Unreality in Religion
"Having a form of godliness but denying its power." 2 Timothy 3:5
We are always in danger of making our religion and our religious exercises unreal. We are in danger of having only a creed—instead of a life; only forms of worship—instead of heart experiences of devotion. This danger arises from the spirituality of true religion. We cannot see the God whom we adore and worship. There is no one visible to our eyes when we pray. We cannot touch the things we are taught to believe in as alone true and eternal. All religious acts, are acts of faith.
It is very easy, therefore, to lose the reality from our acts of devotion, and to let God as a living fact fade out of our consciousness. Yet the result is a very sad one; practically, we are left without God. The forms and symbols remain. We repeat our creeds, we recite our commandments, we say our prayers—but our hearts are not warmed by love, the promises fail to support us and comfort us, and we are not strengthened for duty nor helped in struggles by our devotion.
Yet the realest things in this universe are the spiritual realities. God is real. Of course, we all believe this. We are not atheists. We have God in our creeds. We are entirely orthodox in our thoughts about the divine character and attributes. But is this God of our creeds, a reality to us in our personal life? Is he a father to us in our conscious experience? Do we enjoy real, living communion with him? Are our lives properly affected by his relation to us?
In the Scriptures God is represented as coming very close to man. He is a father, with all a father's care and thought. His interest extends to the most minute affairs of our daily lives. He hears our inmost prayers. He comes into our life as our closest friend. "O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD." Psalm 139:1-4
This is the GOD of the Bible. Is our God real to us in these ways? Is he as real as our father, mother, brother, nearest friend? Are we affected by God in our motives, feelings, words, acts? In temptation. does the thought of God restrain us from the evil? Does the love of God bind us to rectitude and purity and make sin a terrible sacrilege to us? In duty, do we get inspiration and strength from God? We do from our human friends; is God as real to us as they are? Do we get comfort in sorrow, a sense of security in time of danger, peace in our unrest, from our belief in God? When we come in penitence, weeping our bitter tears and pleading for pardon—is God's mercy a reality to us?
Or take the BIBLE. It is the inspired Word of God. We believe this. But are the words of this Book real to is? Many of them are divine promises. God promises us forgiveness if we come confessing and renouncing our sins. He promises us grace to help us in every time of need. He promises deliverance in temptation, comfort in sorrow. The pages of the Bible shine with these divine promise-words, as the heavens shine with their bright stars.
But are all these divine words realities to us? They have been to thousands of humble hearts. Men and women have taken these promises and have trusted them absolutely, venturing all upon them and have found them as real as God himself. In the hour of danger, they have turned to these sacred words spoken ages ago and treasured in this holy Book, and have found in them to be the strength of God himself.
In temptation they have drawn in their defense, these promise-words, and have found them polished shafts before which the enemy could not stand. In sorrow they have taken up these divine assurances, and they have proved to be heavenly lamps pouring their pure light upon the darkness. By thousands of beds of death, these words have been rod and staff to believers as they entered the valley of shadows.
But are the words of God real to us? Do they mean anything to us in those experiences of our lives in which sight and sense fail? Are they a stay and a strength and a light to us? Should we not ask ourselves such questions as these, and compel an answer? Should we not train ourselves to accept these words of God, to believe them implicitly, to let them guide and shape our lives, and to receive their revelations and assurances as eternal truths which can never fail those who build their hopes upon them?
Or take WORSHIP. Prayer is real. The skeptic may sneeringly ask, "Who is there to hear you when you kneel alone in the silence of your closet and speak your heart's requests—or when you bow in the public sanctuary with other worshipers?"
But we know that our Father indeed bends his ear to hear us whenever we pray in truth to him. None of us doubt this. There is a reality in prayer. But is our praying itself real?
The danger with all of us is that we fall into formalism—that we utter words of petition in which there is no true heart desire, no actual supplication. It may startle some of us if we question our own souls, after any season of private or public prayer—to have to confess in how small a part of it our whole being was absorbed and engrossed. When God listens while we pray—what does he hear?
An English preacher asks: "If at the close of any public service, if on rising from private prayer, the question were seriously put to us, in the heart: 'What have you done; what has been asked; what has been sought; what has been desired; what has been wished or felt in this act of devotion? What, therefore, in the supposition that God answers prayer, may you now expect as the result?' How often must the confession be, 'Nothing, nothing—my heart was not involved. The very object of our worship, God himself, was to us an unreality; our conception of him, our shaping and framing of the thought of him, was even like that dumb idol of which Isaiah tells—a thing lifted into its place, and helplessly set there, speechless to its suppliant, and powerless to save."
There surely is something startling in this, if such words as these describe our experience. We need to give solemn heed to this whole subject. It is possible for us to go through forms of devotion regularly and decorously—and yet never really pray at all, our lips speaking words which are not born in one's hearts.
It is of vital importance that we seek to free our worship of all unreality. We should utter no word in our supplications before God, which is not laden with a deep and true desire from our heart of hearts. If we plead, "Nearer, my God, to You"— the holiest yearning of our soul should be in the cry. When we speak thanks in our worship, the pure incense of gratitude should rise in the glad accents of our praising words. Whatever we say when we are on our bended knees before God in the act and attitude of prayer—should be the truest, realest utterance of our heart's desires. Unreality in praying, is irreverent mocking of God!