THE TRAP OF INWARD RELIGION

Certainty can be hard to come by in a fast-changing, unstable world. And the often

chaotic character of the world around us is matched by the instability in our own lives.

After all, we are not bystanders on the sidelines of the life’s problems. We contribute

our own fair share of dysfunction to the human predicament. Under these

circumstances, how can the Christian know that God is actually for me when I feel the

weight of sin and know that I am responsible for how I have mismanaged the gift of life

in thought, word and deed? Do you feel close to God or are the cares of the world and

crowding in and making you uncertain and uncomfortable about where you stand?

One common response to questions like these is to tell the Christian to look within for

assurance and the certainty of faith. Are you examining yourself to see if your life is

manifesting the fruits of the Spirit? Are you sincere enough in your devotion to God?

Do you really love God and your neighbor as yourself? Is your prayer life what is should

be? Do you feel close to God or are the cares of the world crowding in and making you

uncertain and uncomfortable about where you stand? Are you reading your Bible

enough? Are you doing things for others in order to demonstrate selflessness and

true” christian character? Are you worshiping God sincerely and giving God the glory?

This exhausting list of questions – and I could have added many more – describes the

actual form of Christianity that many live with.

Far from bringing peace and assurance, Inward religion actually reinforces that anxiety

that is a fundamental by-product of self-examination. And the more rigorous the self-

examination, the more anxiety it produces. The religion of self-examination never

really gets off the starting line of faith for the simple reason that it is looking in the

wrong direction. The focus of the Christian faith and life is not meant to be inward but

outward.

Outward looking faith rests in the certainty of God’s promise. The Gospel declares

God’s favor, love and mercy to sinners, the ungodly and by the power of that promise

creates a new identity in those who trust the promise. The promise comes from

outside the self in the proclaimed word and sacraments so that the certainty of the

Christian may rest not in how the Christian feels about his\her spirituality but in God’s

external word of promise. That word is unaffected by the very unreliable and uncertain

contours of the Christian’s thoughts and feelings and often wobbly faith.

But, you may say, there must be more to it than simply relying on God’s promises.

Don’t I have to demonstrate that I am at least trying to be a ‘good christian’? Shouldn’t

I, at the very least, show some sincerity in my Christian walk?

In a word, no. In fact the questions themselves betray a preoccupation with inward

religion. When faith looks inward we could say that faith looks to have faith in itself.

When faith looks outward, to the promises of God handed over in baptism, the Lord’s

Supper and the proclaimed word, faith looks outside itself to its proper object – Jesus

Christ. God does not lie. Therefore, God’s faithfulness to His promises is the bedrock of

the Christian’s assurance.

Published by Pastor Mark Anderson

Lutheran pastor, husband, dad, archaeology nut, serious blues guitarist and aspiring luthier.

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