Relationship>Ritual

The title of this article, “Relationship>Ritual” means relationship is greater than ritual. Imagine a math problem with the greater than (>) sign in it. (3.5>5 or 1/2>1/4, for example).

Relationship>ritual is about our relationship with God. Writing it in this way, with the “greater than” sign in it, serves as a visual reminder that a relationship with God is more important than a legalistic ritual. God designed us for a relationship with Him. However, when we try to earn something from Him, or get Him to do something we want, we may engage in a sort of ritualized behavior to try and coax Him or prove to Him that we should have our way.

A ritual performed legalistically – for the sake of the ritual itself or just to get something from God that we want – isn’t what God is looking for. He desires a warm, intimate relationship with His children. He knows us intimately, and He wants us to know Him intimately, too.

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Jesus warned about overvaluing the ritual or the letter of the law during his ministry.

“And the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness’.” Luke 11:39

“Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisees! First clean the inside of the cup and plate, that the outside may also be clean.” Matthew 23:25-26

When we focus on ritual, we become concerned with performance, with ability, with “me” and “I.” We spend time and energy focusing on the rules or the procedures. The focus is external. Did we do all the steps? In the right order? Did we follow all the rules? (We’re focusing on the outside of the cup).

Instead, our time and energy should be on understanding who God is, on reading His Word, on learning to hear His voice. On asking Him to change our hearts and lives. (If we do this, we focus on the inside of the cup).

We should pray: Father, search my heart. Is there anything evil there? Is there anything impure? Is there anything I am prioritizing over my relationship with you? Remove those things from my life, Lord. Make my heart pure. I only want you.

Praying words like this to God from a sincere heart can prove life-changing. God will answer. He will give knowledge of Himself, an understanding of His word. He will help us learn to submit our lives to Him and to obey His will. He will help us lead godly lives.

If you want this – knowledge of God, intimacy with God, an understanding of His word, to live a godly life – you must come to understand that He wants a relationship with you. Personal. Genuine. Mutually loving and caring. Purposeful. Intentional. Interactive.

Knowledge of the steps and rules of a ritual won’t cultivate that kind of a relationship.

Focus on your own ability to perform the ritual won’t nurture intimacy with your Creator.

None of these will ever lead to a life-changing relationship with him.

We need to learn to hear His voice, so we need to learn to listen to Him and talk to Him by spending time in quiet with Him.

We need to understand His character, so we need to spend time in the Word reading about Him and what He has done.

Following a ritual formula means we don’t actually have to get to know Him, just the ritual. We place all our faith in the ritual and in our ability to do it well enough to gain what we want.

Even getting up every morning (or whenever you do it) to have quiet time with God can become “just another ritual” if it becomes mechanical, if we begrudge it, if we are trying to convince Him of how good we are, or if we do it because we feel we must rather than because we long for the presence of our Heavenly Father.

This doesn’t mean rituals are rendered useless: the Lord’s supper, baptism, saying the Lord’s prayer, the sacrament of marriage, lighting Advent candles…but the condition of our hearts when we do them is more important the the doing of the rituals. Don’t just go through the motions. Our hearts should be clear first. Our minds should be set on God. Grudges forgiven. Horizontals relationships (with people in our lives) in order. These things make our hearts clean and open to our Lord when we participate in a ritual.

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Pray this prayer from a sincere heart:

Father, You are my Creator. You have fearfully and wonderfully made me. You have chosen me and called me to be your child. You have revealed yourself to me. You will keep me. Praise the Lord! I am so thankful to be your child.

I want to be able to be in your presence, Lord, to sit at your feet. Show me when I don’t put you first, Father. Convict me when I am focusing too much on the ritual and have neglected the relationship. I don’t want to just go through the motions. I want you. I want you as my Savior and as my Lord, to save me and be sovereign over me. Help me to choose you, to keep my eyes focused on you, to keep your Word in my mind, and to keep my heart open to conviction and change. Make me a light for you. Make me bold. Give me the words to say and the things to do to point others to you. Thank you for hearing y prayer, Lord. I love you. Amen.

Portrait of a Servant Girl – Carol’s Story – Part 3

This week’s post is a continuation of Carol’s story in the Portrait of a Servant Girl series.

“I didn’t question God about the cancer,” Carol repeated at another point during our interview.  “But there was a time, years later, that I got very angry with Him. I remember being on my knees crying out to Him, ‘Is this what I get for being good?  I’ve lived my life for you!’” She stopped for a moment and took a deep breath.

“I was so broken,” she continued.  “I asked God, ‘Why would you do this to me?  You just don’t know how broken and rejected I feel!’”

She stopped again, and I could see her shoulders relax.  “After I said that to Him,” she went on, “there was a calm that came over me, and I got quiet.  I felt Him put His hand on my shoulder, and He reminded me of what He went through. He said to me, ‘I understand.  I was rejected, too.’”

There was another pause.

“After that, I still suffered from the rejection, but I did not complain,” she finished, matter-of-factly.

Thirty years prior to this encounter with God, in the mid 70’s, Carol had survived Stage IV colon cancer that metastasized to her lymph nodes.  Now, her world was falling apart again. Her husband of 33 years no longer wanted to be married to her.

“This certainly wasn’t the life I planned,” Carol said earnestly.  “My future looked hopeless. But then I had the encounter with God when He reminded me that He’d been kicked and spat on.  That only one of His disciples stayed with Him until the end. From that day on, my healing began.”

Carol commented that the divorce was worse than cancer.  When I asked her why, she explained that she had control of how she handled cancer, but she couldn’t control the rejection by her husband. That was something she never thought would happen.

“Like the cancer, the divorce brought me even closer to God.”  She explained. “He used the circumstances to grow my faith in Him.”

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If you’ve never experienced God’s provision during a storm in your life, this probably sounds insane – that you can grow closer to God during adversity.  Of course, it can go the other way easily. You can get angry at God because He’s allowed the storm, and you pull away from Him.

Or, you could turn towards Him, even run to Him, and fall into His arms like Carol did.

“When I was going through my divorce and long afterwards as I continued to suffer, I received encouragement from reading the Bible.  Many, many times God spoke to me through His Word and provided wisdom or the answer I needed in a particular situation,” Carol told me.

“Could you give me an example of something specific God said to you through His word that helped you in some way?” I asked.

She thought a moment, then said, “when someone hurts you, human nature is to hurt that person back.  We think revenge will make us feel better. But, God reminded me many times that it wasn’t up to me to exact revenge.  Romans 12:19 assures us that revenge is God’s task.”

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“What else did you learn?”

“Well, God taught me that a living prayer relationship with Him comes when we dare to level with Him.  When we dare to be honest with Him about how we feel…like when I complained to Him that He didn’t understand my brokenness and rejection.  When I got honest, He spoke clearly to me. I wasn’t making small talk anymore. I wasn’t pretending that my life was perfect anymore. I was on my knees with tears streaming down my face.  He came in and comforted me. This moved my relationship with God to a much deeper level.”

God also used Carol and her story to reach other people.  After the divorce, the Associate Pastor at Carol’s church in Wilmington, North Carolina approached her about sharing the adversity in her life with the church.

“She said, ‘People look at you and think you have no cares in the world,’ and she asked me to share my testimony as part of a worship service.”  Carol paused, and a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

“I was never one to speak in front of others.  I liked to organize and work behind the scenes,” she explained.  “I really didn’t want to do what she asked me to do.”

“What made you change your mind?”  I asked.

“I had so much faith and trust in the pastor who asked me.  I knew the Holy Spirit worked in her, and I knew that whatever she asked was from God.  I just couldn’t say no.”

Services at Carol’s church were televised, so after she spoke, the church began receiving requests for her to speak at other events.  This led to years of travel around the southeastern United States sharing her story at women’s events.

“When you are sharing your story, and God allows you to see that other people receive help from it, you’re healed as well.  This is another way God supported me during this time.”

Carol stopped for a moment then continued, “plus I was driving a lot, so there was lots of time to pray, and talk to God, and listen.”

Then, she shrugged and added, “What good would the bad things be if you didn’t share them with others so you could help them, too?”

Please join me next week for the conclusion of Carol’s story.

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