AUDIO VERSION: YouTube Podbean
Fasting. Tithing. Signing the cross. Kneeling when you pray. Honoring a Sabbath day. Daily devotions. Kissing pictures of Jesus. Bowing before crosses. Taking vows of silence. Taking vows of celibacy. Prayer retreats. Setting up prayer closets. Memorizing verses. Attending church. Taking Communion. Using formal language when you pray. Hanging crosses on your wall and around your neck. Going to confession. Praying the rosary. Praying with other believers. Dressing your best on Sunday morning. Attending Bible study. Doing community service. Witnessing. Getting Jesus tattoos. Putting a fish on your car. What is the purpose of doing these things? What does Christianity mean to you? Why are you engaging in Christian rituals? Whose benefit are you doing these things for?
Christians like to say that Christianity is about a relationship, not a religion. Well, many of the activities people do in this world ultimately come down to fostering relationships. When a guy goes down to the local bar to watch his favorite sports team play, he’s after companionship with other humans. Humans join groups to be with each other, not to be with God. And if you are going to try and argue that you’re the kind of Christian who is really after God, then we’d challenge you with this question: why the need for rituals?
You see, relating to God is something you do with your soul, not your earthsuit. Most Christian rituals center around external behaviors, and as soon as we start obsessing over behavior, we’re usually trying to impress people, because people are the only ones judging us by our externals. God doesn’t need you to hang a cross around your neck to let Him know you believe in Him. God doesn’t need you to go to church to prove that you’re committed to Him. God understands how you feel about Him even better than you do, and no amount of acting can hide the truth from His eyes. When you stand there singing songs in church while you’re inwardly ignoring Him, He’s not fooled. Confessing your sins doesn’t make you repentant. Kneeling before the cross doesn’t make you reverent. Attending church doesn’t make you devoted. Kissing Jesus doesn’t mean you love Him. You see, all of this ritualistic hoopla we go through isn’t worth a hill of beans. It’s our souls that God cares about, and soul attitudes are very different things than behaviors. One soul prays to Mary because she is obsessed with idolatry and God is totally annoyed. But another soul prays to Mary out of an earnest desire to get a message of sincere love through to God and God is quite pleased. Does God want us praying to beings other than Him? No, but when we don’t yet understand this, He still accepts our sincere love for Him even when it is expressed in idolatrous ways.
One soul is tithing to try and make God feel coerced into blessing him. Another soul tithes out an earnest desire to keep money from becoming his god. God is annoyed with the first soul, but delighted with the second. Do we have to tithe? No, we don’t. God doesn’t care about how much money we drop into the offering plate, He wants souls that sincerely care about pleasing Him.
One soul kneels to pray because that’s what his denomination’s tradition is and he’s just wanting to fit in with the humans around him. Another soul kneels to express his sincere reverence for God in a physical way. God is annoyed with the first soul, but delighted with the second. Does it really matter what position our bodies are in when we pray? Not in the least. It isn’t the second soul’s body posture that is pleasing God, it’s his soul attitude.
One soul wears a cross to gain more approval from the social club that she calls her church. Another soul wears a cross as a way of expressing how much she internally cherishes her association with God. Is God pleased when we don crosses? Not necessarily. It depends on why we’re doing it.
So what happens when our kneeling Christian develops arthritis in his knees? Should he keep kneeling in spite of the pain? If he stops kneeling because it physically hurts him to do so, is God going to take offense? Of course not. God never needed the kneeling in the first place. God cares about the soul attitude, and our kneeler loves God just as much now as he did before (see Prayer Posture & Location).
When our cross wearer loses her necklace, should she go into a panic and buy a new one? If she starts finding her dangling pendant to be an inconvenient hassle, is that a sign that she no longer loves God? Of course not. Communing with God is not a matter of donning certain accessories, it’s a matter of soul attitude.
When our tither falls on financial hard times and it occurs to him to stop tithing, should he immediately assume this is some evil temptation? No, he should be open to God telling him to stop engaging in a ritual that was never necessary. We relate to God with our souls, not our wallets. When the soul attitude is right, no longer tithing won’t change a thing. When the soul attitude is wrong, all the sacrificial giving in the world won’t fix it (see All About Tithing).
When we lose sight of what our relationship with God is really about, religious rituals quickly get in our way. Even when we are trying to do right, rituals can easily become burdens of guilt when we fall into the trap of thinking God is judging us by our behavior instead of by our soul’s response to Him. And yet God is not like the human wife who needs her husband to prove his love to her with romantic cards and gifts. God knows how much you care about Him. He never needs you to try and help Him grasp something that He already understands. He doesn’t need external proof of internal realities that He is fully aware of.
BENEFITING FROM RITUALS
The only way rituals can benefit us is when they help us cultivate correct soul attitudes. Many rituals try to take advantage of the common psychological principle that “different feels special.” The problem here is that humans are very adaptable creatures, and once we do any unusual behavior enough times, it no longer feels unusual. Try posting a verse on your mirror to turn your thoughts to God and in a matter of days, you’ll no longer notice it. Buy a special ring as a monument of something God said to you and soon you’ll forget that it’s there. Monuments and rituals grab our attention at first, but they are quickly forgotten or adjusted to. This is why highly ritualistic branches of the Christian family often get bogged down in legalism. The rituals replace the relationship, and soon the rituals are all anyone cares about. Just pop into the confessional once a year, and that’ll do. Mutter some memorized prayers, toss some money into the offering plate, run your eyes over a page in the Bible each morning, and that’s good enough. Good enough for what? Good enough to make you feel like you’ve got a little religion in your life. But true Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s the pursuit of an ever deepening relationship with our three glorious Creators. And since They are the Ones we’re supposed to be living for, we need to let Them direct the rituals in our lives. We need to seek Their guidance in the kinds of rituals we engage in, and we need to seek Their wisdom regarding when to start and stop.
When Yahweh told Moses to remove his sandals at the burning bush, His purpose was to help Moses cultivate the soul attitude of reverence. Moses did cultivate reverence, and after that burning bush encounter, Yahweh had Moses leave his shoes on.
When Yahweh invented the highly ritualistic sacrificial system of the Old Covenant, His purpose was to help His followers cultivate correct soul attitudes. But no soul’s sincere submission to Yahweh was ever rejected on account of that person not performing ritual sacrifices. The best rituals can ever do for us is give us some temporary assistance in improving our soul attitudes. But as we mature, we should expect rituals to become less and less significant to us until they drop away entirely. When God is really your First Love in life, there’s nothing you can do with your body to make Him more pleased with you. He has what He wants: He’s everything to you. The rituals are irrelevant.
HOW RITUALS HAMPER US
When we refuse to let rituals go when God is telling us to, then the same rituals we began for the sake of maturing, start dragging us backwards. When Dan was first returning to God after a long season of rebelling, attending church helped him focus. But now that he’s back on track, church is starting to get in his way. The sermons are often promoting wrong beliefs, and the pressure to keep the approval of the community is tempting Dan to start engaging in a bunch of acts of service which God doesn’t want him to do. God wants Dan to keep focusing on what God is telling his soul. Helping out in Sunday School is a major distraction that Dan doesn’t need, plus God hasn’t authorized him to function as a teacher. Dan doesn’t really want to help out—but he’s feeling increasingly pressured by church leaders who are saying it’s time for him to get off the bench and start pulling his weight. This is when Dan needs to leave church altogether so that he can keep his focus where God wants it. But will he? Or is he going to let this ritual change his priorities in life?
Many of our rituals encourage us to pursue the wrong relationships in life: we start trying to please people instead of God. Mary only joined the worship team because she was being pressured. Steve is only doing daily devotions out of guilt. Mark is saying things he doesn’t mean when he prays out loud because he’s trying to look good in front of his brothers in the Lord. Sarah only wears a cross because all the other ladies in her home group do. Shannon only goes to confession so Father Ben won’t look down on her. Darren puts up a Nativity scene at Christmas for the benefit of his Christian dinner guests. Laura is singing a bunch of praises that she doesn’t mean so no one will judge her during the worship hour. Fred only takes Communion so the other people in the pew won’t think he has a guilty conscience. While these Christians go through meaningless motions, what is God saying to their souls? He’s telling them to stop with the rituals.
If a ritual isn’t helping you cultivate correct soul attitudes, then it needs to leave your life. A lot of rituals sound good when they’re first presented to us, but they start having a very detrimental effect on us the longer we do them. Repetitive prayer feels good at first, but asking God for the same things over and over ends up eroding your confidence that He is ever listening to you. Praying to interceding parties like angels and saints sounds good at first, but such rituals are built on the lie that God isn’t willing to engage with us directly. Confessing your sins to people sounds righteous, until you realize that God is the One who defines what sin is and you really need to be resolving sin issues with Him directly. Having a priest or pastor tell you that you’re in a good place with God after you tell them about your sins is meaningless. If a wife wants to make sure she’s in a good place with her husband, she needs to go to her man directly, not run across the street to talk about her concerns with the neighbor. Fasting is one of those rituals that sounds super holy until you realize that God’s motivation to love and care for you has nothing to do with the contents of your stomach (see All About Fasting). Prayer closets and prayer vigils sound right on until you realize that God is with you all the time. You don’t have to go to a certain place to talk to God, nor are you going to be at your best when you try to pray in a half-awake state.
We Christians have invented a whole lot of rituals for ourselves which are really quite useless when we stop and think about them. This is why it is so important that we seek God’s wisdom in the area of rituals and ask Him to show us if the efforts we’re going through are helping or hindering our relationship with Him. We simply don’t need to go through a bunch of hoopla to progress with God, because spiritual maturity is something we do with our souls, not something we do with our bodies and a bunch of physical props. If you want to build up the muscles in your earthsuit, then it will certainly be helpful to head down to the gym where there are weights and workout machines available. But if you want to grow closer to God, you need to wait for Him to bring experiences into your life that will give you opportunities to practice right soul attitudes.
God doesn’t set us down on this earth and then step back with His arms crossed saying, “Mature yourself.” We can’t mature ourselves. We can’t learn anything on our own, we need Him to teach us in the order that He knows is best. This is what we can count on Him to do for us when we entrust Him with the task of maturing us in life. Far too often we use rituals as a means of trying to mature ourselves—of trying to speed up our rate of progress and control the topics which God is focusing on with us. But it doesn’t work like this. God leads, He doesn’t follow. The sooner we let God Shepherd us instead of trying to shepherd ourselves, the better off we’ll be. God thoroughly enjoys leading our souls down the path of maturity one little step at a time. There might be seasons in which He brings some helpful ritual into our lives, but He will take it away again once it has served its purpose. In the end, we will find that rich soul communion with God requires no earthly props. It is purely a soul activity, and one which enriches our lives beyond description.
Christian Prayer Groups: Why God Isn’t a Fan
When Confession is Bad for Your Soul
Fellowship In Perspective
The Inner Room: Understanding How God Judges You
Assessing God’s Pleasure with You: Three Useless Tests