“And the Lord said: ‘Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again to wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.'” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Throughout the book of Isaiah (and really throughout all the prophets), there are three sins that are consistently held up as triggers for the judgment from the Lord the people were facing. The first is injustice. God is just. Justice and righteousness are fundamental parts of His character. He is passionately concerned about what is right. When we violate that by doing what’s wrong (taking advantage of the poor and weak, for example), judgment will ensue.
The second sin is idolatry. God alone is God. There is no one else like Him. There are no other powers in this world that are worthy of our worship. When we forget this and elevate some created thing above the Creator of all things, we are committing the sin of idolatry. Idolatry is particularly dangerous because there are implications arising from what or whom we worship. When we worship something other than God and elevate this thing to the highest place in our lives, we are going to put honoring it above the things and people around us. This always eventually ends in disaster.
The third sin is the one Isaiah points to here. This is the sin of religiosity. Now, religion in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Religion is just the sum total of the practices involved in worshiping whatever it is we are worshiping. If we are worshiping the right thing, or person rather, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. It is popular today to bash on religion as wholly wrong. Preachers will say (as I have before) that Jesus came to start a relationship, not a religion. And while that’s absolutely true, it does not make religion itself the problem.
Indeed, the gathering at which a statement like that is made often includes a fairly programmatic sequence of events including a greeting, prayer, music and singing, a message, and occasionally an initiatory rite and a participatory rite. All of these, performed as they are on a regular basis by most of the crowd, constitute a set of religious practices. In other words, some of these preachers are condemning religion…while performing an act of religion. Ironic, yes?
No, the sin for which the people were being condemned was the sin of religiosity. This is when we make religion itself into an idol. The particular danger here is that religiosity easily masks itself as genuine faithfulness both to others and even to ourselves. People who are committing the sin of religiosity might be in the very same worship gathering as people who are genuinely committed to the Lord, participating in the same rites in the same way. In other words, unlike injustice or most other forms of idolatry, religiosity from the outside is not immediately distinguishable from genuine faithfulness to Jesus. This is why it gets its own category.
When someone falls into the sin of religiosity, the rituals of worship themselves become the highest goal. Showing up, giving, praying out loud, participating in acts of service, and the like become the ends in themselves rather than merely the means to the end of connecting with the Lord and acting based on that connection. What winds up happening is that these folks draw a dividing line in their hearts between their religions practices and their behavior otherwise.
You see, the thing about idolatry of any kind is that as long as we are fulfilling the demands of our false god (religion in this case), we are free to do other things. We are free, in fact, to do anything else we please. Thus, someone who has fallen into religiosity will faithfully show up at church, be (sometimes very) involved in the church, and may even be judgmental toward those who are not as involved or faithfully present as they are. But, he will behave like a very different person when not at church. He may harbor any one of a number of other sins in his heart and life more broadly. And, absent the conviction of the Spirit, he won’t see anything wrong with this. He won’t see anything wrong with this because it is consistent with the demands and expectations of his god. He is convinced in his heart that he isn’t doing anything wrong because he has the right rites in place. In other words, the greatest and most subtle danger of the sin of religiosity is that this false god easily convinces its followers that they are really worshiping the Lord. They don’t even know they have fallen into this sin.
So, what does God do about this? How do you get through to a people who have convinced themselves that they are being faithful when they’re not? You break the religion. You make it so that it is impossible to perform the acts of religion that the people have practiced for so long. Usually, the way this happens is that either the culture itself or another nation makes performing the traditional acts of worship in the traditional ways impossible to do. They make it impossible by destroying the places of worship, by rendering the traditional rites illegal or at the very least performed at an incredible high cultural cost, or by hounding those who perform them out of the public square and even public life itself. You make yourself inaccessible via the traditional religious pathways.
Now wait, this may serve as a wake up call to those who are caught in the sin of religiosity, but won’t it hurt the folks who really are faithful? How is that fair to them? The answer: This is thinking about it through the lens of religiosity. For the folks who are genuinely faithful to the Lord, the particular set of religious rites they have been performing as a part of that faithfulness may be comfortable, but they aren’t the end in themselves and so if they need to change they can and this change won’t affect their faithfulness. This kind of cleansing on God’s part is a refiner’s fire. Those who are true will show themselves as such by withstanding the heat. Those who are not will either accept the cleansing and become true or else be revealed in their true colors and washed away.
Okay, well, how do we guard against all of this? How do we keep ourselves from falling into this particular sin? We constantly check our hearts. We watch our behavior in and out of the church. Is there a consistency to it, or do we behave one way in one place and another way in another? Would we be okay with changes in our worship practices if circumstances or faithfulness demanded it? Are we more concerned with advancing the Gospel, or maintaining the size of our churches? Do we carry our religious practices with us when we leave the church, or do we leave them all there? Are we seeking to constantly grow in our faith and deepen our relationship with God through things like the spiritual disciplines, or do we content ourselves with being religious on Sundays and “normal” the rest of the week? Is our goal God with religion as our means, or has our religion become an end in itself?
There are hard questions to ask, and honest answers will probably require the opinions of friends and family members who are genuinely faithful in their own right, but answering them is a must to make sure we don’t fall into this subtle, dangerous trap. In the end, it will be the faithful who will endure, not the religious. Let us make sure we are part of that crowd.