from wrong motivations, giving from an ungrateful heart, instead of thanks. Even if Cain had given the best of his crops to God, the offering would have still been rejected due to the state of his heart.

Other Scriptures Confirming the Importance of Love/Heart over Law

  • Desiring mercy not sacrifice – “But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with such scum?’ When Jesus heard this, he said, ‘Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.’ Then he added, ‘Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices. For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (Matthew 9:11-14).
  • Food restrictions – In Romans 14, Paul instructed early church believers not to judge each other over what food should or shouldn’t be eaten. Christians in the early church were Messianic Jews (Jewish converts to Christianity) and gentiles. Jewish laws prohibited the Jewish people from eating certain foods; gentiles were not required to follow the same laws. Therefore, some believers felt convicted to not eat certain foods while others did not. Interestingly, the Bible says a believer who feels convicted that he should not eat the food in question but does it anyway has sinned; the person who did not feel the same conviction did not sin by eating the same food.
  • Giving, prayer and fasting with the wrong motives – “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them.” (Matthew 6:5-7).
  • Condition of the heart when approaching God with prayer – Before we approach the throne for prayer, God requires that we come to Him with faith and trust that He will do what we ask of Him and that we will pray with the right motives. See Why Won’t God Answer My Prayers? for a deeper study of this topic.
  • The wicked hearts of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah – these towns were destroyed for their willful disregard for others who were suffering and their depth of depravity (Ezekiel 16:49, Jeremiah 23, and Isaiah 1). See the Old and New Testament Parallels, Symbols and Ponderings Series Part 3 – Sodom and Gomorrah for an in-depth study of the people who lived there.
  • Worshipping God with modesty not out of showy materialism (1 Timothy 2:9-10) – See Relevant Magazine‘s article Yoga Pants and What the Bible Really Says about Modesty about this topic.
  • Measuring gluttony  How much of something is too much? Who determines the measurement? Could it be the answer lies in the conviction of the heart about what is just enough and what is too much? (Proverbs 23:20-21)

Jesus is Our Perfection

Doesn’t God demand perfection from us? Yes, He does, and we should do the best we can to live righteously because we love the God who gave His Son for us (Matthew 5:20, Matthew 5:48). However, it’s important to remember, our measuring stick is not how well we’re able to keep the laws because we all have fallen short of the glory of God (Isaiah 64:6, Romans 3:23). Perfection is something we can never attain. Instead of focusing on our lack of perfection, we should fix our eyes on Jesus’s grace (Galatians 2:20). His blood sufficiently covers what we’ll never attain on our own (Romans 3:21-24, 2 Corinthians 5:21).

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