Marching to Zion Part 9: Getting Religion

Read time: 3m 25s

Read Deuteronomy 1:41-46

Intro: The Lord told the people to “see…go in and take possession” of God's blessings. But they were afraid. Despite Moses’ arguments, they refused. God sent them back to wander in the wilderness.

Then the story takes an interesting turn...

Israel says, “We have sinned against the LORD!” (41) What does that look like? It looks like repentance!

So…yay? God is happy?

Listen to what they say next: “We ourselves will go up and fight!” “And,” Moses continues, “every one of you fastened on his weapons of war and thought it was easy to go up into the hill country.”
This isn’t repentance, this is presumption. It might look like obedience, but it’s not: “I spoke to you, and you would not listen; but you rebelled against the command of the LORD and presumptuously went up into the hill country.” (43)

What looks like obedience, but is really rebellion?

Introducing, “religion.”

Israel is not armoring-up because they believe God and are excited to see what He will do next. They just don’t want to go into the wilderness. And they think they can do this in their own strength. This is key. God says to them, “Do not go…I am not in your midst.” But they go. They don’t think they need God. In fact, they’re going to show God both how sorry they are and how good they are.

This is a subtle shift. God was angry because they wouldn’t go into the land with Him. But now that they’re going into the land He’s still angry. Why? Because they think they can do it without Him.

That’s religion. Religion is the way we try to achieve a noble, clean, glorious status—in our own eyes, in the eyes of others, and in God’s eyes—on our own, without God’s help. In Bible language, we want to “justify” ourselves. In normal language, we want to show “who we really are.”

Many people study the Bible, attend church, suffer difficulties, and serve in tedious ministries, not because they love the Gospel and are eager to know God more. No, they think that studying the Bible is a way to achieve prominence—see how smart I am? They think that church attendance atones for sins—see how sorry I am? They think that self-imposed long-suffering reveals their character—see how strong I am? They think that tedious service puts God in their debt—see how hard I worked for You?

This is religion. It is rebellion.

But who doesn’t want to fix a mistake? Who doesn’t want to do what’s right? It's a natural impulse, one that we all understand and probably appreciate.

But where is God? The Lord warned them (42) that if they did this, they’d be defeated. Then, when the Amorites “chased you as bees do and beat you down…” they wept before the LORD. Then “you remained in Kadesh many days, the days that you remained there.” (46) They still didn’t obey the Lord. They stayed in their religious failure and pouted.

We’ve all seen churches and Christians do this. They aren’t interested in the Gospel, but once upon a time they had great hope for their church, or their ministry, or their thing-they-volunteered-for. But someone else screwed it up and other people lost interest. And in their heart, they are there still: “If only…” And who’s to blame? Not them. No, they girded on their weapons and ran into the enemy!

But God wasn’t in it. God gets blamed. But He wasn’t even there!

This is a warning about being religious. Are we following God, however slow and windy the way seems? Because however crooked His path looks from here (Eccl 7:13), it is the only path that leads to the Good Shepherd, and so the only path that leads us to House of the Lord forever. Our religions only wanders away.

Key questions: are we motivated by God’s character and grace, or by shame and guilt? Are we eager to prove ourselves, or to discover God’s salvation? Are we excited about doing something great, or about God being with us? The one is centered on self and sows sorrows wherever it goes; the other is centered on Jesus and reaps Shalom wherever it is led.


Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash