Religious formalism and its traps
Religion is an old matter which raises up many controversies among people. It can be defined in several ways depending on the context. But generally speaking, religion refers to a belief in the existence of a superhuman power that can influence people’s life. Those who adhere believe that they are under a divine authority. Whatever the name given to that supreme authority, the common denominator is that people feel a need to be in relationship with a divinity, whose power is above human power and who can help them when they will be facing some situations beyond human control.
In most societies, this phenomenon is widely spread and practices differ from one group to another. Some people claim to be Christians; others claim to be Muslims or traditionalists etc. However, the scale of phenomena like burglary, voluntary abortion, domestic violence, and other forms of crimes is still important. In jails, it is not difficult to find people with crime conviction at the time they were claiming to be Christians. This confusing situation raises up the following question:
What is the downside of belonging to a given formal or informal religious denomination and complying with its rules and regulations while being under the power of sin and iniquity? In other words, what are the traps or negative consequences hidden behind religious formalism?
To come up with an answer to the question above, let’s examine on one hand the features of religious formalism and on the other hand the traps surrounding that way of living; and we will figure out through the Word of God how to prevent or get out from it.
I. Features of religious formalism
Religious formalism is basically characterized by a set of practices perform by people just for appearance. These include, but are not limited to: prayer, fasting, offerings, praises, baptismal service, feast etc. People are involved in these activities for several reasons and motivations without pursuing sanctification which is the KEY of a successful christian life.
The external aspect is very important in religious formalism. For instance, during offerings, those who offer big gifts or colossal amounts of money are likely to be more respected than the rest of the group members not withstanding their way of behaving in front of God. Religious formalism does not care about the quality of practices. People living according to it, don’t care whether or not God agrees with what is being done. For instance, if someone has spent the whole week committing what is against the Bible in his thoughts or actions he can easily come on Sunday and give a check of one million dollars to the church may be for pastor’s salaries or material construction, without asking himself about the quality of his sacrifice.
Let’s read the Bible to illustrate religious formalism in Matthew 23 :25- 28. Through this story, it is obvious that during the life of Jesus on this earth, there were also people living in religious formalism. But Jesus told them that they are doing formalism by presenting an apparent nice outside whereas the inside, their hearts are far away from God. Religious formalism does not seek for the effective power of the Word of God. People read the Bible as an ordinary novel or book; and the bottom line of religious formalism is that, it has no power upon iniquity. That is why some people are faithful to their church programs, but unable to resist temptations.
II. What are the traps of religious formalism?
In this meditation, traps stand for negative consequences. Religious formalism gives people a fake identity of their spiritual person. It makes people misrepresent their relationship with God. They talk always about the kingdom of God whereas their hidden sinful life will not allow them to inherit the kingdom of God. They think that they are saved where as they are still serving the evil one through their actions. He who lives in religious formalism will be disappointed at the end of his journey on earth, when Jesus will say to him that: “I don’t know you, worker of iniquity’’ (Luke 13, 27). He will realize when it is too late that he wasted his time and there will be no way for him to correct the mistake.
The story of the foolish virgins described in Matthew 25:1-12 can be assimilated to the life of those who live religious formalism. The foolish virgins were relying only on the fact that they have their lamps, without making sure that the inside is filled of oil. Likewise are those who just rely on the fact that they are fervent church members, they are called Christian, they pay their tithes faithfully, but they do not care about their hearts, the inside of their life. As the foolish virgins mentioned in the bible were denied the admission into the feast room, so will be the admission into the kingdom of God denied to those who live religious formalism. They will realize when it is too late that they have been misled by their wrong way of living.
III. Getting out from religious formalism
How can somebody do to get out from religious formalism? Let’s read the Bible in the book of John 8, 32: ‘’ You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free’’. Accept the truth and acknowledge that you have been living religious formalism. What is the truth about your life? The Word of God reveals the truth about your life by pointing out what is wrong in your life. That truth is summarized in the book of 1 Corinthiens 6, 9- 10: “ Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, no idolaters, no adulterers, nor effiminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God’’.
Check your life through this Bible statement. If you realize that you are guilty, don’t be ashamed to regret and confess publicly your sins. If you do it sincerely and decide to abandon the life of sin, God will grant you the power to become a true Christian, and to be prevented from the traps of religious formalism as it is written in John 1,12: “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name’’
Don’t think that you are definitely lost for having failed to accept the truth in the past. There is a way for you to catch up. Your situation may be similar to the one described in the Bible in the book of Acts 2, 37-38. These people were living in religious formalism by ignorance. When they heard about the truth preached by Apostle peter, they realized that they were lost. That they were in illusion that they were far from the faith in God. They asked publicly without shame the following question: Men and brethren what shall we do? God through his Word from the mouth of his Apostle told them to regret their evildoings and abandon it. The same Word is spoken unto you today. If you accept it, your life will change, you will henceforth have the power upon sin and your relationship with God will be a positive one, and God will open the doors of his blessings and his kingdom to you right. You will then rejoice and praise the Lord for having saved you from the traps of religious formalism.
Pastor Sosthene Siyou