“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead…”
Spirituality wears many disguises. It’s best one is “religion.” Pharisees are the same yesterday, today, and forever. They can imitate spiritual depth with the best of them. They appear to doggedly press into the heart of things, when they are actually just working to impress their audience. Theirs is a selective spirituality, which selects the surface over the center every time.
This “forgetting what is behind” phrase is typically taken to refer to our own past mistakes or to the wounds inflicted on us by others. While I highly recommend that we do “forget” those things in favor of a better future, that’s not really what Paul had in mind here.
He had just listed his former zealous legalistic Phariseeism and religious pedigree. Now, since the Damascus Road, he recognized that in order to be a mature Christ follower, he had to swear off barren religion. He wasn’t talking about giving up his sinful past or about forgiving those who had hurt him. He was making the point that in order to “take hold of that for which Christ had taken hold of him” he had to forget the way his religion taught him to strive in his own strength.
By “religion” I mean a human-generated system to assuage guilt, win the favor of God, and impress people. Understood in this way religion can’t save, sanctify, or facilitate intimacy with God. In fact, as a method of achieving intimacy with God, religion is immature and ineffective. It drives us in the opposite direction.
Had he not pointed this out we might have misinterpreted all this talk about attaining, obtaining, pressing on, taking hold, and straining toward the goal to refer to the “Try Harder” method of Christian living.
In another place, Paul asks, “How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?” Again, “These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.”
This sort of religion therefore is not simply helpless, it’s harmful, because it lulls you to sleep and prevents you from pressing on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called you heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Religion is devious in that it deludes us into thinking that it’s good for us when all it’s doing is making us feel good about ourselves at the expense of a truer connection with God. It lacks the empowering grace of God, and can sometimes lead us to utter “dis-grace.”
“Those who make religion their God will not have God for their religion.” Thomas Erskine
Religion reminds me of the story about the attorney on the first day in his brand new office. (It doesn’t have to be a lawyer, but it’s more fun to bash lawyers.) He sees a potential client walk in the door, and since he wants to look busy he picks up the phone. “Look Harry, about that amalgamation deal. I think I should run down to the factory and handle it personally… No, I don’t think $3 million will do it… OK. Call you later.” He looks up at the visitor and says, “Good morning, how may I help you?”
“You can’t help me at all,” the man says. “I’m just here to hook up your phone.”
Jesus told those who “prophesied, did miracles, and drove out demons in his name,” “I never knew you,” that is, I never knew the real you, because you never divulged it. You masked it with religion.
I think I hear the Spirit saying: Take off your mask! Forget your former methods of trying to impress. In the profoundest way possible I want to know you and I want you to know me!
This is the 7th of 10ish posts on How Mature Christians Act. Scroll down for earlier ones.
If “religion” is bad for us, it’s also bad for others. We want to lead people to the real Jesus. For help in that direction read Reaching Rahab: Joining God In His Quest For Friends.