Ritual or Discipline?

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Matthew 6:1
1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.

As we transition into chapter 6, we will notice that Jesus’ speech shifts from talking about commandments to other issues of Christian life. We will discover that even though He was teaching these principles 2,000 years ago, these problems still exist and we still have to understand how to combat them. Jesus starts by revealing to us that when we practice our spiritual disciplines, they should not be as a show for others, but focused on our relationship with God. Again, Jesus is telling us it isn’t about what we do, but why we do it.

The Apostle Paul found himself teaching the Corinthians this very principle in relation to eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. One of our stumbling blocks is understanding the freedom we have in Christ but balancing that with how we relate to others in order to win them to Christ. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul explains the purpose of our existence as Christians:

27 If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake. 28 But if anyone says to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; 29 I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks? 31 Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; 33 just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved.

Our problem is us. Jesus said that we should be aware of our own self-righteousness and Paul echoes that sentiment. Our salvation is about God. Our relationship with God is about God. Our relationships with others need to be about God. Our religious practices should be about God. Our spiritual disciplines are about God. If they become about us or the people around us, we are missing the point and just wasting time. Spiritual disciplines, as Jesus is preparing to discuss, are things we do to become less selfish and grow in our relationship with God. If we do them because we feel we have to or treat them as a performance for others, we are misusing them and might as well not do them at all.

I have a big problem with ritual. My biggest issue is that I have always thought that rituals (some of which are spiritual disciplines) were pointless because one feels obligated to do them or because it seems an attempt to look holy even when you are not. The issue really was that my outlook on ritual was about me, not God. The Pharisees would practice their rituals in public so that others would look up to them as holy and righteous because of what they were doing. Interestingly enough, the people whom I have met that seem to have a strong connection with God and a deep relationship with Him haven’t really been seen doing much more than leading a bible study or praying out loud for a group of people. Yet, they practice spiritual disciplines and have intimate communion with God all the time. Their righteousness is dependent upon their relationship with God, not what other people see them doing as ritual.

Think about a professional athlete. We might see them on game day pouring their heart out in their sport and we admire them, but do we see them in the gym every day? There is a Rocky movie where Rocky gets a taste of the limelight and has a camera crew come to his gym and record him during his workout. The problem is that his training time becomes about showing off for the camera and getting some “good shots” for publicity than it does focusing on the hard work he must put in to win the fight. When it is time for him to step in front of the ring, his opponent destroys him because his training was about showing off, not doing what was necessary for game day. Sure, there might be a few promotional videos about an athlete’s training regimen but the majority of it is off camera. We see this in the first Rocky movie where he wakes up before dawn, chokes down some raw eggs, and takes a jogging tour of Philadelphia before the city wakes up for the day. This is exactly what Jesus is saying we need to do in our relationship with God in order to grow strong for the big fight. Those who think he is crazy for doing it call it a senseless ritual; those who understand the impact it will have on his life call it discipline. You need discipline to be a disciple of Christ.

It all goes back to the heart. Why do you do what you do? Do you perform rituals in order to be noticed by men or are you striving to grow closer to God? Do you volunteer in church or the community so others can see your “holiness” or because you really want to serve others? Do you make a big scene out of tithing, how you dress, or that you go to church on Sundays so that others will know you are a “good person”? Society uses these things to judge us in regards to our righteousness, but as Paul said to the Corinthians, “why is our freedom judged on another man’s conscience?” Even if the world judges us based on where we go and what we do, let us judge ourselves by why we do what we do. Let us make sure we are doing these things to glorify God in our relationship with Him. In doing so we will grow closer to God and it will not matter what others think. They will see your best performance without knowing the behind-the-scenes training. Then when they ask what is so different about you, you will have the opportunity to share with them about God’s work in your life.

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