Religion versus spiritual life: What is the difference and why is this important? It is the difference between death and life, between bondage and freedom, between defeat and victory.
Religion is man’s effort to please God. It is a system of rules and regulations to bring about behavior that is assumed to please a god or God. It is based on man’s striving to be good enough, to be accepted by God, or to earn His favor. The fruit of religious practice can be shame or feelings of condemnation if someone feels like they don’t measure up. This does not result in being close to God. Instead, it creates a barrier between a person and God. A person may try to follow the rules of their religion, but find they fail to meet the expectations. They may get discouraged and give up or put on a façade, so others think they are doing well when they know they are not.
Conversely, religious practice can bring about pride and a critical spirit if a person feels they are more righteous than others. This feeling of superiority creates a critical attitude toward others who don’t meet their standards. When I judge others, it makes me feel like I must be better. Unfortunately, self-righteousness does not lead us into a relationship with God because we feel we are doing well without him. That’s why Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, NIV). It is realizing that we do not measure up that opens the door to God’s realm.
Jesus did not come to start a new religion. The system God gave the Jewish people reflected the standards and practices necessary to please God. God set the standard. The problem was, apart from God Himself, the Jews could not measure up to the standard He set. Their history, recorded in the Old Testament, attests to that fact. They continually failed to do the things God required. None of us can do any better. As the Apostle Paul explains in the book of Romans, “there is no difference between Jew and Gentile [non-Jew], for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). So, if none of us could reach God’s standards through religious practices, how can we relate to Him?
The solution is also laid out in the Bible. Instead of trying to please God through religious practices, spiritual life is achieved through receiving new life from God. It is being transformed by His presence in our lives. He is the one who does the changing as we submit to Him. Spiritual life is walking in a love relationship with Him. It depends on His strength and goodness, not on our own.
In the Gospel of John it says, “…to all who did receive [Jesus], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born…of God” (John 1:9–13).
Jesus gives an illustration
This difference between religious practice and spiritual life is illustrated well in the story Jesus told of the Prodigal Son. It is a story of two sons. The wayward son selfishly took his inheritance early and left his father’s house to live a wild life. He did whatever pleased him and wasted all his inheritance. He was foolish and self-centered. After all his money was gone, he became a hired hand feeding a farmer’s pigs, yet he didn’t even make enough to eat. The ways of the world, though alluring, left him broken, destitute, and starving.
Many know the story. The son decided it would be better to humbly return to his father’s house and offer to serve him, since he treated his servants well. He felt unworthy of being accepted as a son again but was content to work for him as a servant.
The father saw him coming from far away and was filled with compassion for him. He ran to greet him with a hug and kiss. He showered him with gifts fit for a prince, forgetting his former offenses and welcoming him, overjoyed that his son had returned. This is a picture of a person restored to the right relationship with God, even though that person doesn’t deserve it. There is nothing the son did but return to his father. That is the first step into a relationship with God, humbly returning, looking for forgiveness and restoration.
The father in the story plans a big party to celebrate his son’s return.
The older son, we are told, returns from working in his father’s field and hears a party. When he discovers that his brother has returned, and the father is having a celebration, the older brother becomes angry and refuses to go to the party. When the father pleads with him to join them, the brother’s true feelings of bitterness and resentment come out. He says that he had been slaving for him for many years and never disobeyed him, but his dad never gave him anything to celebrate with his friends. Yet, he complained, that when his wayward brother comes back, the father gives him an extravagant party.
The father explains to him that everything he has belonged to him as well. He could have used it anytime he wanted to. The father insists that it was right to celebrate with the younger son, because he had come to his senses and was back from the dead!
This story illustrates the difference between a loving relationship with the father versus dutiful obedience (religious practices). How many people labor in religious practices without enjoying the benefits of it? Christian believers, as well, often serve in church for years thinking they are doing their duty, yet missing out on the joy of knowing God, the Father. They become resentful, laboring for years but not enjoying the fruit of their labor. They have fallen into the mistaken idea that it is their effort that makes them acceptable to God. They misunderstand the heart of God, which is to bless them. They serve Him sacrificially, yet self-righteously, which often creates bitterness in their hearts. They may not realize it until they see Father God blessing someone else whom they deem unworthy.
Of course, all of us are really prodigals. If we have returned to God, we have been accepted into the Father’s house, though we didn’t deserve it. We need to be careful, however, not to settle into a life of service to God without enjoying the benefits of our relationship with Him, as the elder son did with his father. We need to remember that it is not our effort that makes us acceptable in God’s sight, but God’s love which has been poured out on us. God is interested in a relationship with us based on His love for us and our response to that love. He has lavished His love upon us (I John 3:1). Spiritual life is living in that lavish love. It is enjoying God’s goodness and His abundant provision of life in Jesus. It is entering into the rest of faith in His righteousness, not ours. It is knowing God personally.
As Jesus said, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The key here is “know you.” That is God’s goal, that we might know Him, not just serve at a distance.
Religion is a cruel taskmaster, always requiring more yet giving little in return.
Spiritual life is entering into a love relationship with our Creator. It gives us life from the dead; it sets us free from rule-based religion; it empowers us to live a life of victory over sin. It is receiving His power to become His children. It is gazing upon His beauty and being changed to be like Him!