Are you religious? What does that mean to you?
Despite our frequent use of the word “religion,” it remains tricky to define, and we may use it in differing ways that confuse our conversation. For example, many Americans now describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” (Robert C. Fuller, professor of Religious Studies at Bradley University, says that as many as 1/5 of us adopt that description.) These would agree with Victor Hugo who concluded, “I'm religiously opposed to religion.”
Somehow, being religious has become a bad thing. “Religion, to me, is a bureaucracy between man and God that I don't need,” says Bill Maher (and seemingly many others). And, if it is that bureaucratic boundary that we mean by the word “religion” then I would agree. I do not need a boundary between God and me; I create too many of those already.
But is that religion? The good news, it seems to me, is that God’s definition of religion has little to do with steeples and stained glass or with pomp and preaching. Hear what James, Jesus’ brother, had to say about genuine religion:
“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:26-27).
Real religion is about speaking softly after listening carefully (see James 1:19 and chapter 3). It is about refusing to “slander one another” (4:11) or “grumble against each other” (5:9). Real religion that God accepts is about putting faith in God in action by helping the helpless of his children – widows, orphans, and poor. It is about treating every person, including “the poor man in shabby clothes” (James 2:2) with the respect due to one “made in God's likeness” (3:9).
That is what religion means. Not much bureaucracy there. George Santayana said, “To attempt to be religious without practicing a specific religion is as possible as attempting to speak without a specific language.” To attempt to be spiritual without practicing the religion that God prescribes is equally futile.
Perhaps one of the most important questions you and I will ever answer is: Am I practicing religion the way God defines it – religion that He accepts?