The Insidious Bondage of Religious Obligation

Do you want to read over my shoulder gain in a recent email exchange?

I was introduced to Christianity in the Foursquare denomination about 16 yrs ago when I was 19. I had the deep fellowship with Christ, the love, the fruit, the peace and led many “naturally” to faith in Him. Came from a rebel background and really hung my hat on Jesus. Served Him and tried to please Him IN EVERY WAY. To make a long story short I had a sudden screeching halt to my faith about 2 years later when I sort of came upon a dry spell in my Christian faith and began asking God to “deepen my relationship” again with Him. I started asking Him the usual:”free me from anything not of you, and “show me any area in my life that’s not in line with you” prayers. Now usually this worked and I’d obey and be done with it. However this time it didn’t—and that began a long, long painful spiral down in my faith that took me years to finally recover from. I did the medication, the sweats, and the torturous thoughts…. and so on…. all because I began to feel that day God was asking to sort of DO what I could not DO. The level of obedience, and the bar of response to His holiness were going further and further up. In this case too high! I felt this uneasiness and distance began to settle in between Him and me. I started to hide from Him. I started to not want to talk with Him…for fear of being condemned [which was a first for me because I never knew Him to be anything but noncondmning]…so I became blocked FROM THE VERY ONE I NEEDED TO RUN TO THE MOST. It was if I was unable top appease the Lord and the pain that I felt I couldn’t reveal to Him because he was staring at me saying, “Obey!!” Somehow my mind eventually became an open target for fear and anxiety and my life went down the %^$%$#@#@ real fast. The funny thing about it was that as this happened sin sprang up in me more…and then I wanted to do stuff I never dreamed of doing (before)…so that made the condemnation even worse!

Can you shed some light on some of the dynamics that happened to me here at all????

My response: Your story unfortunately is not a rare one. Transformation by human effort always leads to increased performance anxiety, which leads failure, which leads to increased guilt, which leads to increased sin and the cycle continues. That’s what so insidious about the system of religious obligation. It takes our most noble intentions and hurls us down a path of guaranteed failure. It tunes our spiritual ears to the condemning, performance-based voices of our flesh, thinking they are his voice. That spirals us into the very kind of circumstances you describe.

Isn’t it great to learn, however, that that path leads not to life but to death? That’s why Paul said the mind set on the flesh is death. That is not only the mind that indulges the flesh, but also the mind that seeks to abstain from it, or the one that seeks to make the flesh please God. It can’t happen. Read Romans 8 again after what you’ve been through. I think you’ll see some wonderful things there.

I suspect God allowed you this season to break the power of religious obligation in your life, and allow you to go on in him in the spirit of Galatians 3, simply believing what you hear, and that not being demands for obedience, but his gentle winning of your heart and life in him. It’s the words of affection and security Father wants us to know so that you can live in a way that please him not out of obedience in your own effort, but out of affection that transforms us deep from within.

I’m sorry you’ve been through this, but the lesson is so valuable. Righteousness cannot come through the most well intentioned discipline, but through a growing relationship with the loving Father through the Son, our older-brother Jesus!

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12 Comments
  1. Allen May 17, 2005 at 5:50 am

    That story is so familiar. I have lived it and know of many others who have as well. IT reminds me of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus to "buy" this enternal life thing Jesus was handing out. He basically asked: "what must I do? Name the price and I will pay it to purchase or earn this thing." Jesus named the standard price: Keep all of the commandments. He said (probably with a touch of pride) that he had done that from his youth up. Of course, noone has perfecty kept all the commandments so he was either blinded by his own pride or he was being dishonest. But Jesus did not call him on it, he said: "OK. You still think you can buy or earn this? Then let me raise the price until you realize you can’t and go away sorrowful." When the man went away sorrowful, Jesus said, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom. When his disciples were taken aback and said: "Who then can be saved?" Jesus made the point he was building to: "With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible." You can’t buy it, you can’t earn it, you can only have it becasue God makes it possible.

  2. Allen May 17, 2005 at 8:50 am

    That story is so familiar. I have lived it and know of many others who have as well. IT reminds me of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus to "buy" this enternal life thing Jesus was handing out. He basically asked: "what must I do? Name the price and I will pay it to purchase or earn this thing." Jesus named the standard price: Keep all of the commandments. He said (probably with a touch of pride) that he had done that from his youth up. Of course, noone has perfecty kept all the commandments so he was either blinded by his own pride or he was being dishonest. But Jesus did not call him on it, he said: "OK. You still think you can buy or earn this? Then let me raise the price until you realize you can’t and go away sorrowful." When the man went away sorrowful, Jesus said, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom. When his disciples were taken aback and said: "Who then can be saved?" Jesus made the point he was building to: "With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible." You can’t buy it, you can’t earn it, you can only have it becasue God makes it possible.

  3. Jim May 17, 2005 at 10:09 am

    Been there, done that. Can understand the torment this person had to go through. I also went through this for what seemed a life time but thanks be to Him that I gradually awoke to what was going on. I used to regret that part of my life but now see it as part of MY journey and find myself thanking for allowing me to see just how much He loves me. During that time I could realize how much He loved others but I could not see how much He loved me and just as the person in the above I had only known Him to be a loving Father. Religious obligation is a dangerous thing but a personal relationship with a loving Father is the greatest thing on this earth. God Bless

    Wayne keep up the great work He has given you.

  4. Jim May 17, 2005 at 1:09 pm

    Been there, done that. Can understand the torment this person had to go through. I also went through this for what seemed a life time but thanks be to Him that I gradually awoke to what was going on. I used to regret that part of my life but now see it as part of MY journey and find myself thanking for allowing me to see just how much He loves me. During that time I could realize how much He loved others but I could not see how much He loved me and just as the person in the above I had only known Him to be a loving Father. Religious obligation is a dangerous thing but a personal relationship with a loving Father is the greatest thing on this earth. God Bless

    Wayne keep up the great work He has given you.

  5. J May 18, 2005 at 1:32 pm

    Wow, great interaction. I do not mean to sound uncaring, but this is true in so many lives, including my own. I am still trying to grasp God’s love. I seem to be back sliding too because no matter how hard and long I try, I still feel like a failure. The more I try and move towards God through effort, the further away I seem to get. I have been very frustrated for a while. I have been to the point of my interaction with Him suffering. I guess I have good reason to feel like a failure, I am one.

    I am starting to grasp the truth in what it takes for victory. It is not a victory over what I can do, but instead, a victory in who God is. Why is it so hard to accept this FACT?

    Also, I have been frustrated in the instituional meeting place that my wife and I have been attending. She loves it, but I cannot stand it. So many things are done that I feel are a waste of time. I do not need to go into the details because I am sure you all can figure them out. I just want authentic relationship, but everything seems to be centered around the pastor and his vision of what the meeting place should be.

    I have been very busy because of my full time job, family and being a grad student that I have not been able to nurture the real relationships that I actually do have with other people. The only time I do have that is free is the institutional meeting place and that drives me a bit crazy. Anyone else stuck?

    Is the right answer in this to pray for God to bring my wife and I together on this, which ever way it goes? In the mean time, make the most of the opportunities God brings forth within the institutional structure?

  6. J May 18, 2005 at 4:32 pm

    Wow, great interaction. I do not mean to sound uncaring, but this is true in so many lives, including my own. I am still trying to grasp God’s love. I seem to be back sliding too because no matter how hard and long I try, I still feel like a failure. The more I try and move towards God through effort, the further away I seem to get. I have been very frustrated for a while. I have been to the point of my interaction with Him suffering. I guess I have good reason to feel like a failure, I am one.

    I am starting to grasp the truth in what it takes for victory. It is not a victory over what I can do, but instead, a victory in who God is. Why is it so hard to accept this FACT?

    Also, I have been frustrated in the instituional meeting place that my wife and I have been attending. She loves it, but I cannot stand it. So many things are done that I feel are a waste of time. I do not need to go into the details because I am sure you all can figure them out. I just want authentic relationship, but everything seems to be centered around the pastor and his vision of what the meeting place should be.

    I have been very busy because of my full time job, family and being a grad student that I have not been able to nurture the real relationships that I actually do have with other people. The only time I do have that is free is the institutional meeting place and that drives me a bit crazy. Anyone else stuck?

    Is the right answer in this to pray for God to bring my wife and I together on this, which ever way it goes? In the mean time, make the most of the opportunities God brings forth within the institutional structure?

  7. Steve May 19, 2005 at 7:19 pm

    So many of us have went through those long agonizing times in the wilderness of fleshly performance baring no fruit from our fleshly attempts to please Him. No one set the bar higher than Jesus did. He did that to show us that with out Him we can never even get close. Then He invited us to simply come to Him in rest. It is so good to know that it is never dependant upon my performance but on His. His finished work puts an end to my need to be obligated to religious efforts…..thank God.

  8. Steve May 19, 2005 at 10:19 pm

    So many of us have went through those long agonizing times in the wilderness of fleshly performance baring no fruit from our fleshly attempts to please Him. No one set the bar higher than Jesus did. He did that to show us that with out Him we can never even get close. Then He invited us to simply come to Him in rest. It is so good to know that it is never dependant upon my performance but on His. His finished work puts an end to my need to be obligated to religious efforts…..thank God.

  9. Jim May 20, 2005 at 4:39 am

    Lately I have noticed how much of the preaching is about our performance rather than His for us. It seems to have changed from a gospel of grace to a gospel of works. I have never met a believer that was walking in His love that had to do good works. They were.

  10. Jim May 20, 2005 at 7:39 am

    Lately I have noticed how much of the preaching is about our performance rather than His for us. It seems to have changed from a gospel of grace to a gospel of works. I have never met a believer that was walking in His love that had to do good works. They were.

  11. Dom May 23, 2005 at 11:33 am

    I find that we are often forced to compare our lives to oneanother and see what is "acceptable" to God by judging and using scales.Our behavior is going to be constantly under the microscpoe as long as those that teach us are using there own riteousness to grade how we should relate to God and feel ok about ourselves.If we are taught that we are filthy little animals constantly trying to seek out pleasures and desires of the flesh and not LIFE,then we will then look at ourselves with contempt and suspicision all the time.In fact we will just be staring at ourselves all day long.

    We simply percieve a problem and we are wired to focus on problems till they are fixed….

    Sadly we live in guilt,condemnation and fear of being outta whack with God for most of our day….this thinking gets us focused on our behavior and not God….and it keeps us fear based and not love based.

    If God removes some sin from my life..Hey he knows what is sin not me and He can do that just like he put Adam to sleep and made Eve.He doenst need my "help" to trust Him more to d o it……

  12. Dom May 23, 2005 at 2:33 pm

    I find that we are often forced to compare our lives to oneanother and see what is "acceptable" to God by judging and using scales.Our behavior is going to be constantly under the microscpoe as long as those that teach us are using there own riteousness to grade how we should relate to God and feel ok about ourselves.If we are taught that we are filthy little animals constantly trying to seek out pleasures and desires of the flesh and not LIFE,then we will then look at ourselves with contempt and suspicision all the time.In fact we will just be staring at ourselves all day long.

    We simply percieve a problem and we are wired to focus on problems till they are fixed….

    Sadly we live in guilt,condemnation and fear of being outta whack with God for most of our day….this thinking gets us focused on our behavior and not God….and it keeps us fear based and not love based.

    If God removes some sin from my life..Hey he knows what is sin not me and He can do that just like he put Adam to sleep and made Eve.He doenst need my "help" to trust Him more to d o it……

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