True religion is a funny sort of thing in this world of ours. It starts as a genuine ache deep down inside the soul, a gnawing sort of restlessness that doesn’t give a person a moment’s rest. Some might say that it’s the sense of primeval guilt of sin that haunts a soul at these times; others declare it to be the very first workings of God’s mercy and grace calling to the human heart. But, whether we ascribe the ache to the emptiness of sin or to the whispered promises of grace, we must see that it is the Spirit of God at work, calling ever so persistently, drawing ever so surely. As St. Augustine wrote in the first chapter of his Confessions:
“Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise You. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that You thwart the proud. But still, since he is a part of Your creation, he is drawn to praise You. The thought of You stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises You, because You made us for Yourself, and our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”
Such is the beginning of true religion. It is of divine origin, coming down from the heavens to reside in a vessel that distinctly bears the imprint and likeness of its Maker. It is true balm to the soul, and instantly the ache subsides as the power of the Gospel soaks deep within. Why is it that so many people never allow the full healing to take hold of their souls? I only ask that because I look around at the Church at large and I see many things that make up its religion, and at times it somehow seems too complex, too rigid and unyielding, too man-made and contrived, not anything like what I know true religion to consist of.
True religion and true love are alike. Everyone loves to some extent; you can’t help loving if you’re at all human. But true love, that’s a different story. It’s hard to explain just exactly what it is, but you know it when it enters your heart. And once it grips that place within you that is the seat where a person loves and can be loved, you are never the same. The entire world takes on a new perspective; the mere presence of your beloved brings light and joy to your circumstance. No strain, no complexity, no facades or barriers, such is true love; such also must be true religion.
When I am confronted with my religion, and find myself needing to define or defend it, words often fail. Oh, I could conjure up some theological tome, or recite some catechetical answer that fits the question at hand, but that seems so shallow and trite somehow. Not that it isn’t true. But truth is often not enough to restore the glow of life to a sin-deadened heart. Somehow truth cannot be the whole of true religion any more than fond affection or momentary exhilaration can be the whole of true love. There is so much more to our religion, yet I find it hard to communicate the innermost thoughts that flood my heart as I contemplate the love of God. I feel like the blind man on whose eyes Jesus put spittle and clay, and when I wash in the pool, my eyes are opened, and I see as I have never seen before. And immediately people ask me how it has been done. Some say that my new vision is impossible, others cannot accept it and instead explain it away in terms of some psychological phenomena.
And what can I say to communicate the fullness which courses through my souls on that day? My words are all too inadequate; they are a poor testimony indeed to the great work which God has brought to pass. And when words fail, when all the powers of the human soul fall short of divine reality, it is at times such as this that I must content myself with the answer of the man born blind, “Whether thus and such is so, I do not know. One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.” And in that declaration of faith, although in some minds it might pale in comparison to the great creeds or doctrines of our religion, I find that somehow I touch my true religion once more, and my soul seeks out the Man Who anointed my eyes, and I fall at His feet and worship Him. And everything else seems insignificant in that moment, for my soul has found its rest at last.
Russell currently serves as an elder in the church. His own spiritual pilgrimage extends back almost 40 years and includes a sojourn in the Roman Catholic, American Baptist, Lutheran, Independent Charismatic, Independent Congregational, home fellowship, and Federated Congregational church settings. In these settings he has served as a catechist, bible teacher, independent school principal, outreach coordinator, and ordained pastor. His current life verse is Romans 1:15. “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you…”