Is It Possible to Be Very Religious and Yet Miss Jesus?

Jim Denison | Denison Forum on Truth and Culture | Thursday, July 15, 2021
Hands outstretched in prayer in a dark background

Is It Possible to Be Very Religious and Yet Miss Jesus?


A patient who goes by the nickname of Pancho has not been able to speak since 2003, when he was paralyzed at the age of twenty by a severe stroke following a terrible car crash. Now researchers have tapped into the speech areas of his brain, allowing him to produce words and sentences simply by trying to say them.

His first recognizable sentence was, “My family is outside.” This groundbreaking achievement marks a step toward technology that may one day help us speak by thinking.

In other medical news, scientists have used the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR to successfully block the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in infected human cells. This tool could eventually prevent people who contract COVID-19 from becoming seriously ill, alleviating pressure on hospitals and care systems.

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: drug overdose deaths in 2020 hit the highest number ever recorded. Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, explained the increase: “This has been an incredibly uncertain and stressful time for many people, and we are seeing an increase in drug consumption, difficulty in accessing life-saving treatments for substance use disorders, and a tragic rise in overdose deaths.”

Group hangs pro-abortion banner on statue of Jesus

We live in a time of unprecedented scientific advances coupled with perpetual personal challenges. This is because humans can alter our circumstances but not our fallen condition. You and I are just as tempted to be our own god as were the first humans (Genesis 3:5). Our children live in a world just as threatening as the first children (Genesis 4:1-8).

And we are just as tempted by idolatry as those who first received the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:1-6).

Yesterday, we discussed the rise of a secular religion that views biblical morality as dangerous to society and seeks to replace our faith with a worldview centered on personal authenticity. Today, let’s explore the allure of such idolatry even for those who claim to be religious.

An activist group strung a banner across the sixty-seven-foot Christ of the Ozarks monument in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, last Friday night. The banner proclaims, “GOD BLESS ABORTIONS.”

A group of clergy gathered to pray for God’s blessing on Whole Woman’s Health in Austin, Texas, a clinic that provides abortions. Similar “blessing” ceremonies have been held for other abortion clinics.

More denominations than ever before endorse marriage for same-sex couples. A church recently confirmed a drag queen for ordination. A Lutheran bishop made headlines when she endorsed a polyamorous relationship (a man and two women, in this case).

The great need of our day

The Pharisees were passionately committed to upholding each of the 613 laws of the Hebrew Bible. No group was more famed for their religious zeal. And yet the Pharisees were among Jesus’ fiercest opponents as their religious legalism led them to reject him and his movement.

I have lived and traveled in the Muslim world for more than four decades. Each time I see Muslims at prayer, I am impressed again by the fervor of their religious zeal. And yet, while they recognize Jesus as one of their six most important prophets, they reject the biblical claim that he died for their sins and refuse to trust him as their Savior and Lord.

Here’s my point: it is possible to be very religious and yet miss Jesus. He warned us, in fact, that on the day of judgment “many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness'” (Matthew 7:22-23).

By contrast, an intimate, daily relationship with our Savior changes everything. When we truly connect with him in prayer, Bible study, worship, and other spiritual disciplines, his Spirit makes us more like Jesus (Romans 8:29) as he empowers, leads, and uses us for eternal significance.

The great need of our day cannot be met by scientific and medical advances or by religious events and zeal. The great need of our day is for followers of Jesus to experience him with such transforming passion that we cannot help sharing his truth and love with our broken culture. The rising secular ideology of our day can replace religion, but it cannot replace Jesus. Nor will it hold allure for those whose hearts and lives are being changed by him each day.

So, here’s the question: How close to Jesus would he say you are today?

A baptism in Cuba I’ll never forget

The protests that rocked Cuba on Sunday continue to make headlines. In that context, I’ll close with one of my most memorable experiences on this beautiful island.

On one of my trips, I was privileged to take part in a mass baptism. When Cubans are baptized, the communist government takes note. Baptized Christians often get the worst jobs, housing, schools, and military assignments as a result. The cost can be even greater for some.

Nonetheless, 150 people wanted to follow Jesus publicly on this occasion. Our group made our way to a shallow lake outside of town. Several pastors walked out into the water, myself among them, then the baptism candidates began wading toward us.

A man walked through the waist-high water toward me with a woman in his arms. (I learned later that they were married.) I could only see her head and shoulders above the water and wondered why he was carrying her. He handed her to me, I baptized her, then I handed her back. She threw her arms into the air and began shouting “Hallelujah!” through tears of joy.

Her husband lifted her out of the water in triumph. It was then that I saw that she had only one leg.

Life in Cuba is difficult. Life for a baptized believer is much harder. Life as a baptized believer with her disability is beyond my imagination. But I will never forget the joy she found in Jesus.

When last did the world see his joy in you?

NOTE: Racism. Abortion. Suicide. I’ve written a new book to equip you to respond to hot-button cultural issues like these with truth and love. Called Between Compromise and Courage, this new resource shows you what the Bible says about seven of today’s most pressing topics. Please request your book today — and accept my thanks for your donation to help others discern the news differently.

Publication date: July 15, 2021

Photo courtesy: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Tutye

For more from the Denison Forum, please visit www.denisonforum.org.

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