Inward Religion

By Ward Shope

As I was reading outside in the tiled “yard”, I heard the deafening call to prayer begin to sound from the various worship places throughout the city.  Five times a day beginning before daybreak, the call goes up to remind the people to pray.  This city we are visiting often seems to go on as normal despite the conspicuous call, but the reminder is an appropriate one.  The Scriptures tell us to pray without ceasing, and I frequently go hours without mentioning a word to the Lord even though he prompts me regularly to be praying for the brother I had breakfast with the week before, or for the spiritual health of our church, our community and the world.

That evening, my host introduced me to his neighbor.  This man is much like myself.  He has grown children and is concerned about the world and what is going on in it.  While we were talking, firecrackers were going off in the background in celebration of an observance of a religious event.  He lamented that this is not true religion.  The firecrackers pointed to a meaningless commercialization of something religious, much like our Christmas and Easter celebrations have developed.  He told me it was like burning money.  I could feel his hunger for true religion.

The next day, Debbie and I, at the invitation of our host and his wife, prayed for this man, and for the many others they rubbed shoulders with who are either insensible to the inward hunger for relationship with the Creator, or felt the hunger and had not yet found the Redeemer.  We reflected how often and easily religion is observed externally, while Christ called us to something far deeper: love.  Love of God, and love of our neighbor.

Love is never simply an external act.  There are times when I am called to act lovingly even when I don’t “feel” love, but if it only stays there, the acts become meaningless.  I use them as a means of manipulating the world so that it works for me, or worse, as an attempt to manipulate God’s impression of me.

The latter is of course ridiculous.  I’m only fooling myself.  Our God is a God who searches the depths of our hearts.  He does it, not to make some sort of objective decision regarding our condition, but out of love.  Relationship with us is what drove Him to send His Son Jesus to the cross.  He is not looking for an arm’s-length external religious discipline in response.  He knows us and wants us to hunger to know Him as much as we are able.  That’s why He’s given us His Spirit to live in us.  He gives us immediate access to the love that moves Him to pursue us.

That is really what I need. To live outside of relationship with Jesus by His Spirit is to live with a lingering loneliness that no amount of friends can satisfy.  They can only drown out the inward call to prayer and relationship with God.  Any form of love becomes complete only with the inward drive to love awakened by His Spirit within us.