I am intrigued and a bit peeved at the thought of how religion has been used to turn people away from some of the very things it was created to do in the first place. There’s a popular saying in Christian circles nowadays that says, “It’s all about relationship, not religion.” I sort of agree.
The problem with believing this is true is that we’ve lost sight of the real truth that religion was created out of relationship, and was intended to lead us, always, back to it.
Not many people know that it was God, not man, who created religion. He instituted the “rules and regulations” which were to characterize His people, and set them apart from the rest of the world. He created and prescribed the methods of worship which would bring them together around His presence and allow them access to His heart. He did this because He loved them, and because He had great plans not only for them, but for the whole world, which would see the way He was toward His people and long to know Him for themselves.
Religion was, initially, a setup that would become an invitation to the whole world, once Jesus entered the scene and fulfilled every obligation which religion demanded and man, in his own strength, failed to keep.
Where religion went wrong was in the hands of those it was entrusted to. In their eagerness to keep the laws which God had given to set them apart, man became defined by them. What began as a genuine effort to preserve what God had established, especially because it had been threatened, eventually enslaved people and has been formed into a weapon against all of humanity which now seeks to turn us away from “religion.”
So here is a good place to distinguish between religion gone wrong – mishandled by man and perverted by the devil – and true religion. True religion, of course, being that which was created by God, to enable us to be in relationship with Him and with one another.
Sadly, because we don’t distinguish between the two and have had plenty of stories which color our perception grossly, when we hear words like “confession,” we can’t help but think of archaic, ornate buildings with little booths in them, where a priest sits on one side of a curtain listening to someone tell on themselves.
And the worst part about this image of “religion” is that the person who confesses all their awful deeds is then asked to repeat certain “prayers” in succession and then leaves, only to fall back into the same errors. It is a cycle which repeats itself over and over and over again, always landing us back at the same, awful place of boohooing to a stranger about something the human heart cannot change.
This sets us up for disaster because, in order to really grow, confession is necessary. But because we’ve seen the humiliation of confession without any kind of growth, and with the additive of shame, we are stuck in a garden scene which has no promise of hope.
This is where the enemy’s version of religion has nailed us to the cross which Jesus came to take our place on. And this is where, and why, we choose to hide our faults and issues (or hurts, habits and hangups, as a popular recovery program calls them) rather than confess them. And this is why we remain unhealed, undelivered, and disconnected, when the religion which God intended for us to live by was meant to bring us into healing, deliverance and deep connection.
I can’t help but wonder, when I look at paintings of the Last Supper, what would have happened if Judas had just confessed, before his closest friends and His God that night, the truth of what he had been struggling with. Jesus gave him the moment, and he could have said, “It’s me. I’m the one who has betrayed you. Not only that, but I’ve been stealing, too. My heart is wicked, and I don’t know how to change it. Please forgive me. Please help me!”
I wonder how the picture we look at today would have changed. For the theologians’ case, I realize Jesus had to go to the cross, and Judas’ betrayal was prophesied and therefore had to be fulfilled. I’m not attempting to rewrite the story of Scripture, just pondering the possibility of truth when we gather, and how that might change our stories.
I remember once being at a home church meeting where my parents sat in the living room for Bible study and prayer, while the kids were playing in another room. Suddenly, I came under the heavy conviction that I had not been using my mouth to speak the way it was created. I was a child in elementary school at the time, but I knew very clearly in that moment that what I had been doing – cussing up a storm – was not pleasing to God. The other thing I knew was that I needed to confess. The conviction of God drove me straight to my mother’s lap, not into hiding.
I confessed all of my wretchedness immediately, much to her bewilderment, and she embraced me with love and forgiveness, reassuring me that I was not condemned for what I had done. The peace I walked away with was tangible and life-changing. I realize that it doesn’t end this way for everyone, especially when what we’ve done is deeper and has caused more damage than saying a few bad words. But the promise of peace and freedom through confession remains the same.
Not because there is any inherent power in confession itself – that would lean us right back into perverted religion which leans on the rules rather than the rule-giver for what’s been promised. Instead, the power of confession lies within the faithfulness of the God Who established confession as a point of connection between our hearts. As we lean into the way He calls us to live, we break into His promises. Peace is possible even when the one we confess to isn’t perfectly understanding, because God keeps His end of the deal.
Of course, this necessitates one very important thing: the intentional building of safe relationships within community. And for that to happen, we each must take responsibility for our own growth, and become willing to risk living as God intended – honestly and vulnerably. We have to learn to listen, to be slow to speak, and to embrace one another in our imperfections. And we have to risk being spiritually and emotionally naked with each other – refusing to hide behind the things we do right and instead being truthful about the many ways we fail.
I sat recently with a leader who was giving me counsel about a difficult issue I am facing, and when that leader asked me about my responses in the issue, I found it hard to be completely truthful and vulnerable. It wasn’t easy to admit my wrongs, to confess that I had been less than kind and loving in the situation. It would have been easier to hide behind an excuse and leave that part out. Except that I desire freedom. I desire authenticity. I value connection. And I know that deception, covering up the truth – even when it’s really ugly – only damages relationships. It never preserves them.
Once, when I was part of a leadership team in training, we were all asked a very vulnerable question: “Are you the same person at church as you are at home?” We each had the opportunity to confess truthfully before our closest comrades, our leader, and God. It was an awful and sickening feeling, but I chose truth. I hadn’t been the same person. I was more harsh and less kind toward my husband and children than toward people I interacted with at church. But that moment propelled me into freedom – I didn’t have to pretend or hide anymore. My group now knew how to pray for me, how to hold me accountable, and now had permission to touch that area of my life with hard and consistent questions as I committed to grow.
My life and my family began to change that day. We are still not perfect, and I still fail. But I can be honest, and I can apologize, and I can try again with God’s help. And I am not living a hidden, double life before my church community.
As I watch people I love struggle every day through the tough stuff of their lives, and try to act like they’ve got it together, my heart has been thinking a really bold thought. What if we just sat down and told on ourselves? What if we could trust each other enough to tell each other the truth? What if my spiritual daughters could tell me what they’ve really said and how they’ve really acted when they’re hurt and angry and afraid, and what if I could meet them there with compassion – like Jesus meets me when I blow it – and pray with and encourage them?
What if we could have the courage to go even beyond that? What if my spiritual daughters (and my own daughters, for that matter), could ask me to be truthful with them about what I see in their choices? What if they were brave enough to not only confess, but to invite honest observation, and input and accountability and real relationship from the ones God has used true religion to place them in the midst of?
What if leaders gathered together, not just around their strong points and their talents and abilities, but also made room for telling each other the truth and holding each other up as we agreed to grow together?
It might hurt a little at first, but imagine the possibility of real transformation! Imagine the depths our relationships could grow into! Imagine the freedom we would experience!
Of course, for most, it is only a matter of imagination, because we are too afraid of what’s been proven time and time again – that it won’t work. That we can’t trust people that much. That it’s too bad and too ugly and too deep to talk about. So it’s just easier to keep hiding.
Dear Woman of Breakthrough, I want to challenge and encourage you today to ask God for one person with whom you can be completely honest, and who you can invite to be completely honest with you. But ask for a woman who doesn’t just love you, but loves God, too, so she will be honest with your transformation in mind.
Sometimes “friends” will accept us as we are and allow us to stay there because we’re comfortable. But we need friends and sisters who will accept us as we are, the same way Jesus does, and then point us toward the change we need.
May we take stock of our ideas about religion, and return to what God intended – that we should be a people set apart and drawn to Him and one another by the way we live. As we seek to live in vulnerability and in real truth, may our masks come off and may we become safe places for each other’s struggles and launching pads for each other’s growth.
We are still destined for more, and if we are willing to come in close and confess our weaknesses and faults, we just might find ourselves catapulted toward the promises which we’ve been unable to reach thus far.
It’s confession time! Let’s learn to treasure this gift God has given us, and refuse to see it any longer through the polluted lens of broken “religion.” God has beautiful things in store for us as we bare all before one another, and learn that we are still loved!